Kristian Thomas leads Britain to gold

MONTPELLIER, France -- The British men's gymnastics team is headed to the London Olympics on quite a roll.

Britain edged Russia at the European championships Saturday.

"Today's a really important step looking ahead to London, and a fantastic achievement," said Tim Jones, British Gymnastics' Olympic performance director. "There will be a lot of people who thought they would never see this day."

The British took the lead after the fourth event. But a fall by Max Whitlock on high bar, their last event, meant Kristian Thomas needed to score a 14.372 or better to hold off the Russians. He didn't disappoint, earning a 15.133 to give Britain the gold.

Britain, the runner-up two years ago, finished with 266.296 points. Russia scored 265.535 points, and Romania was third with 261.319 points.

"I didn't know what score I need on high bar," Thomas said. "I just knew I needed to go clear. ... The first ever senior championships title -- a great achievement."

Barely an afterthought a decade ago, the British have established themselves as a powerhouse entering their home Olympics. Louis Smith won the country's first Olympic medal in almost a century with a bronze on pommel horse in Beijing, and Daniel Keatings became the first Briton to win an all-around medal at a major championships with a silver at the 2009 worlds.

The British faltered at last fall's world championships, finishing 10th and failing to secure one of the initial spots in London. But they rebounded in spectacular fashion, winning a test event at The O2 Arena in January.

It is the first time the men qualified a full team for an Olympics since 1992, and the first time Britain will send both men's and women's squads to a Summer Games since the Soviet-led boycott in Los Angeles in 1984.

Britain has a chance to pile up even more hardware in Sunday's event finals. All five team members qualified for at least one final.

Defending champion Germany was weakened by the absence of Fabian Hambuechen and finished sixth behind Belarus and Ukraine, respectively.

France, third two years ago, has seen its chances for a medal disappear because of injuries. Thomas Bouhail, the 2010 world vault champion, will miss the Olympics after breaking his leg during training in December. France wound up eighth after Samir Ait Said injured his knee on the vault when he landed on his head and hands, scoring zero points.