Max Whitlock never watches his rivals’ performances – at least not until he has finished himself. Until then he focuses on his own actions and all the things that are within his power to control. It appears to have been a good tactic for him over the years but on the day of his third Olympic pommel horse final it was rendered obsolete.
Before the final Whitlock was drawn as the first man up, an experience he had never felt before in a big event. He was already feeling the abject stress of trying to retain a title the world was scrapping for and being thrust up as the opening routine only augmented the stress. But since he emerged on the world stage nine years ago Whitlock has consistently shown that his success is driven by rare mental fortitude. He did so again, outclassing the field to defend his Olympic gold medal on the pommel horse with a supreme routine that scored 15.583.
By winning his third Olympic gold medal and sixth overall, Whitlock is the first man in more than 30 years to retain a pommel horse title at the Games. He has further heightened a level of dominance that is rarely seen in modern gymnastics on one apparatus, underlined by an incredible rate of successful routines in major finals. He has now won the pommel horse gold at the past five world championships and Olympic Games. The only time he did not win, he still produced an identical score as the winner, Xiao Ruoteng, but lost the tiebreak.
As Whitlock spoke in the mixed zone afterwards, gold medal round his neck and a small bouquet of flowers from the medal ceremony clutched tightly in his hands, he was clearly still in shock by the level of fortitude he displayed. He said he had spent the morning completely stressed by the impending final and it was the most nervous he had been before any competition in his life. He put it down to the burden of trying to defend an Olympic title.
“What I’ve learnt this time, and I didn’t realise what [the biggest stressor] was, it’s the feeling of knowing that you’ve done it before. That feeling of winning the Olympic gold is crazy and you want to experience that again but you know how hard it is to experience that,“ he said.
On the competition floor those nerves did not show. While there are cleaner and more elegant gymnasts, whose hips are even more open as they swivel across the horse and who actually point their toes on every skill, nobody hits under pressure like Whitlock. He smoothly navigated the hardest routine in the world, valued at 7.0, assertively moving through a series of some of the most difficult of pommel horse skills.
Max Whitlock in competition in the pommel horse final. ‘When the scores hit and the final score comes up, emotions hit you like a ton of bricks.’ Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock
After nailing his routine Whitlock hugged his coach, Scott Haan, tightly. “Even as my feet hit the floor, it was like, ‘Oh my god,’” he said. “I hugged Scott and said: ‘I can’t believe that I just done that.’ It’s a crazy journey but, when the scores hit and the final score comes up, emotions hit you like a ton of bricks.”
Whitlock then had a front-row seat to see the rest of the best pommel horse workers in the world, which he joked was the first time he had actually watched a pommel final in his life. It was, however, an excruciating watch. “Emotions were literally going crazy. You never disregard routines because you never know what people are going to score. I knew there were unbelievable gymnasts out there.”
The only person who came close was Lee Chih-kai of Chinese Taipei, who won a stellar silver with a score of 15.400 and held his face in his hands as he realised he was only 0.183 away. Japan’s home favourite Kaya Kazuma took bronze with a mark of 14.900. As the routines continued, Whitlock had a moment of clarity as he realised that he was actually content with however things panned out.
“Me and Scott sat there after my routine and I said: ‘Do you know what? If anyone beats that score, after my score comes up, then good on them.’ Because that was the best I could do. That was all I could do. I couldn’t have done any more.”
As has frequently been the case in his career, nobody did.
Whitlock has now won six Olympic medals, including three gold after his victories on pommel horse and floor at Rio 2016, along with eight medals at world championships. He is undeniably one of the greatest gymnasts of his generation.
Yet, in his eyes, his story is far from finished. The 2024 Paris Olympics remain a clear aim even if every year brings more obstacles and difficulties. He is 28 and still has to fulfil another dream of entering an eponymous skill, the air flair on the pommel horse, into the code of points.
For now, though, the goal is simply to rest. “I had three weeks off after London, I had three months off after Rio. There’s not enough time to have three years off this time,” he said, laughing loudly. Then he shrugged. “But I’ll have a long break. I’d like to go on a few holidays, enjoy it and spend some time with everyone who helped me get to this point.”