The man who fell to Earth

Both of Britain's male gymnasts were making progress, but slips have not helped their cause, says Mike Rowbottom
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The Independent Online
Until the mistake - the one, horrible mistake - things had been going well for Lee McDermott.

With five of the six opening day's compulsory exercises completed, the 22-year-old from Sutton was progressing encouragingly towards the top 36 place that would allow him to contest the individual event. One lapse, as he wove and turned above the pommel horse, was all it took to change things.

Suddenly deposited on Mother Earth, McDermott stood for a long moment and stared up into the tiered heights of the Georgia Dome. He looked as if he was considering the quickest way to get to Hartsfield International Airport.

Walking very slowly to the edge of the podium, he dusted his hands and arms once more with chalk, then remounted with an expression of utter emptiness. It was a bitter welcome to the Olympics.

"I was doing well," McDermott said. "I just don't know what to say. I was nervous out there, but I thought it was controlled nerves."

McDermott's dismay was mirrored by that of his training partner Dominic Brindle, Britain's only other male representative, who had suffered a similar fall from grace immediately beforehand, coming to rest on the horse twice after losing his momentum.

Brindle, a 20-year-old Yorkshireman, responded more succinctly to the turn of events. "Shit happens," he said with a rueful grin.

Dealing with what happens is the speciality of Lew Hardy, a professor of sports psychology at the University of Wales in Bangor who has been working with the national gymnastic squads since 1988. The task in hand, however, was one which caused even the professor to chuckle uneasily.

"It's quite a difficult one, this," he said. "Both Dominic and Lee were well on course for the top 36 after five pieces, and after this the problem is whether they should try to adjust that goal or stick with it.

"It will be worse for Lee, because he made only one mistake, but he lost 1.7 marks for it because he took his hands of the handle. It's like batting in cricket - you make one mistake and that's it. Basically Lee's been murdered.

"Both of them have got to re-group now. We will be talking about this later on."

McDermott, rings champion and overall bronze medallist at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, spoke manfully about still having a job to do. But first there was that re-grouping thing to be done.

"I want to be left alone for a bit to reflect on what I've done," McDermott said. "I need to come to terms with this..." he paused, searching for the word "...competition."

Both Britons will go into the second, optional exercise phase of the team competition today seeking to make the individual cut. Although teams are restricted to three qualifiers, which could see many high-scoring competitors jettisoned, McDermott and Brindle are 62 and 64 respectively in the first-day standings. They have a mighty leap to make.

So have the Chinese men, favourites for the team title, if they are to overtake the first-day leaders, Russia, who are nearly a whole point clear.

Li Xiaoshuang, tipped by many, including himself, to challenge Vitaly Scherbo for the all-round title he won in Barcelona, gave an uncharacteristically muted performance, and finished the day outside the leading trio of Chinese, back in 29th position.

With his hugely promising team-mate Ivan Ivankov out of the Olympics with a snapped Achilles tendon, Scherbo, who took six gold medals in 1992, had an immensely challenging job to keep Belarus in contention. He rose to the challenge, placing second behind Russia's Alexai Nemov on the day, and helping his team earn fourth place.

Scherbo has had injuries and domestic traumas to deal with since Barcelona - his wife is still recovering from a serious car crash. But his innate competitiveness remains intact. Halfway through his routine on the final piece of equipment, the high bar, the crowd began whooping and chanting to the United States team, which had just completed its day.

As the cries of "USA" rang out through the 31,000-strong crowd, and with most of them coming from a flag-waving contingent close to him, Scherbo maintained total concentration to score 9.687. It was a performance worthy of a champion.

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