Welcome to the Virgin Media Midweek Kick-off! Last Sunday Max Whitlock won Britain’s first-ever Olympic gold in gymnastics – and then picked up a second just over an hour later. We ask writers Matt Blake and Zack Cahill if the 23-year-old gymnast is Britain’s star of Rio 2016…
YES! He’s the hero of Rio
“He’s not only made British history, he’s one of the most impressive athletes on the planet” – Zack Cahill, sports writer and gymnastics trainer
He made British history
Women’s gymnastics has been dominated by the near-superhuman American team, so it’s been left to the men to provide Team GB’s medal hopes. And boy did Max Whitlock deliver. In his first golden discipline, the floor exercise, there was stiff competition from heavy favourite Japanese phenomenon Kenzō Shirai, with Whitlock expected to take silver at best. Max’s surprise win delivered Britain’s first ever gold in gymnastics. Not content with making history once, he followed with gold on pommel horse the same day. Add these to the bronze he’d already bagged in the all-around – breaking Britain’s 108-year medal drought in that event – and you realise he’s not only made British history, he’s one of the most impressive athletes on the planet.
He pulled off a difficult routine
Gymnasts are always operating at the bleeding edge of their abilities. They make it look effortless, but are never more than a tiny miscalculation away from mistake or injury. We saw this in the floor event when Kenzō Shirai stumbled twice and American Samuel Mikulak failed to stick his landings. Yet Whitlock made it through without a significant mistake. As gymnasts continue to push the envelope, our expectations only increase. Whitlock now owns the most difficult pommel horse routine in the world, and that commitment to perfection makes him more than a star. It makes him a legend.
Gymnasts are the best all-round athletes
It’s easy to see why sprinters get the limelight. The 100m sprint is raw human power distilled into less than ten ticking seconds. It’s also relatable – who hasn't chased a bus? But that’s the point – you could go out and run 100 metres, even if it took you all afternoon. But could you do a handstand, let alone a back layout with a half twist? Even basic gymnastic skills require years of training and bags of natural talent. Gymnastics combines incredible skill, strength and endurance, making it the purest expression of all-round athleticism. And Whitlock won two Olympic golds in it! That's mind-blowing.
He’s still to hit his prime
Whitlock is 23, and his progress has been on track since he took bronze in both the team and pommel horse at London 2012. While female gymnasts can be in their twilight years beyond the age of 20, male gymnasts peak later. In fact, Kōhei Uchimura, who took gold in the all-around this year, is 27 – the same age Whitlock will be at the next Olympics. This is just the warm up. I predict more golds in Tokyo.
He’s a good sport
Whitlock went head to head with fellow Brit Louis Smith. You can imagine the rivalry between these two athletes was pretty fierce, and they did keep their distance in the immediate aftermath. But Whitlock has been nothing but humble since. He’s a shy, unassuming athlete who is still star-struck by Usain Bolt and is surprised when asked for his autograph. He doesn't swagger, or flirt with reporters. With interest in gymnastics skyrocketing since London 2012, he’s just the sort of guy we need to spur on the next generation of British athletes. Yes, Britain has bagged a goldmine worth of medals, but there's something particularly special about the ones Whitlock's bringing home. He is everything you could want in a hero. I mean, did you see his floor routine? He can practically fly!
Agree with Zack?
NO! Team GB is the real hero
“He’s a British hero, but not the British hero – the country’s true Rio 2016 hero is Team GB itself” – Matt Blake, sports writer, Virgin Media
Will anyone remember the gymnastics?
Max Whitlock was sensational, no doubt. Clearly, gymnastics is a demanding physical activity that requires an enormous amount of talent and practice. Maybe I need more time in front of the TV watching it, but gymnastics seems a little intangible to me – too subjective. It isn't like racing or ball sports, say, where there’s always a clear winner – whoever crosses the finish line first, say, or scores the most goals. If you need to wait for judges from eight different countries to vote on who has won, is that sport? I crave spectacle, drama, last-minute winners and sprinting down back-straights to roaring crowds. In today’s world of shareable gifs and Instagram-as-a-substitute-for-memory, those are the moments that carve heroes into history.
The Mo the merrier
There’s more to the games than any one athlete. For starters: Mo Farah. He’s on the brink of becoming the greatest British athlete in history, if he wins 5,000m gold this weekend to achieve the double-double. Even if he doesn’t, he’ll still be my hero – my eye-popping, Quorn-loving, head-slapping hero. In winning the 10,000m on Saturday, he became the first British person to go to an Olympics with two golds in athletics already and win a third. And he did it despite falling flat on his face during the race. Forget Rio, if he wins gold tonight, he won’t just be the greatest British athlete of all time, but our greatest ever sportsman. Need I say Mo?
What about Trott?
John Inverdale upset Twitter on Sunday when he asked Andy Murray how it felt to be the first person to win two Olympic golds for tennis. He meant to say singles golds. Murray immediately picked up the error with a casual, “Well, I think Venus and Serena Williams have won about four each”. Sports fans, however, sensing a slight in his question, jumped to the Williams sisters’ defence. So let’s not forget our female athletes, especially super-cyclist Laura Trott. In winning the team pursuit for her third Olympic gold, she became the most successful female British Olympian of all time. But not satisfied with that, she then beat her own record and got another gold in the omnium last night. At only 24, there’s sure to be more medals to come.
Kenny do it? Yes, he can
And let’s not forget Trott’s fiancé, Jason Kenny. Last night, after one of the most tense races of the games, he picked up his sixth – yes, sixth – gold medal. That puts him on par with Chris Hoy on the greatest British Olympians table, the latter only sitting higher because his name is first in the alphabet. Kenny and Trott together have more golds than some Olympic countries. No pressure on the kids at sports day, then.
Rio’s got heroes aplenty
Max Whitlock is a British hero, but he’s not the British hero of Rio 2016. The Games have already produced a slew of British contenders for the title. What about Andy Murray, who became the first tennis player to win back-to-back individual Olympic golds? Or Adam Peaty, who smashed his own world record in the 100m breaststroke, before breaking it again in the final last week to claim gold. Or rower Katherine Grainger – now the first British woman to win five medals in separate Games? Then there’s Bradley Wiggins, Britain’s most decorated Olympian ever after winning his eighth overall medal in the team pursuit. Britain’s true hero of Rio 2016 isn’t any one athlete, but the British team itself. It’s an Olympic Games we should all remember.
Agree with Matt
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