Tokyo Olympics: Max Whitlock backs Team GB to impress the nation, as do England’s heroes at Euro 2020

Max Whitlock knows better than anyone how the achievements of our Olympians can captivate the country.

When the Team GB gymnast received his second gold medal from that dazzling day in Rio five years ago, a staggering 10.4 million people watched the box at home – the largest British television audience for the first full week of those Games.

That buzz was sadly lacking in the lead up to Tokyo 2020, with the chaos of the coronavirus causing widespread panic and banning fans from participating.

Max Whitlock (above) will bid this summer to retain his Olympic title as a bowed horse in Tokyo

Whitlock is confident Team GB athletes' efforts at the Olympics will grip the nation

Whitlock is confident Team GB athletes’ efforts at the Olympics will grip the nation

But in Britain at least, Whitlock is confident that the efforts of our athletes will grip the nation just as the England football team did – extending the summer of fun after months of pandemic woes.

“The Olympics could have a huge impact on the nation,” Whitlock told Sportsmail after posing for photos on his bowed horse carrying patriotic red, white and blue torches.

“There are very few things that do it, but sport is something that brings people together and leads to conversation. It’s great to see people really get behind something and that’s what the Olympics do.

“I feel like it has come at a perfect time and hopefully it will bring the nation together. Everyone seems to love the Olympics and it will be watched in history.”

Whitlock knows all about that. By finishing best in the floor and pommel horse on the same afternoon, he became the first British athlete to win two Olympic golds in one day since rower Hugh Edwards in 1932. Not that he realized the enormity of his achievements at the time .

The athletes hope to follow England's success at Euro 2020 and extend the summer full of fun

The athletes hope to follow England’s success at Euro 2020 and extend the summer full of fun

“Everyone laughs at me because when I won my second gold, my party was literally like…,” Whitlock says, mimicking his subdued punch.

“As a person, I don’t think too much about what I’ve done and what it means. I have more goals and I guess that’s why I didn’t really see the sheer magnitude of what it was.

“I’ve barely looked back, which seems odd. I think the first time I looked at it was a year to the day in 2017. Looking back, it doesn’t feel like me. I feel nervous, even though I know the outcome.

‘I don’t look at my medals that much either. Maybe when I retire and it really hits me that I’ve stopped competing, maybe I’d sit down and think about my career. But it certainly hasn’t sunk in yet. Hopefully that will come someday.’

Maybe another gong from the queen is needed. After his brilliance in Brazil, Whitlock received an MBE at Buckingham Palace from Her Majesty.

But BBC presenter Gabby Logan, herself a former international gymnast, was among the social media users who called the Basildon-dwelling boy to become Sir Max. So maybe he can be knighted if he wins number three?

Unfortunately, the buzz was missing in the run-up to Tokyo 2020 due to the coronavirus

Unfortunately, the buzz was missing in the run-up to Tokyo 2020 due to the coronavirus

“It would be pretty cool if I could,” Whitlock beams. ‘I’m not going to say that wouldn’t be good! Any recognition of that kind is incredible. I never expected an MBE, but it was an incredible feeling to actually get it.

“I got it from the Queen herself, which was a very surreal experience. So if anything else comes through what I’ve accomplished, that would be a huge honor.”

Should Whitlock retain his Olympic title as a pommel horse in Tokyo – he’s not trying the floor this time – he admits it would surpass his double in Rio, as he is now 28. Research has shown that the average age of male gymnasts to win Olympic medals is 24 .

After his brilliance in Brazil, Whitlock was awarded an MBE from the Queen

After his brilliance in Brazil, Whitlock was awarded an MBE from the Queen

“I think it will be even more rewarding because of everything that comes with it,” admits Whitlock, who also won bronze at the all-around event in Rio and two bronzes in London 2012.

“Every year that goes by, it gets harder and harder. I had to learn about my body. He can’t train like he used to, so I have to be very smart with what I do.’

Three-time Olympian Whitlock is now the veteran of the British men’s team. He has been selected along with three Games debutants: 25-year-old James Hall and Giarnni Regini-Moran and Joe Fraser, both 22.

“They make sure they remind me too,” Whitlock laughs. “But they can joke all they want, it’s something I’m actually pretty proud of – that I’m 28 and still going and that I’m still at the level I want to be.

“It feels weird that I became one of the younger guys on the team not too long ago and have been the oldest for a few years now.

“But it’s important for me to enter Tokyo like it’s my first. I focus on looking ahead rather than looking at what I’ve done in the past. Right from the back of that day in Rio it was “OK, what’s my next target”.

‘What also helps me is not to see Tokyo as a final destination. I want to move on to Paris 2024. Knowing that is an important part of not putting too much pressure on myself in Tokyo.’

A TV audience of 10.4 million saw the Team GB gymnast claim gold in Rio five years ago geleden

A TV audience of 10.4 million saw the Team GB gymnast claim gold in Rio five years ago geleden

Now, when Whitlock is the big brother of Team GB’s men’s quartet, he is the father of two-year-old daughter Willow at home, another big change in his life after Rio.

Whitlock and his wife Leah originally planned for Willow to travel to Tokyo before the pandemic paid for those plans.

“With the time difference, we probably only get one small window to chat with Willow, which is going to be difficult,” Whitlock adds.

“When she watches me on TV she knows it’s me and she knows I do gymnastics, which is cool and she loves it herself. She’s started preschool gymnastics classes and she’s doing a lot of forward rolls at home and trying handstands, which is fun to watch.

“Hopefully she sees me on TV and gets all excited.” Willow Whitlock won’t be alone.

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