Gymnastics: Team GB's Louis Smith comes fraction short after playing safe

Gymnast claims silver on pommel horse, with fellow Briton Whitlock taking bronze medal

North Greenwich Arena

“Four years of work and all I have to show for it is 50 seconds on the pommel horse,” Louis Smith said a few weeks ago. Well, in the end it came down to even finer margins than that – a 10th of a point being the difference between him wearing the first gold medal ever to be placed around a British male gymnast's shoulders, and the baser metal which he took.

He took it well, remarkably well, showing off the easy, magnetic personality with which he has attracted a following to British gymnastics. Lottery money has also flowed into the sport since Smith claimed the first British men's gymnastics medal in 100 years at Beijing, four years ago. The Duchess of Cambridge had been here to see the insuperable Krisztian Berki's high-kicking pommel routine take gold, he was told. "I don't want to offend her but if I'd seen her I would have blown her a kiss or something," he replied. He'd turned his back on singing for his sport and once been rejected by X Factor, he was reminded. "Simon Cowell? What does he know?" This man is box office.

And sitting the other side of Berki was one 19-year-old product of all the money leveraged into the sport by Smith's bronze at Beijing. (By a horrible symmetry, he missed out on silver by 0.01 of a point that time.) Max Whitlock, still not quite believing he was an Olympic pommel horse bronze medallist, did not know how to answer the question of whether he would have been here without Smith. "Yes, you would be," said the old man, aged 23. But Smith is certainly the one who has lifted British men's gymnastics out of the days when "we went to participate and just looked up to the Russians" as Paul Hall, his Huntingdon Gym coach, put it last night.

Smith was looking at no one as he walked into this arena – headphones on, rap music to still his mind – for his 50-second date with destiny, at a little after 4pm yesterday. He had chosen not to watch the routine in which Berki revealed all his trademarks as one of the great pommel stylists, his amplitude and shape never more evident than in a high-kicking opening.

But Smith knew from the scoreboard that Berki had laid down a marker and he was confronted by a game of Russian roulette because of it.

He cannot match a flawless Berki – Federer to Smith's Andy Murray as Hall described with rather imperfect timing last night – when it comes to sheer execution of a routine but he has made a trademark of making up the difference with supreme levels of difficulty. The decision was which of three levels to go for. He opted for the second, delivering him a 10th of a point more than the Hungarian, and so setting himself pommel's double Russian – an extremely demanding, technical double rotation – rather than a triple Russian – a fearsomely demanding, technical triple rotation.

That decision – made in the narrow minutes between Berki's performance and his own – was Smith's, Hall said afterwards, the big fear being that if he had opted for the risky triple his routine might have ended in the disaster of a dismount and wipeout. Smith had executed a triple, with its 7.1 score for difficulty, to fine effect at the British championships, though it hadn't been going the way he liked in the gym, he revealed. "I could have gone with the harder one and fallen off and not even had the chance to sit on this table," Smith said. Last night's execution score would have been enough to take him to gold, had he gambled on the triple. The decision is one he must live with, along with the judges' decision – not one that any in Smith's entourage were contesting– that Berki's execution had been that 10th of a point better. There was graciousness from Smith for the victor, with whom his relationship has always been cordial, though you could certainly see the pain behind his eyes. "Our sport is different to many other sports," he said. "You're getting judged by someone else. If you're in a sport where you can use the adrenalin of the crowd to go further or fast, it's different. I did the best routine I ever have. Someone judged me and gave me a silver. It was hard. But you can't sit with your face screwed up. You have to look at the positives. GB making history. It's a fantastic day for the sport."

The last part was certainly true. Privately, the great fear about these Games for the gymnastic coaches was that their athletes would not cope with the pressure in this arena. Nobody in the British gymnastics camp had anticipated the difference in expectation between Beijing and London. There were also concerns about how the emotion which burst forth from Smith after the men reached their first Olympic team final in the post-war era – and took bronze – would affect him in this rarefied environment. He delivered under extraordinary pressure yesterday.

Hall doesn't know if this wonderful Olympics for the sport will bring more money in. But the glimpses of a back-story Smith provided last night – he was offered a choristership at Peterborough Cathedral but passed it up for gymnastics, wondering whether his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was conducive to standing up terribly much – revealed him as a fine torch-bearer for it. "Louis's medal in Beijing really inspired me," said Whitlock, grinning cheek-to-cheek. "It got British gymnastics known as a whole. Now to follow in his footsteps with a bronze. Amazing."

Today, Beth Tweddle will pass on the baton she has carried so steadfastly, though Smith is not quite ready for that yet. "Max is catching me up. I'm not sure how much longer I can blag my way into the team!" he joked. Tattooed across his back is an intricate winged cross, above it an inscription: "What I deserve I earn." That is a gold medal, somewhere down the line.

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