Gymnastics flying high in London

Walking in an Epke Zonderland: the Flying Dutchman’s daring routine on the high bar was the single most thrilling performance in the gymnastics competition

It is with a touch of sadness that I closed out the Artistic Gymnastics on Eurosport 3D yesterday and began to think about my top moments of the competition (see below).

It had been an eye-opening experience for someone who had never previously been that close to the sport. Strength, artistry, poise, precision and incredible athleticism wrapped up in explosive flashes of action.

I had always enjoyed watching gymnastics but – apart from some rather half-hearted vaulting and rope-climbing sessions during my school days – it is not a sport I had ever studied at close quarters. Until that is, I was detailed to commentate on it during these Olympics.

People often criticise the choice of commentators for sports that are not their speciality. I can understand that but I am afraid this is how it works: like any television company that takes its sport seriously, Eurosport has a number of employees on its books who are either commentators in a specialist sport and/or work on the news desk. They are at the very least professional broadcasters.

When a big competition like the Olympics comes along, these full-time broadcasters are redeployed to pick up different events. For example, the BBC used its cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew to cover the Archery competion, probably on no better strength than that it was at Lord’s Cricket Ground. He had no previous knowledge of archery but is a first rate broadcaster.

Such was the case for me – although I hasten to add I am several divisions below Agnew when it comes to the broadcasting league tables.

My specialities are rugby union, which I cover for Eurosport, and, like Agnew, cricket – my first commentary was way back now in 1988.

But in the last 24 years I have also been called on to commentate at various times on tennis, table tennis, athletics, football, swimming, ten pin bowling and polo – the last of which was a tad unfortunate as the SOS from SABC came just as I was finishing off a very imbibious lunch prior to a South Africa-Argentina test to which I had been invited purely as a guest.

So to be asked to commentate on gymnastics was at the same time exciting and daunting.

The North Greenwich Arena (aka the Millennium Dome and the O2 Arena) provided a superb setting for the gymnastics albeit very pink

Exciting because it is such a great sport but daunting because of all the technical talk involved. How could I possibly learn the difference between a Yurchenko and an Amanar on the vault? What was a double Arabian?…you get the idea.

Fortunately, unlike some television stations, Eurosport believes in the value of having an expert on the commentary team. Hence my fellow commentator Dave Crossan and I were joined by Ioannis Melissanidis, the 1996 gold medallist on the floor.

That meant that David and I could anchor the presentation while Ioannis could bring an expert eye and talk us through the technicalities.

It was a happy combination which leant colour and depth to some thrilling gymnastics.


To pick a few moments is a touch mean but I am going to do it nonetheless. In no particular order here are my moments from the gymnastics. Feel free to add yours:

1 – A gymnast requires not just technical excellence and a touch of artistry but a degree of courage as well. He who starts with a very difficult routine is reaching for the highest prize in the knowledge that one error could end it all. In the case of Epke Zonderland an error could also have meant serious injury. But the Flying Dutchman produced a hair-raising routine on the high bar, with a breath-taking series of combinations that had the crowd at the North Grenwich Arena gasping in awe and fear. And he was perfect. No mistakes and a deserved gold medal.

2 – Beth Tweddle is an equally adventurous gymnast on the uneven bars. Now 27, she had won the World Championship twice but never had an Olympic medal. Indeed, no British woman had ever achieved a podium finish. She qualified first in the bars and the NGA went dilly when she set off again on a high octane performance in the final. Like Zonderland she produced a heart-stopping performance right up until her dismount. Unlike the Dutchman, though, she didn’t quite nail the landing. A couple of steps and the gold had gone to the Russian Aliya Mustafine. But Tweddle did collect the bronze and the smile on her face at the medal ceremony showed just how much it meant to her.

3 – I don’t want to come across as too British in this piece but it would be wrong of me to overlook the achievemnts of the British team. When I was a kid, gymnastics really wasn’t seen as a British sport. When the Olympics came around, we would all admire the grace and skill and beauty of Olga Korbut, Nadia Comineci and co (I am afraid I never really took much notice of the men) but there were no Brits to look out for. In the last few years, though, there has been a sea change in the way gymnastics is perceived. Louis Smith got things rolling in Beijing with a bronze on the pommel horse and he went one better than that this time with a silver, losing out to Hungary’s Krisztian Berki on execution value after they had finished level on points. His teammate Max Whitlock added to the Brits’ day by taking bronze. With the British men – European champions in May – also winning bronze in the team event, the women reaching the final and Tweddle taking her bronze, it was an exceptional Games for the Brits.

Grace and beauty: Catalina Ponor may inspire a generation of female gymnasts that there is life after 20

4 – We all love a comeback and there were two superb ones in the women’s competition. Aliya Mustafina was on top of the world a couple of years ago but suffered a nasty anterior cruciate ligament injury a year ago. A place in London looked highly unlikely. But she fixed her knee and came back with wonderful composure. After helping Russia to the team silver behind the USA, she then took bronze in the individuall all-round and on the floor as well as a gold on the uneven bars. Arguably, her performance usurped that of Gabby Douglas, aka The Flying Squirrel, who won the women’s all-round and a team gold. The other comeback came from Catalina Ponor, the three-time gold medallist from Athens eight years ago. After quitting the sport in 2007, she found she missed it so much that she had to return. “It was like a drug for me,” she told Eurosport before the Games. The elegant, beautiful 24-year-old showed that, in spite of not winning a gold this time, the star quality never fades. A team bronze was followed by disappointment on the beam where she lost third to Ally Raisman after an inquiry. But she then made up for that with a delightful routine on the floor, not good enough for gold which went to the more powerful Raisman but still with enough quality to secure the silver. An example to the younger female gymnasts that there is life after 20, it would be great to see her in Rio in four years time.

5 – Last but certainly not least, the Japanese Kohei Uchimura. Labelled by many as the greatest all-round gymnast ever, he had a slow start to the competition, only qualifying for the individual all-round in seventh spot. His uncertain dismount from the pommel led to a steward’s inquiry which saw Japan elevated from fourth to second in the team event. But any doubts about his form disappeared in the all-round final when he was imperious. Grace, elegance, strength across the six apparatus…it was a thoroughly deserved gold medal to add to his three world championships. A silver on the floor was a nice bonus.

These are obviously just a few highlights. Apologies if your favourites aren’t in there. Feel free to add them below.

Barney Spender 2012