Gymnastics: Thomas dares, and wins silver

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The Independent Online
THERE are sports that Britain has no great pedigree in. Nordic skiing, for example. And it is some time since the world trembled at our handball prowess. We were no great shakes at gymnastics either - until yesterday afternoon.

Neil Thomas, a 25-year-old from Shropshire, altered that when he took the silver in the floor exercise at the World Gymnastics Championships at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. It is a unique achievement, the first time Britain has won a medal at this level since the sport adopted its current format, dropping more esoteric disciplines like climbing ropes.

No doubt they have had union jacks waiting to be hoisted at medal ceremonies at every major gymnastics event since - but only out of politeness. Yesterday Thomas, who gambled on adopting a harder routine in pursuit of a medal, put the flag out. We will be winning cricket Tests next.

Thomas's score of 9.350 gave him joint second with the overall world champion and six-times Barcelona gold medallist Vitaly Scherbo. Indeed, his performance was so good that the Belarussian told him he was sure they would be joint champions, a prediction that stood until the last competitor, Ukraine's Grigori Misutin, edged ahead of them with 9.400.

'I knew I had done well but when I saw the mark I didn't think it would be good enough,' said Thomas, who set the standard by being the first finalist to compete. 'It got pretty nerve-racking as the other scores came in.'

That was a drama with a few high-tariff twists in itself. A gymnast performs and then there is a delay of several minutes while the marks are added up. A great 'oooh' went up from the crowd when the man after Thomas, Bulgaria's Ivan Ivankov, fell short with 9.150 and it grew louder as Marius Gherman (Romania), Igor Korobshinski (Ukraine) and Ivan Ivanov (Bulgaria) came and went without breaching 9.3.

The enthusiasm was only half- hearted while Scherbo had still to perform, however. He draws gold like a magnet, and and might have done so again but for a few minor adjustments on his landings. When his score flashed up as he tied with Thomas it meant Britain was certain of at least a bronze and the celebrations began.

'I was aware of the crowd's enthusiasm but blotted it out while I was performing,' Thomas said. 'When I came out for the presentation it was a wonderful feeling having all those people cheering me.' It was such a novel experience that Scherbo had to remind his fellow silver medallist to stand up and wave. The Belarussian has had a lot of practice, after all.

The success had a root in the decision taken by Eddie Van Hoof, Thomas's coach, to increase the level of difficulty of his charge's routine. 'I'd finished fifth in the qualifiers and it was pretty certain the old routine would not have got me any higher,' Thomas said. 'We decided to go for broke.'

The gauntlet was flung when Thomas added a move that incorporated three somersaults and a twist. That pushed up the tariff - the maximum he could score - to 9.8 and that would have been even higher if he could also have thrown the move he invented himself and is officially known as 'Le Thomas' at the judges. Instead he did not get the sufficient spring as he took off and restricted himself to a single spin in mid-air instead of a 720-deg turn.

Van Hoof said that decision probably cost Thomas gold, but he also noted that it would have blown his medal chances completely if he had gone through with the move and made a mess of it. 'We would not have upped the tariff today if Neil hadn't been mentally strong enough to do it. He was physically capable - it was a question of his mind.'

Afterwards Thomas's brain was contemplating the future. 'I'll keep on going until the Commonwealth Games (next year). After that I'll see. I hope my win will encourage people to take up the sport in this country, particularly boys.' Around 70 per cent of participants in Britain are female.

One woman who did not participate in the vault yesterday was Shannon Miller, the American all- round champion, who withdrew from the event with a stomach ailment. She had also been ill the previous evening, but had taken the gold when she edged ahead with her last discipline, the vault.

Her absence meant she missed the opportunity to become the first gymnast to make a clean sweep of the the individual medals at a world championships. Belarussia's Yelena Piskoun won the event in Miller's absence with an average of 9.762.

(Photograph omitted)