With his designer stubble, poster-boy looks and a swagger undisguised by his official tracksuit, 22-year-old Louis Smith looks more like a pop star than an Olympian.
He’s even auditioned for the X Factor. “It was a bit of fun,” says Smith, insisting that gymnastics has always been his first love. “I had to make a decision when I was eight and got offered a scholarship in singing either to do that full time or carry on with gym. I chose gym.”
Simon Cowell’s loss was gymnastics’ gain. Four years ago, Smith became the first British man to win an Olympic gymnastics medal for a century when he won bronze in Beijing. He’s since added three European Championships silvers to his collection, but knows that to win gold at London 2012 he has to gamble: if he does a fiendishly difficult routine it could earn him top marks – but only if he completes it perfectly. By way of preparation he’s undergone a “relentless” seven months of competitions and training six days a week.
Which isn’t to say he’s entirely neglected his vocal cords. “He likes to be the centre of attention,” reveals team-mate Beth Tweddle. “In the gym, you’ll be training and suddenly he’ll break into song. If I broke into song, people wwould wonder what was wrong with me, but that’s Louis. You always wait to see what hairstyle he has. Some of the clothes he wears… But Louis can get away with it.”
“Louis is very much an individual,” agrees Team GB’s gymnastics performance director Tim Jones. “There are some members of our team who are gymnast purists for the love of the sport. Louis just absolutely loves to show everybody what he can do. He is the showman.”
This exhibitionist streak has won Smith plenty of attention, especially when he recently posed naked in a women’s magazine. “That got a lot of responses on Twitter,” confides Smith, mischievously. “Quite a few crude ones!”
Is it hard to stay focused? “It is tough not to get distracted sometimes, but I’ve got a job to do. Even women aren’t going to distract me from the Olympic Games.” So no girlfriends? “No girlfriends. I’ve been chatting to one or two girls that I’d like to go on a date with, but I’ve told them: nothing before the Olympics.”
As an aide-mémoire, he has a winged cross tattooed across his back and the words, “What I deserve I earn”. “I was 18 when I got it, and I’d just won a bronze medal at the World Championships and there were only a few months left to the Games in Beijing,” explains Smith, suddenly serious. “What you put into life, you get out. Nothing is going to be handed to you. You have to work hard for it.”