Commonwealth Games: Gymnastics - Unsung band take sparkling plaudits

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The Independent Online
IF ANY music agent had an eye on forming a new boy band, the five members of the England gymnastics team would be prime candidates for audition. There is the blond, cheeky one, the gingery one, the one with the Wigan accent and the strong, silent one. Take That with gold medals.

There is even a twin, Andrew Atherton, whose identical brother Kevin suffered a bad knee injury three weeks before the Commonwealth Games and had to make do with an armchair view in front of the television back home in Shropshire. The injury deprived the team of their national champion and the Athertons of a unique place in sporting history. No other set of identical twins - they have been known to hand in each other's homework - has competed in the Commonwealth Games.

When his brother dislocated his knee in a warm-up competition in Denmark, Andrew was next to vault. He withdrew because he felt so sick. "You could see it was a bad injury and that he would miss the Games, right there," he recalled.

One gold in the family could so easily have been two, but the motivational force of the absentee propelled this unsung band to heights only their team coach, Colin Leigh, believed were possible. "All through the competition I was reminded of the fact that Kevin should have been here," Andrew said. "All the good luck cards we had said "do it for Kevin" and I suppose I did, but I did it for myself as well."

To add to the problems, Lee McDermott was also suffering from a knee injury and had to land his vaults one-legged. England's answer to Kerri Strug, the all-American heroine in Atlanta.

Nothing, though, was wrong with the spirit. The morale of the Australians was undermined by the classic psychological sting. As defending champions and clear favourites, they believed gold was there for the taking. "You could see they thought they'd won it before the start," said Craig Heap. "They didn't recognise who we were, they must have thought we were a bunch of juniors and they were watching us through the competition, which just made it worse for them."

The rotation of events favoured the England team, who started strongly, stayed ahead and resisted a late Australian rally on the floor, the weakest discipline for the new Commonwealth champions. Where England were rock solid on the high-bars, the Australians slowly began to play their role as fall guys. Their floor exercise was a shambles; the pommel not much better. By his own admission, Heap's own finale on the floor was not his best, but it was just enough.

"My legs were just giving way. I'd spent the whole time telling the rest what to do and I should have been looking after myself." If there was confusion on the floor, courtesy of Heap's nerves and Brewer's dodgy mathematics, there was none in the stand. The screams of their team-mates confirmed the gold ahead of the scoreboard, by a margin of 0.125 points, a short head to you and me.

Satisfaction for the vanquished stemmed from the performance of Andrei Kratsov, Russian-born but qualified for Australia under the 18-month residency rule, whose 9.55 on the parallel bars was the highest score of an emotional night in the Putra Stadium. Revenge could come swiftly in the individual events which start today, though Jon Mutch of Scotland can lift the profile of home countries' gymnastics a notch higher by taking overall gold.

For a moment last night, it seemed the harmony of the men's team would inspire the women to complete a famous double. Less than a point separated Australian gold from English silver. But the gold medal which finally sets the twins apart is the harsher separation.

Annika Reeder, the 18-year-old Essex girl who won individual gold four years ago, led the way as Lisa Mason, Kelly Hackman, Gemma Cuff and Melissa Wilcox just failed to make the golden grade.