Sunday, August 05, 2012

Cheers, Tears and Souvenirs


What a day that was, drama, excitement, tears, the national anthem played more times in one day than you usually hear in a normal year. From Eton to the Aquatic Centre to the Velodrome to the Millennium Stadium and finally to the Olympic Stadium itself for those of us who steadfastly refused to be moved from our living rooms for the best part of twelve hours it was extraordinary.

Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hosking won the women's lightweight double sculls with the sort of display that set the tone for the day, edge of the settee shouting at the tv screen, hoping that they would hold off the challenge from the Chinese pair as the finishing line and their opponents grew closer by the stroke. Katherine Copeland's reaction - see above - was the first great image of the what was to be a memorable day for Team GB, the realisation of what they had just achieved may not be clear for several days but the sheer human reaction to the expending of so much physical and mental energy was fully realised at the moment Sophie Hosking stood up in their boat and turned to congratulate her team mate. Extraordinary stuff.

Copeland and Hosking weren't even the first medal winners of the day, that honour had gone to the Team GB's men's coxless four who rowed the smoothest of smooth races and completely dominated their opponents.

The first tears of the day came after a dramatic men's lightweight double sculls. The drama began within thirty seconds of the start when the British duo stopped rowing because Zac Purchase's seat had broken. Once the seat had been repaired the race was restarted and the drama began to unfold as the British duo set out to dominate not only the race but also the changing conditions and their opponents. With the finishing line getting ever closer the pair were finally caught by the pre-race favourites from Denmark but that wasn't even the end of the events. Zac Purchase remained in his seat for so long after the race had finished that he had to be asked three times by race officials to leave the boat. When the pair did eventually reach the pontoon at the side of  the course Purchase had spent every last drop of emotional and physical energy completing the race and was clearly physically distressed he had to be assisted from the boat by Sir Steve Redgrave who during the rowing events has had to help more than one athlete either out of their boat or along the pontoon to the medal ceremony. Purchase eventually found his way, with Redgrave's help, to stand before the nation and John Inverdale. Purchase, in that typically British way, apologised to everybody before breaking down in tears, it was difficult to watch and even more difficult for Inverdale who was also briefly lost his stiff upper lip and had to compose himself again before turning to the camera and saying, "It's so much harder when you know the people personally." We didn't know at the time how prophetic a statement that would be over the next ten hours.

So much in sport, and life, is taken for granted that occasionally you have to sit back and reflect for a moment on what you have just witnessed. I suspect that next Sunday when the closing ceremony is still a fresh memory we will all be doing a little of that but Saturday provided ample opportunities for dwelling on the feast of sporting greatness that was presented to us.

Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian ever. It's an irrefutable fact.  The moment that the American team won the 4x100m medley relay Phelps headed off into the golden sunset of retirement and took with him a mindblowing 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold, from four Olympic Games, there was also the small matter of World Championship medals which when added to his Olympic collection brought a total of over fifty medals in major championships. Phelps was the most successful swimmer at these games as well, not bad for somebody over whom so many doubts had been cast before the swimming began last Saturday.

The tears at the Aquatic Centre though weren't for Phelps but for Team GB's womens 4 x 100m medley relay team. We had just witnessed the US team win their first relay gold medal in this event since Sydney, they had also set a new world record time and as had happened so many times during the weeks racing in the pool we had been witness to something very special. The British ladies finished eighth, it wasn't a bad performance given the quality of the opposition and to put their achievement in some perspective the Brits have had twenty three finalists in these games, compared with single figure finalists just four Olympics ago.

Britain's original swimming  golden girl Sharon Davies was interviewing our team when Fran Halsall happened to say, "The support that we've had this week has been unbelievable, and the crowd have been unbelievable. I'm just a bit disappointed that I haven't been unbelievable this week."  That was the moment when the floodgates opened, not only in Stratford but also on our settee. As Sharon Davies tried to remain professional whilst blubbing, "Don't say that you've been all been unbelievable," a nation (or at least the men of a certain age) wanted to reach through the television screen and pull her closer.  It was pure unscripted  theatre. As three of the members of the team trudged off for their swim down Halsall reached over the barriers that separate competitors from the media and drew Davies closer. The camera then cut to Claire Balding and Mark Foster who were both clearly moved by the scene.

Balding, Foster and Ian Thorpe have been the highlights of the broadcasting coverage in this first week. Whilst the coverage presented by the Olympic Broadcasting Service has not always been up to the standard of the BBC, Sky or ESPN the presentation, insight and professionalism of these three has been outstanding. Coupled with the knowledgeable commentary of Andy Jameson and Adrian Moorhouse the Aquatic Centre has been a centre of broadcasting excellence.

If the swimming hasn't produced as many medals as we would have liked the velodrome has been the gift that keeps on giving.

The woman's team pursuit trio of Dani King, Laura Trott and Joanna Rowsell are something special. In the presence of Sir Paul McCartney these three ladies proved to be the fab three of track cycling as they set a world record in the final against the United States and in doing so set a world record for the sixth consecutive race in which they have competed.

The U.S team had looked lopsided in terms of ability in the earlier rounds whilst the British team were riding perfectly, as if they were riding on one bike. It's not often that you see in the final of a major competition pursuit final the team in first place do dominant over their opponents but the British trio were more than five seconds ahead of their rivals for the gold medal.

"It's mad," said Trott. "I can't believe it. It's been my dream since I was eight. We've gone and done it. I don't think we expected it."

There wasn't too much pressure on Jess Ennis coming into these games was there? Billed as the poster girl for the games by Lord Coe, visible up and down the country on billboards and on television adverts and in magazines she is to London 2012 what the great Michael Johnson was to Atlanta 1996.

For somebody carrying the hopes and dreams of a nation, not to mention the dreaded legacy word, she looked remarkably calm throughout the heptathlon but boy that 800 metres was to produce the first iconic track and field moment of these games.  With such a lead going into the final event, something like 13 seconds in hand over her nearest serious medal rival, she could have done what gold medalists in this event usually do and turn it into a lap of honour whilst trundling in at the back of the field. Instead she decided to repay the overwhelming public support and backing she has received before, during and after these games by putting herself in a potential winning position with 200 metres to go and then as she came off the final corner and onto the home straight she kicked for home and you finally knew what it's like to be a member of the hosting country watching your golden girl come home to glory.

When I was at junior school we had an enterprising headmaster called Mr Trenchard. Mr Trenchard was a war baby, the First World War, had served ine WW2 and was one of that generation that believed strongly in competitiveness but more importantly in having the opportunity to take part in sports. The school was divided into four houses and every pupil in every class of each of the years from five year olds through to eleven year olds when you left for 'big school' was in one of the houses. In the Autumn of 1968 Mr Trenchard put a television set in the assembly hall and that television set was on from the moment school opened to the moment school closed for each day that the Olympics from Mexico City were showing in all their crackling black and white glory. We marvelled at the performances of Jim Haines, David Hemery, Tommie Smith, Dick Fosbury and of course Bob Beamon. 

In 1984 when the games were based in Los Angeles we saw Carl Lewis win the long jump, something he would repeat at Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta, Carl Lewis certainly owns the long jump pit in Olympic terms. To Beamon, Lewis and the likes of Ralph Boston, Lynne Davies and Irving Saladino we can add the name of Greg Rutherford. Up until last night the only claim to fame the Rutherford household had in terms of sporting history was the fact that Greg's grandfather is the oldest player ever to play for Arsenal but his fourth round jump of 8.31 metres lifted the family into the history books and a place in sporting history that whatever happens in the future of sport will be there forever, older players may turn out for the Gunners but there will only ever be one winner of the 2012 Olympic games long jump.

You have to stop and think about that don't you. A list of winners from 1968 that reads, Beamon, Williams, Robinson, Dombrowski, Lewis, Lewis, Lewis, Lewis, Pedroso, Phillips, Saladino, Rutherford.

Mo Farah looked more relaxed than any athlete I have ever seen before the start of a middle to long distance race last night. Before the start of the 10,000 metres he looked like a man who had all the fear sucked out of his body and it replaced by an overdose of euphoria and optimism. At one point I thought he was actually asking the crowd to calm down, such was the level of intensity but once the race got started it was business as usual.

The first twenty odd laps of the race seemed to be playing out much as the cycling road race had on the opening Saturday, just as nobody wanted Cav to win, even at the expense of their own glory, so it seemed that the other athletes in the race had all got in a giant huddle in the warm-up area and decided that it was a case of ABM (anyone but Mo). This was a race devoid of any tactics other than trying to actually race as little as possible, the lap times went up and down like the knickers of an athlete the Olympic village (see the autobiography of Dawn Fraser if you want confirmation of the collusion between athletes and officials when it comes to sex at the games) and you did worry that Mo might get kicked out of the race.

Brendan Foster though offered words of comfort in that reassuring Geordie accent of his and told us that 'Mo is running the perfect race, he's in control." And 'big Bren' was right. Mo had it all planned out. In fact the closest he came to calamity was after crossing the finishing line when he nearly rolled over into the giant globule of spit that running partner and silver medal winner Galen Rupp had deposited on the track. Both Nathalie and myself were shouting at the scream as Mo toyed with Galen's phlegm, "Watch out Mo!"

The national day of cheering and tears wasn't over yet though. There was one more ceremony to be performed and that was the crowning of Jessica Ennis. As the strains of the National Anthem faded into the Stratford night John Inverdale asked Denise Lewis for her thoughts and poor Denise dissolved like a cube of reality in a cup of hot patriotism, she was gone.

It was the most successful day for the British at the Olympics since before the First World War and it ended with the wonderful news that in terms of GDP per medal we were winning that particular table as well. We are also twelve medals ahead of the same stage in Beijing and I can't help being reminded of the Spanish who, in Barcelona in 1992, won more medals in their home Olympics than they had won in the previous eleven games.


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