LONDON — McKayla Maroney didn’t need to look at the scoreboard. Neither did Louis Smith.
The Olympic gold medals they were expected to win were going to someone else.
“It happens. It’s gymnastics,” Maroney said. “You can’t be perfect, and sometimes things don’t go as you planned.”
Maroney wound up with a silver on vault after a rare fall Sunday, while Smith was on the wrong end of gymnastics’ tiebreak rules for a second straight Olympics. Despite finishing with the same score as Krisztian Berki on pommel horse, the Hungarian got the gold and Smith the silver because Berki’s execution mark was a tad better.
Still, Smith was hardly going to complain.
Four years after giving Britain its first Olympic medal in 84 years, he now has three. What’s more, gymnastics has become such a big deal in Britain that the Duchess of Cambridge, formerly known as Kate Middleton, had a front-row seat for the first day of event finals. Teammate Max Whitlock won the bronze on pommel horse, giving the British three medals — the same number they won from 1908 to 2004, before the British renaissance began.
“I could have been standing here without a medal, tears running down my face,” Smith said. “I’ve got a second medal here. I’ve got three Olympic medals. All those years ago, I never thought I’d go to the Olympics, so I’m very happy right now.”
In the other event final, Zou Kai won his fifth career gold medal, defending his title on floor exercise. He already had one gold from China’s victory in the men’s team competition last week, and has three more from the Beijing Games.
He’s got a chance to duplicate his Beijing three-peat on Tuesday, when he tries to defend his Olympic title on high bar.
“I was really young and inexperienced in 2008. I was just a kid who focused on the competition,” Zou said. “I’m different now and wanted to be on top of the podium.”
So did Maroney.
The defending world champion on vault was considered pretty much a lock for the gold medal, which would have given the U.S. women three in the first three gymnastics events. Maroney never makes errors in training or in competition, and no one in the world comes close to her execution. She won her world title last year by almost a half-point and topped qualifying at these games by a similar margin.
“I wasn’t focused on getting a gold medal,” the 16-year-old said. “I just wanted to prove to everybody that I could hit two vaults and I could try to do my best for USA.”
Her first vault was the difficult Amanar — a roundoff onto the takeoff board, back handspring onto the table and 2.5 twisting somersaults before landing. She got such great height off the table the fans in the first few rows had to look up to see her. Her form was perfect in the air — legs pencil-straight, body tightly coiled.
She took a hop on her landing, and came down out of bounds. But even with that 0.3 deduction, Maroney still scored 15.866, including a whopping 9.666 for execution.
Another vault like that, and the gold was hers. But she appeared to land the second one on the back of her heels, and her feet slid out from under her. Maroney fell to the mat with a loud “plop!” drawing a gasp from the crowd.
“I kind of felt it right away when I didn’t get my full block,” she said. “It was a little bit off, and I just kind of stuck with it. I really didn’t know how to change it at that point.”
She scored just a 14.3, giving her an average of 15.083. Coach Arthur Akopyan tried to console her, but Maroney looked shell-shocked as Sandra Izbasa of Romania did two impressive vaults to claim the gold. It was Izbasa’s second Olympic gold, following her title on floor exercise in Beijing.
“I already knew that I pretty much only had the silver medal,” Maroney said. “I really didn’t deserve to win a gold medal if I fall on my butt.”
Smith made no such mistake, but the outcome was the same. And eerily similar to four years ago, when he dropped from second to bronze on a tiebreak.
“You have to take it with a pinch of salt,” Smith said. “If you watch it back on slow motion, you’ll usually see the best athlete won.”
The rivalry between Berki and Smith is one of the most riveting in gymnastics these days. While most gymnasts simply try and hang onto the pommel horse for dear life, looking like cowboys trying to wrestle a calf to the ground, Berki and Smith are artists. Tall for gymnasts — both are listed at 5-foot-10 — their long limbs and quiet elegance make their routines look almost balletic.
Berki has won the last two world titles, with Smith second in 2010 and third last year, and both knew the Olympic gold would come down to them.
Berki went first, looking like a propeller as his legs cut through the air. He swung with such precision and rhythm he could have doubled as a metronome, and his positioning was so perfect every American coach should have his routine on replay in the gym. When he finished, he clapped his hands and pointed to a raucous group of Hungarian fans who were waving their flag and alternating chants of “HUN-GA-RY!” with ones of “KRISZ-TIAN!”
“That was my goal, to come to London to win the Olympics,” Berki said. “I did my best to win and I could believe that I could win.”
But Smith was still to come.
His work on one pommel, so difficult because of the focus and consistency it takes, was exquisite. His lower body looked as if it was on a swivel as he swings his legs in perfect circles. The only sound in the arena was the slap, slap, slap of his hands on the horse. He picked up speed as he began to move across the apparatus, looking like a small plane readying to take off. But his control never faltered, and the crowd began cheering as he pushed into his dismount, pirouetting around the horse with his legs spread in a wide “V.”
Ever the showman, he picked up one of his hands for an added flourish, delighting the audience. But even before his marks posted, Smith knew the outcome.
“I knew straight away that it was going to come up in second place. I knew it,” Smith said.
Sure enough, despite scoring identical 16.066s, Berki won the gold because his execution mark was higher — by 0.10 points.
“You know, I did fantastic,” Smith said. “To be beat by Krisztian, he’s one of the best pommel performers in the world and to come in second to him at an Olympic games, that’s a good feeling.”
Even better to know the impact he’s had on British gymnastics.
Only a decade ago, qualifying for an Olympics or world championships was the best British gymnasts could hope for. Medals? In their dreams.
But Smith and Beth Tweddle sparked a transformation that has made the British a burgeoning force. The British men won a bronze medal, their first in the team competition since 1912, and gyms across the country have been inundated with calls from parents whose kids are begging to try the sport.
Tweddle could add even more to the pile Monday, when she competes on uneven bars.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Smith said, referring to Britain’s success. “A lot of people talk about missing out on your childhood, but I’ve got three Olympic medals. I’m only 23 years old and what a journey I’ve had.”