On any list of life lessons from the Olympics would be the defending champion who steps out under intolerable pressure and kills the contest stone dead in less than a minute.
When Max Whitlock came off the pommel horse in Tokyo he told his coach: “I can’t believe I’ve just done that.” He was first up in the final - a position many gymnasts loathe. But Whitlock’s score of 15.583 was pretty much unanswerable and everyone in the hall knew it. By the time he sat back down, a masterclass of rhythm, precision and strength had turned the rest of the event into a scramble for the silver medal.
This seems to be a GB tactic. Adam Peaty goes out to obliterate the opposition and, earlier on this middle Sunday, Charlotte Worthington won gold in the BMX freestyle after becoming the first woman to pull off a 360-degree backflip in competition. Most Olympic medals are won by fractions, margins, stealth. But like Worthington, the acrobat on wheels, Whitlock went for victory by knock-out. In his case, in round one.
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Only afterwards do you truly learn how a victory was conceived. Beforehand it’s usually secrecy and platitudes - as it needs to be. The holder of an Olympic title carries a burden of external pressure and an internal stress that wasn’t there back in the days when they were just a contender. The challenger ‘hopes’ to win. The defending champion ‘ought’ to. First up, Whitlock was a sitting duck for the others, who could adjust their efforts after seeing his score. Instead he turned a problem to his advantage. Whitlock’s win was one of strategy as well as execution.
“I was first man up which I don’t think I’ve ever done before, so I had to put down a big score. I couldn’t judge it by how the competition was going,” Whitlock told Orla Chennaoui on Eurosport, after winning his sixth Olympic medal to draw level with Charlotte Dujardin Steve Redgrave, and Duncan Scott (Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny have seven - Bradley Wiggins leads the way with eight).
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“Usually I have three difficulties; this time there were no options, all those were blown out the window. So it was all in, so it was the biggest routine that I’ve ever competed. Most riskiest one.
“This morning it felt so different and I really tried hard, every major championship, every world championships, every Olympics, to go out like it’s my first. I try to forget about previous results. Today it was just so difficult for some reason. There’s a lot of outside pressures with people expecting me to bring back gold because I’ve done that before. But my own pressures this time - because I know what it feels like to win gold and I wanted that feeling again.”
At maximum difficulty level, with an Olympic title to keep hold of, his family watching back home, and from a disadvantageous starting spot, Whitlock was astonishingly self-possessed, his hands working the pommel with intricate skill, his legs swinging, tight together, in tune with his mind. It looked straightforward, pre-ordained. You would never have known he was boiling inside with the fear of slipping from champion to also-ran.
'That's the most nervous I've ever been' - Whitlock on winning routine
The last gymnast to win back-to-back Olympic titles on the pommel was Zoltán Magyar in 1976 and 1980, which gives you a sense of Whitlock’s achievement. His third Olympic gold followed world titles in 2017 and 2019. For five years he has been unshiftable in an event he focused on in Tokyo after giving up the floor to increase his chances of leaving Japan as a double pommel horse champion.
Whitlock, 28, reduced his weekly hours from 35 to 20 and began paying more attention to stretching and recovery. Calculation has been a feature of his career. It’s backed up by relentless enthusiasm. His initial gold on the pommel, in Rio, was Britain’s first medal in the men’s all-around for 108 years. His bronze in London in 2012 said he was one to keep an eye on. But his longevity is startling. And the way he found a formula to crush his seven rivals in Tokyo was almost gladiatorial.
“I would like to go to Paris, I’d still like to go to Paris, I’d like to go to LA,” he said. “I’m 28, I’m getting on but there’s still more in the tank. I’ll take a long break, see my family then get back into training.
Stepping off the podium victorious athletes are always asked what the win might do “for their sport.” All of them started at the bottom, so the question is always valid. Yet, seeing the difficulty of Whitlock’s routine and Ireland ’s Rhys McClenaghan slipping off the horse told you this is no mass participation activity. Or not at elite level, anyway.
Then again Whitlock dealt with the covid shutdown by planting a pommel horse in his garden. As he said rather modestly: “From pommel horsing in my garden to Olympic gold is great.” If you fancy your chances, and want to put one alongside the barbecue and sun loungers, they start at around £1,200. But don’t begin with Whitlock’s routine in Tokyo, which blew the opposition away. He and Charlotte Worthington backed themselves with everything. Sometimes, with exceptional people, that’s the best way.
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