Max Whitlock retains Olympic pommel title in Tokyo

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Max Whitlock rose to the occasion once again to successfully defend his Olympic pommel title at the Ariake Arena in Tokyo.

The 28-year-old went first in the eight-man final and posted a score of 15.583 that proved unbeatable, with Chinese Taipei’s Chih Kai Lee coming closest on 15.4, and Japan’s Kazuma Kaya winning bronze.

Ireland’s Rhys McClenaghan, who had topped the qualifying standings alongside Lee, came off the apparatus early in his routine and finished out of the medals.

Max Whitlock with his fellow medallists
Max Whitlock defended his title (Mike Egerton/PA)

Whitlock had swept out the Rio Games with the singular intention of emulating his Japanese idol Kohei Uchimura and launching a concerted bid to claim the all-around title.

But a pair of disappointing results on the floor convinced him to essentially shift all his focus to his most successful piece of apparatus for the remainder of the Olympic cycle.

Whitlock successfully defended his pommel title in Montreal in 2017, but McClenaghan confirmed his emergence as a major rival the following year, when he won his first major title at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

McClenaghan also won the European title in Glasgow, where Whitlock fell, and a tough year for the Briton ended in him narrowly losing his world title to China’s Xiao Ruoteng in Qatar.

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Undaunted by his apparent dip in form, Whitlock began to feel the benefit of his singular focus the following year, when he regained his world title in Stuttgart.

But the challenge to Whitlock was made plain during qualifying, when a minor mistake saw him qualify in a relatively lowly fifth out of eight finalists, his score of 14.9 comfortably eclipsed by both McClenaghan and Chinese Taipei’s Chih Kai Lee, who topped the standings on 15.266.

As so often in his career, the incredibly focused Whitlock provided a nerveless response, setting a standard that yet again none of his rivals were capable of meeting.

Whitlock said defending his title had been “a million times harder” than winning it for the first time in Rio.

“This is probably the most pressured environment I’ve ever been in,” he told the BBC.

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“Experience pays a lot in situations like this and I’m just incredibly happy and thankful for the journey that we’ve been on to get here.

“Going up first is hard. If you’re talking to any gymnasts, they know going up first is really difficult.

“Me and Scott (Hann, his coach) knew I had to go all out, I had to lay down a good score.”

Asked how it felt to now be a six-time Olympic medallist, Whitlock said: “Surreal. If you ever said that to me as a youngster growing up, I would have never believed you.”

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