Louis Smith: When the music stopped
The Games over, Louis Smith lay on the sofa and thought, 'now what?' Life goes on, but as the medal-winning gymnast tells Ian Herbert, the question is, how?
It was about midday on Monday when the music stopped for Louis Smith. That was when he awoke in the Olympic Village to find the place near silent, the party over and the athletes who had shared in it packed up and gone, not long after breakfast, on the coaches which would drop them, town-by-town, back in the real world they had occupied before the event which changed a small part of them for ever.
"It was sad," Smith says, grasping for a way of defining that first sound of silence. "Yes, it was sad. It was such a target and such a long road and journey to get there. It's quite strange to think there's no more London 2012. Only Rio 2016."
Smith had spent nearly eight years preparing for 50 seconds on a pommel horse –"even when I went to Beijing, 2012 was always the goal" – but he was not the only one feeling a crater-sized hole. The partner of another medal-winning athlete described to me her sense of loss, this week, in a way which made the passing of the Olympics feel like a form of mourning. "The medal doesn't change anything. It doesn't change her life," he said. Smith, the 23-year-old gymnast whose pommel horse silver followed a role in the team bronze, does not even have a guarantee there will be a Rio for him, yet there was clearly something fine about the personal epiphany he underwent when finally able to stop and reflect.
After the headiness of the Team GB party, sharing perspectives with others, like Zara Phillips, after Sunday's closing ceremony, he had allowed himself the Monday lie-in because it was a standard train home to Peterborough, not an early coach, for him. "So it was just me, waking up and thinking, 'What happens today?' Everything just kind of stopped – all of a sudden. Boom. The Village was derelict, a zombie zone with just a few people wandering around."
He found he had amassed eight bags of gear so booked a car home in the end. "My mum tried to keep it a bit quiet when I got back, so I could have a bit of a rest," he says. "So she took me back to my house and when she'd gone I just sat on my sofa. I kicked my shoes off, picked up a pillow, put it behind my head and lay there for an hour and a half – just me and myself, thinking. Just coming from the Olympic Games, winning two medals, and then there I was..."
When we meet, on Thursday, Smith seems to have moved on to something like jet-lag mode, feeling exhausted, though turning down the offer of coffee. "It helps but you feel even worse after it," he grins, though the landscape of British men's gymnastics can have a very sobering effect on a 23-year-old in the sport – even one walking around with two heavy medals.
Unbeknown to many of those so entranced by Smith, Max Whitlock, Kristian Thomas & Co at the Games, there is a far more extraordinary next British generation, who have been European youth champions for the past six years. The European junior champion is Frank Baines, Nile Wilson is European silver medallist, Courtney Tulloch is junior European rings champion and much of the talk surrounds Under-13s competitor Jamie Lewis, from Woking Gymnastics Club. "He's got a routine almost as hard as mine on the pommel," Smith says. "He is doing a 16.5 level of difficulty and my easy one is a 16.9. [A 16.5] is basically what Max Whitlock did last week – and he got a bronze."
There really might be a problem for Smith, if this new generation is the focus of a serious effort to upgrade London's team bronze to gold in Brazil; that may require world-class, multi-discipline performers, rather than one-discipline specialists like Smith. "If I'm doing only one apparatus someone else has to cover on the other five," Smith says. "Whereas if someone else is doing three, they only need cover on three. So this is where a specialist like me can hinder the team a bit, if they're pushing for a team medal and I'm only doing one piece."
It is not as simple as improving your weak points, like Bradley Wiggins upping his game in the mountains through hours of slog on the slopes of Majorca. "You can only get so good," Smith says. "I'm a tall guy so I'm not built for things like rings and the vault and stuff. I'm all right on other apparatus but, in terms of pushing for a team gold, there are other people out there who are better than me.
"The thing that sets me apart is that I'm one of the best in the world on the pommel horse and I'm stable; reliable. There are not many events I've been to where I haven't gone through my routine and won medals. In a sport where you need to get results to get funding, they can always rely on me to get that World Championship medal and say, 'Look, we're still winning medals.' I'm at the top of my game, so it's hard to kick someone out at the minute who's reliable like that. But when the team's getting so good it can push for team medals they might go for that. It's a very touch-and-go subject. I have to have my business head on now, think of other options."
These include the media. Smith has the personality for it and has been on one of the Sky Sports Scholarships through which the broadcaster has sought in the past year to support British and Irish athletes into and through the Games, by pairing them up with a presenter – in Smith's case, Hayley McQueen. For its part, Sky has benefited from some remarkably detailed backstage insight into Smith's pommel horse final (see skysports.com/scholarships) where other athletes involved also talk.
Entrepreneurship feels like Smith's most likely next route. After the Olympic frenzy, which at its most intense saw him disguising himself with hats and oversized Aviator sunglasses to reach press conferences without being mobbed, he wants to explore whether an informal, socially based, child-friendly gym concept might be franchised. And fashion interests him too. "I've got a lot of things in my head that I'd like to wear but I never see them. I've got a lot of lightbulbs going off in my head but I don't know where I'd get started with that."
In life, as on a pommel horse, time cannot stand still for those who are outside sport's big-money league, trying to seize the fleeting Olympic moment.
'I should have been given gold'
Louis Smith has insisted that the quality of his pommel horse final routine should have secured more points than the total which meant he missed out on gold to Hungarian Krisztian Berki by a margin of 0.1 of a point.
Smith has watched the routine no fewer than 10 times and is adamant that it was the better of the two. "Having watched the routine back, it's a gold medal," Smith said. "All credit to Krisztian, he did a fantastic routine and he's been world champion twice. But I pulled it out of the bag on the day and did the routine and it was worth a gold medal. Robbed! It was a brilliant routine, I've watched it from different angles as well. My legs were glued [together] from start to finish. There was no form break in the whole routine."
Berki posted an intimidatingly high score of 16.066 in their final. Smith matched it, meaning the top two places were decided on their execution scores, which Berki shaded by 0.1 of a point. "His score was the right score. Mine should have been a bit higher. Definitely; 100 per cent! You just have to go with the flow. If I was in third and bumped to fourth it would be completely different."
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