TV critic Lucy Mangan reviews the GB Olympics gymnastics team

Is it better than watching it on telly? Will the secret of their honed bodies be revealed?
‘The day I wake up with no aches or pains, I’ll be surprised’ … Danusia Francis (centre).
‘The day I wake up with no aches or pains, I’ll be surprised’ … Danusia Francis (centre). Photograph: Frank Baron for the
‘The day I wake up with no aches or pains, I’ll be surprised’ … Danusia Francis (centre). Photograph: Frank Baron for the
Lucy Mangan
Sun 15 Jul 2012 14.03 EDT

I have a folk memory of Olga Korbut (I wasn't born when she captured the world's imagination by being tiny, tearful and brilliant at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, but she was still being spoken of in maternal-reverential tones when I was old enough to understand conversations being carried on above my head).

I remember Nadia Comaneci too, after a fashion – her perfect 10 score at the 1976 Montreal games, the first ever awarded in Olympic competition, was one of the "fun facts" noted on the Halifax building society height-chart handed out to new savers in the early 80s. But I remember nothing more until Alexei Nemov in the 1996 Atlanta games – and if you don't, you were either too young, or too male and straight. Have a look on YouTube. We'll wait.

Gymnastics, even without the magnificently sculpted Russian practitioners, is the only sport that has ever held any appeal for me. (As a viewer, I mean: I've never come within a leotard's thickness of personal interest in any form of physical exertion.) It's probably because participants don't compete directly with each other, or race side-by-side – this is a pure battle between themselves and the equipment.

To someone born without an ounce of competitive spirit, this is profoundly welcome. You can simply sit there and marvel at the power, grace and beauty of the human body – so similar and yet so impossibly different from your own flabby fleshsack – and to hell with all the points chicanery and medal nonsense. It's also one of the events better suited to the intimacy of the small screen: one person, one piece of equipment, and none of the fevered atmosphere of track events that television customarily struggles to convey. If you pay attention, you can even begin to see the infinitesimally small differences between good, better and best, and start to feel like a minor expert in the discipline.

At the Heathrow Gymnastics Club in Middlesex, girls and boys from five to 18 are being put through their paces by patient, serious coaches. When I first walk in, a tiny boy in blue is balancing on one hand atop another boy's head. Even smaller children are flipping backwards and forwards along low balance beams (I'm going to assume their mothers are aware of this). Bigger ones, attached to wires and harnesses, are practising their moves on the uneven bars and rings.

Seeing them arrayed before you at different stages of training gives the effect of watching a single athlete's evolution, from soft-fleshed-but-iron-willed child to would-be Olympian, body as tough as her concentration, now practising harness- and wire-free on the bars proper.

Danusia Francis, 18, is one of four reserves for Britain's (artistic) gymnastics team. Her first experience of the sport, aged five, was when she went to a gym owned by her mum's friend after school. "It was one of the many things we tried to burn off my excess energy," she says, during a break in training. "I loved it. It was the buzz of learning new moves when, as a child, you normally can't do anything."

Now Francis travels all over the world and still loves it – as you would have to love anything that requires 25 hours' training a week, outside school hours. "Mind you," she says, "the day I wake up with no aches or pains in at least one part of my body, I'll be surprised. When you watch gymnastics and see how beautiful it is, with the sparkly leotards and glitter, you don't realise that most [gymnasts] are on Ibuprofen or something stronger."

I've always thought of the Olympics as a kind of super-event for super-beings, with all talk of pinnacles of human endeavour and achievement as so much guff. But it is not, and the proof is all around me. These are ordinary people made of blood, bone and sinew – not gamma-rayed or transformed by radioactive spiders, but by years and years of effort, discipline, passion and sacrifice. Perhaps sport lovers sense this instinctively, and that is what moves them too. Or maybe they just are the vicarious armchair glory hunters I always took them for.

Danusia Francis's cultural life

Films: Dodgeball and The Vow

Book: "I'm reading 50 Shades of Grey at the moment and it is good!"

Singer: Bluey Robinson

Play: The Importance of Being Earnest

comments (0)

Sign in or create your account to join the discussion.

comments (0)

Sign in or create your account to join the discussion.