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Tweddle’s hat-trick achievement throws Rooney’s millions into sharp relief

Triple world champion Beth Tweddle (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Beth Tweddle secured both personal and team glory for Great Britain in Rotterdam by winning gold in the uneven bars, rounding off a day in which Louis Smith and Dan Purvis also won silver and bronze to ensure Great Britain’s best ever performance at a World Artistic Gymnastics Championships.

Despite being her favoured event, Tweddle was an underdog coming into the uneven bars final, having qualified behind reigning champion Ke Hexin and her Chinese teammate Huang Qiushuang. However, both Chinese girls fell during their routines, opening the door for her. Tweddle had fallen from the top bar during last year’s championships, and her nerves must surely have been jangling having seen her two biggest rivals fall immediately before her.

We should never have doubted her. Tweddle is a redoubtable competitor, consistently cool under pressure, and her difficult and varied routine was flawless, earning her a score of 15.733. Of the five other finalists who followed, only Russia’s Aliya Mustafina came close to matching the Briton’s score, registering 15.600. The USA’s Rebecca Bross was a distant third with a score of 15.066.

The 25-year old Tweddle is the only British gymnast to have won World Championship gold, and today’s victory marked her third such success, having triumphed on the same piece of apparatus in 2006 and on the floor last year.

It means everything to me to regain the bars title. I have worked so hard day in day out in the gym for this so I’m very proud. I wasn’t watching the previous routines but from the noise of the crowd I could tell the two Chinese girls ahead of me had fallen and so I tried to remain calm, but knew at that point that if I went clean I had a great chance of winning the title.

Earlier in the day, Dan Purvis had followed up his fifth place in the men’s all-around competition with a bronze medal on the floor, while Louis Smith took silver on the pommel horse, with a small error potentially costing him gold. Double Commonwealth gold medallist Imogen Cairns finished eighth in the final of the vault. Never before has the Great Britain team collected such a haul of medals at a single World Championships – and this was achieved without the injured Daniel Keatings, who won silver in the men’s all-around last year.

Gymnastics used to be a sport in which we were something of a laughing stock, where also-ran status was the best we could ever aspire to. In no small part due to the success of Tweddle, gymnastics is on the up and Britain can look forward to a ground-swell of support and medal expectations by the time the London 2012 Olympics comes around.

Nonetheless, it remains very much a minority sport in terms of the funding and commercial interest it generates. Last year, Tweddle received £25,000 in lottery funding, supplemented by a sponsorship deal with equipment manufacturer Gymnova worth about £10,000. That brings her total earnings to around £35,000 – similar to the average for a higher level NHS midwife, and less than a typical London tube driver. Or, to put it another way, in a week in which a certain England footballer somewhat cynically negotiated a new contract with Manchester United which, reportedly, has at least doubled his £90,000 per week basic salary, it would take Tweddle at least five years to earn what Wayne Rooney is now paid every week (and that is before you factor in his image rights and other commercial earnings).

Yes, I understand all the arguments that justify the incredible amounts top footballers are paid. I know the popularity and economics of football and gymnastics are on completely different scales – hell, they are on completely different planets – but is Rooney really worth 250 times what Tweddle is? One is a three-time world champion who has inspired a new generation to take up a sport they might otherwise have ignored in record numbers. The other has never made it past the quarter-finals of a major tournament.

As Tweddle told the Guardian last year:

If I was doing this for fame or money I would have retired a long time ago. As long as I keep doing what I love, training and competing in gymnastics, I don’t really mind. I’m very happy.

In so many ways, Beth Tweddle is a remarkable young woman. It is a tragedy that she has received so little financial recognition for her achievements.

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A floor paved with gold, but not with lucre

In all the fuss over Jenson Button, it’s easy to forget that he was not the only British sportsperson to become a world champion on Sunday.

Beth Tweddle rounded off a good showing by the British team at the World Artistic Gymnastics ChampionshipsDaniel Keatings also won silver in the men’s all-around competition – shaking off her disappointment after falling from the uneven bars (her strongest discipline) by winning gold in the floor competition.

In yesterday’s papers, Button attracted a huge number of column inches, certainly many times more than those devoted to Tweddle and the other gymnasts. Not surprising, given that he competes in such a glamorous global sport, and has the playboy lifestyle, the Monaco apartment and the Japanese lingerie model girlfriend to go with it.

Tweddle, on the other hand, will never be a lingerie model with her prominent, brace-laden teeth. She does not possess the cover-girl looks of cyclist Victoria Pendleton, the bubbly personality of swimmer Rebecca Adlington, or the heartwarming comeback story of heptathlete Jessica Ennis. It shouldn’t matter; of course, in reality it does, enormously.

Which is a real shame, because Tweddle deserves better. Whereas Button, despite taking a massive pay cut at the fledgling Brawn team this year, can still boast a multi-million pound contract, Tweddle earns around £25,000 a year in lottery funding, up to £10,000 from a sponsorship deal with equipment manufacturer Gymnova, and whatever else she can glean from assorted promotional and motivational appearances. In total, she earns less than many of us do – from a professional career with a highly restricted shelf life – and, at most, 1% of what Button does.

I say this not to knock the size of Jenson Button’s salary, but we are talking about Britain’s greatest ever gymnast here, a two-time world champion – that’s one more than Button – and a double gold medal winner at the European Championships earlier this year, who probably earns less than the average white-collar middle manager. And, as was the case with both Tweddle after her previous world title and Adlington post-Beijing, being a gold medallist outside of the mainstream does not automatically translate to serious earning potential.

It’s a clear and sad sign of where Tweddle’s achievement ranks in the public consciousness that, while Prime Minister Gordon Brown clearly had Button on speed dial, such was his haste to recognise the F1 champion-elect and bask in his reflected glory, it has taken 48 hours and the prompting of a national newspaper to elicit a similar letter of congratulations for the world champion gymnast.

And it’s not just about money. Since Button joined the Formula 1 ranks at the young (for F1) age of 20, he has been able to focus single-mindedly on his profession and benefitted from the support network which surrounds an F1 driver. Tweddle, on the other hand, has had to do it the hard way, making her way in a relatively minority sport with less than world-leading facilities and winning a world championship gold – on the uneven bars in 2006 – while still in full-time education (she graduated from Liverpool John Moores University in 2007 with a sports science degree). At 24, she is five years younger than Button, but practically at a pensionable age as a young woman in a sport historically dominated by teenage girls. She will hopefully compete at the London 2012 Olympics, but the odds will be stacked heavily against her.

At least Tweddle’s performance at the weekend will make her an outside contender – but no more than that – for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPotY) award in December. In fact, she has previous here, having finished third in the public vote (the first gymnast to achieve such dizzy heights) in 2006, beaten only by Zara Phillips and runner-up Darren Clarke in what was admittedly a less than stellar year for UK sport.

I will be surprised if she repeats a top three placing this year. Button is now being quoted at odds of 1/2 to win SPotY, with Ennis at 2/1 and all other contenders at 16/1 or longer. (Tweddle is joint sixth favourite at 33/1.) Button will probably prove the bookies right, but for me, in terms of achievement, Tweddle should be on a par with Ennis, both ahead of Button. However, as I have said before, none of them deserve the award as much as the man who, for me, has been the most dominant British sportsperson of 2009 by some considerable distance.

That would be Mark Cavendish. But in reality the Manx Missile has even less chance of winning SPotY than Tweddle.

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