Le Pennec emerges from the shadows

Russia's Svetlana Khorkina was the clear favourite to win gold in the women’s uneven bars. She had won the Olympic title in both 1996 and 2000, and her run of successes stretched back a decade, including five world titles.

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Now 25, Khorkina was considered a veteran in gymnastics terms, but there was no doubt she still had the skill, style and fitness to achieve a third consecutive title. So it came as a huge shock when she made a major error midway through her routine, losing her grip and failing to finish a swing. She carried on, but her score of 8.925 was good enough only for eighth position in the final standings.

With the Russian out of the running, the scoreboard took on a completely new complexion Just before Khorkina’s calamitous performance, French teenager Émilie Le Pennec had completed her first routine. The 16-year-old had represented France at the world junior championships and had also been a member of the French team at the world championships; while her results had been encouraging, she had never produced anything spectacular. That was about to change.

Le Pennec had finished 14th in the individual all-around and was part of the French all-around team that took sixth place. She was to compete in the beam, vault and also in the floor exercise, but in none of them would she get anywhere near a medal.

Her main hopes lay in the uneven bars and she had chosen a particularly demanding routine for the Olympic Games, performing it wonderfully to secure a total of 9.687. If it hadn't been for Khorkina, it would have attracted more attention at the time but, now that the Russian was out of the frame, the world suddenly began to take close notice of this young French gymnast and, with nobody else able to better her score, she suddenly found herself crowned as the Olympic champion.

It was the first time France had won a gymnastics gold for 80 years. Terin Humphrey and 2002 world champion Courtney Kupets of the USA finished second and third to complete the podium line-up.

Le Pennec went on to win gold on the uneven bars at the 2005 European Championships, but then found her career curtailed by a series of injuries. She retired from the sport in September 2007, while still a teenager.


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