For many years in the UK, the spotlight has focused on women’s gymnastics, but now the tables have turned and it’s most definitely the turn of the men’s team to pull focus. The profile of British gymnastics has been elevated to the dizzy heights of other mainstream sports such as tennis, cricket, and rugby thanks to the Olympic successes of Beth Twiddle, Louis Smith, and Max Whitlock. Finally, gymnastics is getting the recognition and respect it so rightfully deserves.
When I was growing up and competing in the sport, it would have been a minuscule fraction of the population that could even name a gymnast let alone a British gymnast. However, thanks to increased funding, TV coverage and the blessing of London 2012 Beth, Louis and Max are household names and significant milestones for the sport and how far it has come in this country.
The men’s GB World Championship team for 2017 comprises of established individuals amongst the world elite, and an exciting new era of gymnastics in this country is well underway. The team consists of 2012 Olympic medalist Daniel Purvis, two-time Olympic champion Max Whitlock and 2016 Olympic high bar bronze medalist Nile Wilson.
Such a star-studded line-up is the culmination of generations of blood, sweat, and tears bringing British gymnastics into this historic position. National investment in the sport is paying dividends and ambitions have risen sharply. Nowhere has this vertiginous curve been more visible than in the men's team event. Until May 2012, no British team – male or female – had ever taken first place at major championships. At the European championships in Montpellier, the British men's team secured a historic gold.
History of British Gymnastics
When I was a kid finding a good gymnastics club was hard enough, but finding one that catered for boys was extremely hard. Girls dominated the sport and it was certainly not promoted for boys when I was at school. My first ever gymnastic training facility was the Army School of Physical Training in Aldershot, Hampshire, which holds pride of place in the history of British gymnastics. The army gymnastics school at Aldershot began in 1861 with the building of their first gymnasium on command of The British Army as a direct result of the shortcomings of British soldier’s fitness training, which became apparent during the Crimean War (1853-1856) and Indian Mutiny (1857-1858).
The school at Aldershot grew rapidly and the largest of their gymnasiums “Fox Gym” was built in 1890 named after Col. Fox who was then the Inspector of Gymnasia. It is still in use today but the last British Championships were held there in 1960. Many famous British gymnasts trained at the Aldershot school including Sgt. Instructor ‘Nik’ Wray Stuart MBE, Jimmy Wilson and Micky Munn MBE, Bert Dooley and Jack Scrivener. Nik Stuart went on to win a record nine British Individual Championships. Jimmy Wilson, an international medal winner in the World Tumbling Championships was one of the founder members of Fox Gymnastics Club. The small gymnasium at the school where I used to train in the late 1970’s was called ‘Brown Gym’ which was also frequented by all the above high-profile gymnasts over the years.
The basic apparatus of ‘Brown Gym’ was a far cry from the amazing facilities we see in this country today enabling Louis Smith's to take the bronze medal in Beijing in 2008. This was a seismic event – Britain's first individual medal for 100 years and the first of any kind for 80 years. "Things have just spiraled since Beijing," says Sam Oldham, a significant contributor to the success of the British team. "It's been amazing to be a part of that. It's a lot easier once you've got one or two medals. The younger kids are thinking: 'If he can do that, we can do that.' Such a set-up has produced a new calibre of British gymnasts.
A springboard for success
There were some very dark times for the Men’s gymnastics programme. In 2003 there was a complete loss of funding to the men’s sport and there was no money in the pot for an elite programme. So how did the men’s team become such a reckoning force in the international field? Finally in 2007 Lottery money was used to boost the funding for men’s gymnastics which allowed our gymnasts to train full-time and as Eddie Van Hoof, British men’s technical director for the sport who used to coach me from time to time as a kid over the years points out “it removes the need to do part-time jobs and scratch around for a living”. Today a fifth of all the money spent by National Lottery players now goes to Sport, and in the case of men’s gymnastics, the results speak for themselves.
Other nations also have noticed the British threat. "Great Britain has done an incredible job," says Kevin Mazeika, the head coach of the US men's team. "They've improved tremendously. I think the men's team final was one of the highlights of the Olympics”.
The Men’s gymnastics team is one of the best in the world and for the first time and the best thing is that they now believe it. The results speak for themselves.
I have to take this opportunity to give a huge shout-out of congratulations to Derby City’s Greg Townley for winning the British Tumbling Championships last week. Greg is coached by World Champion tumbler Damian Walters. We all worked together performing stunts on the new Kingsman: The Golden Circle movie, which is in cinemas now. We are all living proof of the fact that today sport is a valid career choice and not just for the competitive arena, which will be another blog coming soon.