Louis Smith held nothing back after he nailed his pommel horse routine during the first subdivision of the men’s gymnastics preliminaries during the London 2012 Olympics Saturday morning. When he looked up at the scoreboard and saw the 15.8 flash—a nearly unreal score on what’s arguably the toughest male apparatus—he couldn’t stop the tears from gushing out.
Smith’s score gave him a spot in the pommel horse finals and propelled Great Britain to take the early lead over defending Olympic champion China.
Great Britain was only good enough to send two gymnasts to Beijing four years ago, and Smith, the current team captain, took a bronze medal on pommel horse in Beijing—Britain’s first gymnastics medal in 80 years.
Britain scored a 272.42, which should be enough to send the country to the team final for the first time since 1924. This is the first time Britain has qualified full men's and women's teams since the boycotted 1984 Olympics.
Kristian Thomas and Daniel Purvis finished first and second in the all-around standings after the first subdivision.
The top 24 athletes advance to the all-around final.
Thomas placed second on the vault and is looking to make the event finals there. The top eight athletes on each apparatus fight for medals in the final.
Great Britain gymnastics has seen improvement in the past four years, but something was on Saturday morning, whether it was team chemistry, the home crowd or the thrill of catching gymnastics powerhouse China.
Smith expressed his excitement for Great Britain’s success in an interview with BBC Sport:
It's been an emotional four years. There's been a lot of pressure since Beijing to perform at this Olympics. There was a lot riding on it. I couldn't help thinking about the future—providing for my family, the expectation.
I said "Come on" to myself twice in my pommel horse routine, and I've never done that before. It's hard to explain what I felt when I landed that routine. It came close in Beijing, but this time—I've never experienced anything like it in my life.
It was the best feeling in the world.
The Chinese, who were expected to take first handily, had a surprisingly poor showing. The defending world and Olympic champion, China ran away with the 2008 gold medal by more than seven points.
Everybody gets a do-over during Monday’s team finals, though.
Nancy Armour wrote in an article for the Associated Press that China didn’t seem overly concerned with its second-place finish:
When the standings flashed before the final rotation, showing Britain ahead of China, Feng Zhe looked into the camera and gave a little shrug, as if to say, "Oh well."
"We're not really disappointed because it's been four years and the competitors are improving, there's less discrepancy in their level," Chen Yibing, one of carryovers from the Beijing squad, said through a translator. "We are still confident in the final."
China has been a gymnastics powerhouse, but that strength has been crumbling as of late.
The Chinese finished third, behind Japan and Team USA, in the qualifications for last year’s world championships. They did come back to win the meet, but it was the first time since Athens that they failed to finish first in every phase of a major competition. Now the chain continues, as it has happened a second time.
The one-slot deduction for the team roster has hurt China because they historically rely on event specialists. They don’t have standout all-arounders like Purvis and Thomas, Japan’s Kohei Uchimura or America’s John Orozco and Danell Leyva.
China was just sloppy during Saturday’s competition. Guo Weiyang, an alternate who replaced 2004 pommel horse gold medalist Teng Haibin, fell on his face on his dismount on floor exercise and fell off the pommel horse. China had to count two scores below 14 on pommel horse. Zou Kai, the 2008 high-bar gold medalist, will probably not make the high-bar finals.
The Brits were elated by their finish, though, and have established themselves as a podium contender.
Team USA needs to watch out for them. They don’t have style like the Japanese, tradition like the Chinese or depth like the Americans, but they are seemingly steady and consistent with a few clutch routines, like Smith’s pommel-horse set.
The fire of never having major gymnastics success along with the support of a home crowd and the elation of finishing above China could be just enough to propel Great Britain to the podium.