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Britain’s Max Whitlock overcomes jitters to make Olympics pommel horse final

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Max Whitlock was not quite at his best as he stepped up to the pommel horse on Saturday afternoon. In the second half of his routine he suffered a notable form break, then fought hard to maintain his rhythm. But what is most important in the tense qualification round where medals can only be lost, not won, is that he managed to do so.

He finished with a score of 14.900, advancing to the pommel horse final in fifth place and he was satisfied. “Qualifications is a nerve-racking event, the hardest one, because the rest of the Olympic Games rides on that,” said Whitlock. “I’m really, really pleased with my events today.”

Related: Olympics 2020: latest news from day one of Tokyo Games – live updates!

As is often the case, Whitlock has vast room to improve from qualifying to the event finals but the five-times Olympic medallist’s position is a reminder that there are gymnasts ready to take advantage of any mistakes. Among them is 22-year-old Rhys McClenaghan, an incredibly clean and precise pommel horse worker who became the first Irish gymnast to reach an Olympic gymnastics final by qualifying in second place with a score of 15.266.

The rest of the British team had a solid day, qualifying for the team final in fifth place. Joe Fraser, the 2019 parallel bars world champion, was excellent, reaching the parallel bars final and finishing fifth in the all-around behind only gold medal contenders from China, ROC and Japan.

The drama, however, was provided elsewhere. Kohei Uchimura of Japan, arguably the greatest men’s gymnast of all time, peeled off the horizontal bar on a pirouette and failed to reach a final on home soil. Uchimura, now 32, was only competing on horizontal bar and as an individual athlete rather than part of Japan’s team. He does not yet know if this is his last meet.

Home hope Kohei Uchimura loses his grip on the horizontal bar.
Home hope Kohei Uchimura loses his grip on the horizontal bar. Photograph: Ashley Landis/AP

While their idol floundered, the young Japanese team qualified in first place: “After I finished the horizontal bar and came back to the arena to watch, I saw them sorting out their problems on their own,” he said. “I felt I wasn’t needed any more.”

Artur Dalaloyan, the 2018 world all-around champion representing ROC, would be one of the all-around gold medal contenders under normal circumstances but in April he tore his achilles then underwent surgery. Three months later he is the protagonist of one of the most astounding sights of the Tokyo Games and also a reminder of just how much the Olympics means. He elicited horror and awe alike as he qualified for the all-around final in sixth place after three hours of pounding his repaired tendon.

After his floor routine, his penultimate routine of the day Dalaloyan sat and wept openly into his lap. He explained afterwards that his tears were rooted in mixed emotions – joy at being able to compete to a high level, while knowing that he is capable of more: “I could not control my emotions, something was broken inside me,” he said. “I could not control what I was feeling.”

Dalaloyan, who didn’t think he would compete all-around until a late discussion with his teammates, was asked if he will be competing in the all-around final, to which he responded by covering his eyes: “OK, I will do it,” he said. “It’s not a problem for me.”

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