Max Whitlock holds his nerve to negotiate path through pommel qualifying

Ireland’s Rhys McClenaghan led the field with Whitlock lying third ahead of the final qualifying rotation.

Mark Staniforth
Saturday 24 July 2021 13:53
Tom Daley gives tour of Tokyo 2020 Olympic village

Defending champion Max Whitlock safely negotiated the nerve-racking qualification process at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre on the day one of his sport’s biggest stars bowed out.

Whitlock has often acknowledged the inspiration he has gleaned from watching the career of Kohei Uchimura, the Japanese great who came into his home Olympics as a double defending all-around champion hoping for one last gold before retirement.

But the 32-year-old Uchimura, forced to target a single apparatus for his swansong after battling a succession of injuries, fell from the horizontal bar midway through the qualification process, bringing his illustrious career to an unfortunate end.

Team GB’s men’s gymnastics team made a solid start in Tokyo (Mike Egerton/PA)

“I don’t usually watch the other gymnasts but I couldn’t really not notice Kohei on the high bar,” said Whitlock, whose pommel score of 14.9 sent him safely through to the individual apparatus final.

“It’s a huge shame for him in his home country, especially because in the warm-up gym he has been looking amazing. It is so difficult coming out to do just one piece, and I’ve only just begun to realise that over the years as I’ve become more of a specialist myself.”

When Uchimura won his second consecutive all-around title in Rio Whitlock picked up gold medals on pommel on floor and still spoke of his long-term desire to emulate the Japanese star and develop skills on the remaining pieces of apparatus.

Max Whitlock hailed his team-mates for battling through unprecedented times (Mike Egerton/PA)

However, in the five years since, Whitlock has gone the other way, scrapping floor completely and only competing the parallel bars and horizontal bar in Tokyo in order to help out his team-mates Joe Fraser, James Hall and Giarni Regini-Moran.

Whitlock was not perfect as he placed third, behind Ireland’s Rhys McClenaghan, whose morning score of 15.266 led the field with one further qualifying rotation still to go.

And he admitted afterwards that nerves are inescapable when five years of hard work, which have included both world titles and major disappointments on some of his sport’s biggest stages, boil down into a two-minute process when he is required to get everything right.

Joe Fraser is in a good position to qualify for the final of the men’s parallel bars (Mike Egerton/PA)

“I can say on behalf of every gymnast that qualification is the hardest and most nerve-racking thing ever, because everything rides on it,” added Whitlock.

“If you muck things up, that’s your Olympics done, and if you don’t you can go on and have more opportunities to compete in that arena.

“We all felt that. It was a bit quieter at breakfast this morning and you could feel that it was competition day. But we’ve come out here and I feel like we’ve delivered. After everything we’ve been through, to come out and do what we’ve done, we should be really pleased.”

Fraser is in a strong position to join Whitlock in an individual apparatus final after scoring a team-leading 15.4 to put him strongly in contention on the parallel bars.