Tokyo 2020: History maker Rhys McClenaghan seventh in pommel horse

22-year-old left to rue an early mistake as Britain’s Max Whitlock takes gold medal

We came to witness sporting history no matter what and were left sharing some of the emotional struggle that was the performance of Rhys McClenaghan in his first Olympic gymnastics final.

McClenaghan had already become the first Irish finalist in the sport, only his performance in the men’s pommel horse let him down when he wanted it most as he lost control of the handles after just 10 seconds, falling chest-first onto the horse.

Taking most of the permitted 30 seconds to regain his composure, McClenaghan did finish off extremely well and ended with a perfectly clean dismount, only his despondent look said it all. He scored 13.200 and ended up seventh of the eight finalists. He had scored 15.260 in qualifying, which would have won him the bronze medal had he matched it here.

In truth the standard was incredible even by Olympic standards. Few Olympic events demand such high levels of physicality and technicality, that perfect execution and absolute strength of mind, and each pressed evenly against the other.


The eight judges scored him 6.400 on difficulty, 6.700 for his execution, only once he fell he knew his medal hopes were over. Although regaining his composure impressively it will surely make for a disappointing evening for the young man from Newtownards in Down, who only turned 22 two days before these Olympics began.

Afterwards McClenaghan was defiant, vowing the experience would see to him as he turns towards the Paris Games in three-years time.

He said: “I mean it didn’t go to plan, and that’s sport exactly. One finger placement went off and that was me off the horse. You know, that’s the finest of margins in gymnastics - one finger got caught under the handle and that was it, that knocked me off.

“But I’m standing here in front of you an Olympian, an Olympic finalist, the first-ever Irish gymnast to achieve that and to be honest, for me, I’ll be walking away from this a more dangerous man, a more dangerous man than ever before, because with disappointment comes an incredible amount of motivation and inspiration.

“And I know that, even after the Europeans didn’t go my way I brought myself to tears because I was thinking about how motivated I was for these Olympic Games and I know that I’m going to use the same tactic now, where I’m going to bring myself into that gym more motivated, more inspired than ever.

“And this is a long journey. This is the first chapter of my gymnastics career - it’s a young career yet - so there’s going to be many more Olympic Games and hopefully more gold medals wrapped around my neck.”

It was just before 7pm Tokyo time when they took to the floor in the near-empty arena: Eight finalists, McClenaghan going next to last, that long wait not likely to the nerves.

First into the arena was Max Whitlock from Great Britain, the 28-year-old defending Olympic champion and among the most decorated gymnasts of his time, 31 championship medals next to his name: he delivered an impressive 50-second routine that scored him 15.583, straightaway laying down a marker. His execution was a remarkable 8.583, and that combined score would win him a second Olympic title.

Alec Yoder from the USA was next up, scoring 14.566, before Wei Sun from China, who also fell off during and scored 13.066. Then came David Belyavskiy of the Russian Olympic Federation, who scored 14.833, moving him into second at the point.

So to Chih Kai Lee of Chinese Taipei, super impressive again, scoring 15.400, taking over second place at that stage. On to Kazuma Kaya from Japan, also calmly impressive 14.900, which earned him bronze.

McClenaghan was delivering a new routine, but he also fell off in his last competition, at the European Championships in Switzerland in April.

McClenaghan already made sporting history in becoming the first Irish gymnast to win a medal a senior medal at any event, at the 2018 European Championships, when he claimed gold in the pommel horse. In 2019, he went better again, the first Irish gymnast to win a medal at the World Championships when he won bronze in the pommel horse at the 2019 also securing his place in the Tokyo.

At the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, McClenaghan also won gold on the pommel horse, beating the reigning world and Olympic champion Max Whitlock by dint of higher execution score, after tying on overall scores. That was Northern Ireland’s first medal for an artistic gymnast at the Commonwealth Games.

A true trailblazer, he was unbowed in defeat: “I want to continue to raise the bar, be the first in a lot more things. Break down those barriers for the younger generation coming through, behind me, and surpass my achievements hopefully.

“That’s one of the main reasons I’m doing this sport, I’m proud to be here and proud to be an Olympian.”

Last weekend after qualifying with room to spare he said: This has been the best competition build up I have ever completed. And what a time to do it for my first Olympic Games. I know I have put 100 per cent into this, no regrets. I know and Luke (Carson, his coach) knows, I couldn’t be more ready. Now let’s compete in an Olympic Final.”

Only it wasn’t to be his best: Gymnastics has been part of the Olympic programme since the first modern Games of Athens 1896, and 125 years later McClenaghan still wrote a new chapter as a first Irish finalist, that medal hope having to wait until Paris 2024.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics