Max Whitlock: 'I don’t want Tokyo to be the ultimate destination, I want to go on until 2024'

·5-min read
Max Whitlock in the new TeamGB kit - PA Photo
Max Whitlock in the new TeamGB kit - PA Photo

When the athletes arrive at Tokyo’s low-attendance Olympics, many will focus on what is missing: atmosphere, electricity and families clutching hand-painted banners. But that is not the way Max Whitlock will be thinking.

A ruthless competitor, Whitlock is familiar with performing in near-empty halls, because he began his career long before the boom in British gymnastics, so he expects to feel at home in Japan’s echoing arenas.

When I started out, the British nationals used to be held in a sports hall in Surrey,” said Whitlock, who has travelled a long way from Guildford’s Spectrum Leisure Complex to become the most successful gymnast this country has ever produced.

“You’re talking about a couple of hundred seats, and they weren’t even filled up,” he added. “The sport was so small back then, it felt like nobody was interested, and there wasn’t that potential of making a career out of it. So it’s a really proud feeling to have helped gymnastics become one of the most watched Olympic sports.

“It seems strange to be going back full circle this summer, in terms of the lack of an audience in Tokyo. But the positive is that I have seen both sides. When you’ve been around for a long time, you can lean on your experiences, and I’ve got a lot of them now.”

From the tenor of these comments, you might imagine Whitlock to be a greybeard. In fact, he is 28, and still looks like he barely needs to shave.

Max Whitlock of England competes on the pommel horse during the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships - Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images
Max Whitlock of England competes on the pommel horse during the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships - Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

But then gymnasts are the mayflies of sport, athletes with an accelerated life cycle. Just a fortnight ago, when Basel hosted the European Championships, it was 16-year-old Jessica Gadirova who turned in Britain’s best performances.

“I’ve always felt like the young one,” Whitlock told The Telegraph, “but the whole thing has switched within a few years. In Basel, it wasn’t only the generation below me, it was the generation below that – people like Jake Jarman, who is 19. At one point, the physio turned to me and said ‘Is it strange to think that, when you won your first Olympic medal, Jessica was seven years old?’

“I enjoyed sitting with the younger guys and chatting about my learning curve. I think it’s pretty cool for them to have that insight. Growing up, I didn’t have much access to older gymnasts because there weren’t many around. I am not saying that these young lads don’t know what they are doing, because they do. But for little tips and tricks, they can come and talk to me.”

Whitlock’s contribution to the Europeans didn’t extend too far beyond advising his team-mates. During qualifying, his pommel-horse routine came to grief when he lost form during a late series of spindles. He was forced into an untidy dismount, and so failed to reach Sunday’s final.

He was “gutted” at the time, but shook it off quickly. “I’ve been to seven Europeans and made mistakes in four of them,” said Whitlock matter-of-factly. “Me and Scott [Hann, his coach for the last 16 years] looked at the bigger picture and spoke about the build-up and why we think the mistake happened. If the Europeans had gone perfect, you don’t learn too much.”

Whitlock’s comments reveal where his priorities lie – and that wasn’t in Basel. Over two previous Olympic cycles, he has timed his run perfectly. In London, he took bronze on pommel horse – one place behind his trailblazing friend and rival Louis Smith – plus another bronze in the team competition. In Rio, he upgraded to gold on pommel, while also winning the floor event and picking up bronze in the all-around.

So it was that Whitlock became Britain’s first Olympic gymnastics champion – and did it twice over. One day, he hopes to be mentioned in the same breath as serial winners from other sports. Mo Farah, perhaps, or Chris Hoy.

“I look up to people who have done it again and again,” he said. “I know from my own experience that it becomes 10 times harder after the first one. If you can repeat it, that’s a lot more rewarding.”

Hence his pragmatic decision not to defend his floor title in Tokyo. “It’s sad not to be part of that event,” admitted Whitlock, who has chosen to target another gold on pommel horse, while also performing on high bar and parallel bars in the team event.

“The thing is that I’ve tried my floor routine out at a few competitions, and it hasn’t been at the stage I wanted. After that, I shifted my focus, so as not to spread myself too thinly. I’ve had to be adaptable, because during lockdown, I was training on a pommel horse in the garden. But then nobody has had a smooth build-up going into these Olympic Games.

“For me, one of biggest challenges of Tokyo being delayed is that I am a year older,” Whitlock concluded. “It doesn’t sound a lot, but every year is more difficult. My body isn’t what it was at 18 or 22. I can’t train like I used to, so I’m still learning to get the balance right. It’s about longevity. I don’t want Tokyo to be the ultimate destination. I want to go on until Paris in 2024.”

Team GB athlete Max Whitlock unveiled the adidas kit for Tokyo 2020 at Somerset House, London on Thursday.