Gymnastics: Thomas lights the beacon

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The Independent Online
A LOOK at the attendances at the National Exhibition Centre over the last week reveals where the heart of gymnastics lies. When the men were performing the arena was half full; when the women took the floor there was hardly an empty seat. Men have the torsos, the women have the glamour, writes Guy Hodgson.

Which is why the women were given as many of the evening sessions as possible at the World Gymnastics Championships. Even Vitaly Shcherbo was strictly a matinee idol.

Perhaps the sport has a slightly cissy image - although it would take a brave person to risk telling the awesomely proportioned performers - but around 70 per cent of all participants in Britain are women. Or they were until Neil Thomas became the first Briton to win a gymnastics medal at world level.

Thomas hopes his silver in the floor exercise on Saturday will act like a beacon. 'I hope this will encourage people to take up the sport,' he said, 'particularly boys. We need them to come forward.' Thomas, the role model, will be performing at least until the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, next year. He has still not decided about the 1996 Olympics at Atlanta, when he will be, at 28, past his prime.

Thomas, from Newport, Shropshire, took up the sport at 10 partly to appease his parents, who were fed up with him swinging from the furniture. Ask him about other sports and he will apologise and say: 'I'm sorry, I've only ever really been interested in gymnastics.' Which, if it makes him sound dull, hardly matches up to his words or deeds on Saturday.

On learning that Thomas had been drawn to go off first in the eight-man final, his team-mate Paul Bowler bemoaned Britain's bad luck and speculated Thomas would have to play safe. 'If he had been drawn later,' Bowler said, 'he would know how the others have scored and take a risk. This has probably cost him a medal.'

Instead Thomas threw down the challenge with a routine that had a higher tariff than the one he had used in the qualifiers. 'I'd finished fifth then and the way they were marking I knew it was unlikely to win me a medal if I did the same thing. I took a risk, I went for the gold.'

Thomas's extra move was a triple somersault that included a twist at the end which pushed his score to 9.350. He then had to wait as his rivals performed, his pulse rising as one after the other they fell short. With one participant to go it seemed the unthinkable might happen, a British gold, until Ukraine's Grigori Misutin scored 9.400.

Even so Thomas took to the rostrum alongside Shcherbo as joint runner-up. For a Briton to rub shoulders on equal terms with the brilliant Belarussian was far more than anyone had dared to hope for at the start.

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