GB's Olympic gymnastic dream in the balance

GB's gymnastics team are out to avoid the unthinkable today: failing to qualify for 2012

It was not the Christmas that had been envisaged by Britain's male gymnasts but a festive season spent in full training will be the least of their lost days should events take a tumble for the worse at the 02 today. A poor performance and they will become Britain's sporting lost boys, the most promising generation this country has produced consigned to sit and watch the London Olympics.

A disastrous performance in the World Championships last October has left Britain's men requiring a top four finish in the qualifying event that begins today. It doubles as the latest test event for the Games and the threat that it may be the only taste the likes of Louis Smith, who won Britain's first Olympic medal in a century with his bronze in Beijing, Daniel Keatings, a world silver medallist, and Daniel Purvis, another world medallist, get of London 2012 is a real one.

"The reality is, what's done is done," said Smith. "We'd like to have qualified and had Christmas and New Year's to relax with. But what's one Christmas and New Year's for an Olympic Games? We've got a whole lifetime of Christmases and New Year's to come and this Olympics only comes around once."

After a series of errors across the team – most spectacularly by Keatings, who fell from the high bar and the pommel horse – Britain finished 10th in Tokyo. "We had so many mistakes," said Smith. The leading eight nations qualified; those that came ninth to 16 have reassembled in London and the first four will be back in July to take part in the Games.

If Britain are among that number – they, France and Spain are the favourites – it will permit them to send a full team to an Olympics for the first time since 1992, which would mean five gymnasts taking part in the individual events.

If not they will be restricted, as the hosts, to a solitary competitor, likely to be Smith, although Purvis and Keatings would also have strong claims on the spot. "The main goal is to right some wrongs from Tokyo," said Tim Jones, the British Gymnastics Olympic performance director. "It was not a good day for us."

Gymnastics is one of the subjective sports which research by UK Sport, the body that oversees elite sport, suggests home advantage, and an enthusiastic home crowd, does translate into a slight advantage through scoring, and as the margins between placings can be slight it may matter. But only if today's event, which is divided into three sessions with Britain in the final grouping, can be safely negotiated.

Britain has genuine medal prospects. The women's team, led by the veteran (in gymnastics terms) 26-year-old Beth Tweddle, have already qualified, but despite their Tokyo tumble the men offer greater possible podium presence.

Smith, who is based in Huntingdon where he trains alongside Keatings, has the ability to become Britain's first Olympic gold medallist in the sport. The best they have managed was a silver by Walter Tysall at the 1908 London Games.

In order to improve on his bronze in the pommel four years ago, Smith has been working on a routine that has never been executed successfully in competition, the triple Russian performed on a handle of the pommel.

It is a complex move that involves the body spinning around parallel with the apparatus and demands 12 changes of hand position. He tried it in Tokyo, got it right but then got his dismount wrong. Smith also has a silver from the World Championships, the 2010 version where Britain came a best-ever seventh. In the same year they finished second in the European Championships.

Among his team-mates, Keatings, who was born in Corby but competes for Scotland in the Commonwealth Games, won all-round silver in the 2009 world championships, staged at the 02. That was Britain's first such medal, and a year later he earned another first by winning gold at the European Championships on the pommel, the apparatus he fell from in Tokyo.

Purvis, from Liverpool, is another who has won medals at European and world levels and has all-round abilities. It is a pool of talent never witnessed in this country, potentially a real golden generation, and one they are adamant will not be wasted. "We go into the test event in confident shape, good shape," said Jones. "We're not going to let one poor performance derail our plans for future."

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