Gymnastics: Thomas receives accolade as history beckons: Briton reaches heights to advance to final while gloom descends on the Olympic champion

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The Independent Online
VITALY SHCHERBO has six Olympic gold medals, but does he have a move named after him? The Belarussian is the greatest male gymnast that has ever lived yet no one, unless the name becomes a synonym for peerless excellence, does a Shcherbo. Not even the man himself.

Which puts him behind Neil Thomas. Plaudits are not hurled at Britain very often in this sport but the 25-year-old from Newport in Shropshire has got just about the highest accolade available. To invent something, to have it recognised by your rivals, and to have your name attached to it is not something that happens every day of the week. Even Vinnie Jones has yet to have a football foul fully associated with himself.

The innovative double straight back somersault with full twist employed in the floor exercises, however, carries only one name: Le Thomas. All the competitors in the World Gymnastics Championships this week refer to it as such; even the Federation Internationale de Gymnastique has included it in their latest rule book.

Which is all very nice but it does not guarantee a place in World Championship finals. The nation expected yesterday and Thomas had to deliver. At just past dawn Britain's best hope of a medal at the National Exhibtion Centre was asked to perform. Or rather was begged to.

'Come on Neil,' the plea rang from dozens of juvenile voices, and he did come on. Indeed he 'Le Thomased' and turned with such vigour and expertise that it was almost an anti-climax when his mark was given as 9.3. Still it was enough to earn him a place in Saturday's floor exercise final, a considerable achievement in post-perestroika days which means the old Soviet Union sends out around 30 athletes these days instead of three.

'It was a brilliant exercise,' Paul Garber, head of the British team, said. 'All the pressure was there, a lot was expected of him.' As he now has the opportunity to become the first Briton to win a medal in these championships in modern memory this weight is unlikely to decline.

Typically for people who perform to degrees of perfection, Thomas dwelt on his failures. The let-down after the floor, his first exercise, came in the pummel where he lost his rhythm twice and had to remount. That earned him only 7.675 marks and cost him a place in the overall final. 'I'm disappointed,' he said, 'that's never happened to me before. I feel sorry that I let the crowd down.' If he was downbeat, however, Shcherbo was only a couple of notches up on the deeply depressed. He had, after all, only finished as top qualifier in the overall section and reached the finals of five of the six individual events. 'I feel tired, much tireder than I did in Barcelona,' he said. 'I performed badly.'

His gloom centred on the rings, a discipline which yielded him a gold in Barcelona. He could score only 9.225 yesterday and missed out on the final by five-thousandths of a mark. 'I'm going to sleep,' he said by way of a remedy. If only Britain could doze its way to such heights.

(Photograph omitted)

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