But Olympic hero Louis Smith tells Mark Woods gymnasts are now more at ease with celebrity life
I’M ON my way to meet Louis Smith in the lounge of a boutique hotel. Prepping for updates on his gymnastics timeline, Google is my friend. Despite claiming his latest European title three months ago in a healthy adjunct to his three Olympic medals, the internet is front-loaded with tales of his love life and society appearances, incessantly chronicled by the paparazzi. This is not even the life of your average world-class sportsman. The 26-year-old has become a tabloid icon, transcendent from his craft.
In the flesh, Smith is all charm and eloquence. So immaculately groomed that I feel a splash of metrosexual envy. The millions who watched him gallivant around the ballroom floor for Strictly Come Dancing – or the thousands expecting to see him in action at October’s world championships in Glasgow – would, no doubt, imagine a born extrovert.
Rather, one who evolved through necessity, Smith underlines, in the wake of his return from Beijing seven years ago when a reserved teenager from Cambridgeshire was thrust under the spotlight and almost completely burnt out.
“I was just a normal kid: naughty, mischievous, dedicated but just off the wall,” he smiles, recounting his younger self with immense affection. “I used to tease people, do this and that. I went to Beijing and got a bronze medal and it was so significant, the first medal in 100 years. ‘Who was this Louis Smith?’ I came home as this local hero, people were writing about me, I was doing interviews and life changed.”
Not immediately for the better, he adds. It should have been elating. Instead, the adulation and attention was simply terrifying. “So there was no way to deal with it. It was ‘bang!’, I had kids outside my house, all that stuff. And I got very depressed, borderline needing to see someone for help.”
The support arrived, belatedly. More so, he dug in and matured, all the while thickening his skin. An agent steered him through the perils. In turn, sponsors arrived and he gradually acquired a persona at ease with pressing the flesh and facing the cameras.
“Campaigns, talks, going into schools,” he adds. “That prepped me for the life I’m living now, getting used to the spotlight, what to say, how to act. And when I do something wrong, I can learn from the mistakes. By the time 2012 came around, I was ready for the next step, going on Strictly, going on shows. And when I found a girlfriend who was in the public eye, I was ready for it.”
That other half is a graduate of the ITV series, The Only Way is Essex, an association that has completed Smith’s journey from the back pages to the gossip columns. He has taken it in his ultra-flexible stride. There are perks, invitations to indulge, additions to his endorsement portfolio. “It’s allowed me to not have a normal 9-5 job which is good.”
Those endeavours, and that of retired poster girl Beth Tweddle, have also blazed a trail. Success in gymnastics does not create millionaires, simply heroes. For those like his frequent Scottish team-mates Danny Purvis and Dan Keatings, a few quid for making an appearance here and there bridges the void between scraping by and sleeping easy, even with a modicum of Lottery support.
“For British Gymnastics, the situation a lot of the men and women are in now is fantastic,” Smith says. “We can promote ourselves and the sport. And that’s good because the younger ones can see what me and Beth have been through. There’s been hype around gymnasts. People know who they are. They’re getting sponsors as well. It’s moved into the mainstream so if they’re thrust into the celebrity life, it’s easier. Because I wouldn’t want anyone to be in the situation I was in.”
After maximising the opportunities presented after London 2012, ensuring he can top up his ambitions at Rio 2016 has again become the absolute priority. Sharing in a team gold at the Commonwealth Games has been followed by a continental title on the pommel horse. By the time Smith reaches Glasgow, he expects to be hitting his peak.
“I’ve got a Grand Prix in Croatia,” he says. “Then the London Open. Then I have two more internationals to get ready. And then two weeks before the worlds, they pick the team. It’s going to be late before we find out. It’s going to go down to the wire. But I’m looking forward to it.”