Bulgaria's Veteran Gymnast Captivates Crowd
At 39, he is old enough to be most of the other gymnasts' fathers And yet on Saturday night, Yordan Yovchev captured the hearts and minds of everyone within the North Greenwich Arena.
By Paul Turner
North West Evening Mail
The silver-haired Bulgarian, with the chiselled physique and mercurial glint in his eye had the attention of everyone in the arena – spectators and fellow gymnasts alike.
Competing in his sixth Olympic Games – a record stretching back to Barcelona in 1992, when some of the athletes alongside him were not yet born – Yovchev had come to London to compete on just one piece of apparatus.
He stood on the sidelines, easily mistaken for one of the coaches far closer to his own age as his group rotated through the apparatus, watching patiently as they competed on the vault, the parallel bars, the horizontal bar and the pommel horse.
While others were tumbling, flying through the air and rotating with smooth grace as the final group of five nations looked to reach the men's team final, this veteran gymnast had come for the rings.
No-one else in the history of the sport has ever competed in six Games, but Yovchev has won four medals in his time – though never gold – and he still retains within him a strength of body and soul to push aside the pain and physical torture and be up there with the best of them.
When his time came, the whole area paused.
The applause that greeted him as he stepped forward and was announced to the crowd was befitting of a man held in the highest esteem in the sport.
All around the fringes of the competition area, gymnasts forgot their own purpose and watched this elder statesman at work. Even at 39, his grace and his strength have not diminished, though his flexibility is not that of a younger man.
He held himself in handstands, in the pike and dismounted with aplomb to a cheer that shook the rafters, his opponents standing and applauding with the thousands in the stands.
The veteran bore his teeth in a wide smile, his eyes bright and his hand coming to his mouth to blow kisses around the arena. It is hard to imagine even a British gymnast receiving such loud and wholehearted acclaim.
Now the crowd waited to see if the judges had decided whether this remarkable man deserved another day in the sun.
The result came up on the giant electronic screen hanging high above the arena floor – a score of 15.308 and he was eighth overall, in the last qualifying spot for the apparatus final. The cheers were deafening once more.
But there was no time for Yovchev to celebrate just yet, instead a nervous 20 minutes ahead.
Germany were still to go on the rings and they had four athletes who could knock Yovchev out.
The spectators sat watching as the competition continued, each with a part of their mind checking the scores to see if one of the German team had spoiled the party.
But none of them could do it, Marcel Nguyen the only man to come even remotely close and another special cheer went up when the arena announcer confirmed Yovchev had advanced.
So it is that a week today a 39-year-old Eastern European hero will step out to compete at the Olympics one last time.
Everywhere at London 2012 there are stories to be told and Yordan Yovchev's is one worth listening to.
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