Friday, 28 September 2012

London 2012: A Month to Remember

Never before have I been so pleased to be living in a certain place at a certain time than the last two months. Typically, the British public judge the success of the summer by the weather; there’s nothing quite like a rainy August to stimulate that portion of the British psyche that is predetermined to have a good moan. Even when the sun does decide to make a cameo appearance and dares to lift the temperature above 25 degrees, we suddenly realise that we have to go on the Underground, wear a suit and go to work and that we actually loathe the heat and the snow in equal measure. As a nation, we do not cope well with change, be it climactic or otherwise and our coping mechanism is to ridicule ourselves in the media (leaves on the track, hosepipe bans) and to have a good old moan. This, as Britons, is what we do and quite frankly, we do it well.
Which is why this summer has been so surprising on more than one count. The British public, for the first time in living memory, have not been moaning or even talking about the weather. What is more, not only have we not been moaning, but we have actually been actively positive, led by the media, who have departed from their usual strong-points of amplifying failure and fostering negativity.

My Olympic mindset has been positive since THAT announcement in 2005, whilst many others have been expressing highly credible doubts centred on everything from finances to transport to medal counts. I even planned my holiday for the 16th August so that it acted as a slightly alcoholic filling to an Olympic and Paralympic sandwich. Even I, however, an eternal optimist and hopeless patriot, could not have imagined how truly incredible that sandwich would turn out to be. The Paralympics warrant a blog to themselves, so for now I will concentrate on the Olympics and attempt to pick 5 highlights that for me, define a truly unforgettable summer.

The Olympics started off for me with a trip to Hyde Park to watch the cycling Road Race on the big screen, full of the hope and expectation generated by Team Sky’s captivating success in the Tour De France. The atmosphere in front of the big screen was electric, but Cavendish and Co were just a few kilowatt short when it really mattered. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who, at that point, tried to ignore the familiar feeling that a summer of plucky defeats, sporting disappointment and anti-climax could well be just around the corner. The disappointment of yet another Olympic wound for Cavendish was not the only thing that started slowly sowing the seeds of doubt in my mindset of boundless positivity that the Opening Ceremony had harvested. The grim inevitability of Paula Radcliffe’s withdrawal from the Marathon did not make it any easier for me to take; if there was one competitor who I could guarantee a medal it would have been Radcliffe, for more reasons that I could possibly outline here. To those foolish enough to label Radcliffe a quitter, or worse, I challenge you to step onto a treadmill, set it to top speed of 20KPH and see how long you last before re-assessing your opinion on the greatest female marathoner the world has ever seen. Radcliffe maintains that speed for 26.2 miles- most of us would not last for 1. The fact that the world record she set in 2003 still stands unbroken cements her place as a true great of British sport. In a world where we idolise mediocre footballers, the best of whom would still probably not make the top 100 of all-time, the tag of ‘world’s greatest’ should command immediate respect and adulation. If I ever have the pleasure of meeting Paula, this is exactly what she shall get.

It didn’t take long for early disappointments, however, to be cast aside as triumph after triumph began to slowly reinforce an ever-growing belief that London 2012 might just prove to be something special. Previously ‘normal’ Brits were catapulted into the nation’s consciousness through a combination of their own strength and ability and the vigour with which the media embraced the success these athlete’s were providing. John Inverdale’s emotion, Burt Le Clos’ paternal pride, Colin Murray living every twist and turn of the Team Gymnastics; the TV and radio coverage was nothing short of exceptional.
1) Never before did I think that men’s gymnastics could be so thrilling, but for me this provides the first of my five carefully selected highlights of the Games. Watching Kristian Thomas’ final floor round felt like watching my beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers take a penalty in a big game and to see the sheer joy and emotion on the face of Team GB when they realised that they had won Britain’s first gymnastics medal in a century brought a tear to my eye. It was at this point that I realised the Olympic spirit had well and truly consumed me, stripping away any small semblance of masculinity at the same time; if voluntarily watching male gymnastics is bad enough, then having a tear in your eye surely permanently erases any man points that any amount of drilling, soldering or playing rugby can help amass. It may not have been gold, but the success of Team GB’s gymnasts really set the tone for what was to come. The rest, thankfully, didn’t fail to disappoint.

2) The second highlight is a predictable one, but provided me with my first of four visits to the sprawling Olympic Park and a day I will never, ever forget. The week leading up to ‘Super Saturday’ not only saw the TV in our flat permanently tuned to BBC, but our laptops, ipads and iphones constantly refreshing the London 2012 ticket webpage in an endless quest for athletics tickets. One of Mo Farah’s two finals was the dream and if I was DiCaprio and could construct my own, it would have been a Farah/Ennis double-header. The chance to see potentially two historic track gold medals would be fantasy stuff. Three was simply inconceivable.
As the week wore on, British medals continued to mount up and the F5 key on my laptop continued to wear down, along with my patience. Myself and my flatmate Matt must have spent more than 10hrs sitting waiting for the payment details page to load, to no avail. Never before have I been so keen to part with my credit card details. By 11pm on Friday night, following another exhilarating day including Ennis’ blistering hurdles success, our expectations were low. The feeling when, with only 19 hours to go until the evening session began, we managed to secure two tickets, was as good as winning a medal itself. Little did we know that, continuing the growing theme of this Olympics, the real thing was going to be so much more memorable than we could have ever imagined.
What Ennis, Rutherford and Farah achieved that night will go down as one of the greatest nights in British sporting history. Ever. Team GB won one athletics gold medal in the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing. On Saturday 4th August, the world witnessed three in less than two hours. For me, Ennis’ finish to the 800m summed up the attitude of Team GB competitors throughout the Games; why finish third, even if that’s all she needed for gold, when she could finish first. If Ennis had already captured the hearts of the nation going into that race, in the final 200m as she powered past her two rivals, she threw away the key. Farah’s 10,000m performance was similarly dominant, except instead of an electric final 200m, he provided an electric (and ear-splitting) final three laps. The atmosphere in the stadium for his final 400m was like nothing I have ever experienced; like hyper-extending those few seconds of ecstasy when your football team scores a winning goal into 52 seconds of sustained jubilation. The look on Farah’s face when he crossed the line said it all- he had created history and achieved his dream, with the potential of more still to come. Greg Rutherford’s seismic leap turned a truly great night of British sport into quite simply the greatest. To witness it first hand was genuinely an honour.

                3) If there was one arena that I was gutted not to have been able to visit it was the Velodrome. Those lucky enough to visit the Medal Factory, as the press began to dub it, were almost guaranteed to witness not only a British gold but also a world record, such was their regularity. Great Britain’s domination of the Velodrome makes my third highlight an unusual decision, as it stems from one of the only races that cycling’s General Dave Brailsford and his army of performance coaches would have been disappointed with. Amongst the loot of gold medals collected by Trott, Hoy, Kenny and Co, Victoria Pendleton’s first two finals made for bittersweet viewing, in that order. Bitter disappointment for Pendleton and her partner Jess Varnish with disqualification from the team sprint, followed by the sweetest of victories over arch-rival Anna Meares in the Keirin. Pendleton’s third final of the Games, in the individual sprint, was to be her last competitive outing on a bike and after a glittering career, including 9 world titles and two Olympic goals, we expected a glorious golden swansong. But it wasn’t to be; a controversial decision to overturn the outcome of the first heat swung the contest in the Australian’s favour and from then on, she never looked like letting Pendleton get close. We expected to see heartbreak, despair and anger from Pendleton as she dismounted, but the prevailing emotion, clearly evident throughout the tears, was sheer uncontained relief. For me, this was fascinating, giving us more of an insight into the story behind an athlete than any gold medal ever could. Those familiar with Pendleton’s story will know that her father’s desire for her to become a cyclist has been one of the driving forces behind her chosen career and at times, a force that has been overbearing. This, alongside the well-publicised friction and subsequent isolation following the post-Beijing revelations of her relationship with one of her coaches, perhaps explains her relief at her departure from the sport. What made it all the more remarkable for me, however, was how instantaneous and visibly powerful that relief was to anyone watching at home. Disappointment seemed to be entirely overshadowed by the escape that finishing the race provided her; I get the feeling that regardless of the colour of her medal, the reaction would have been identical. To witness such as high-profile sportswoman, a national icon, react in such a way provided a fascinating insight into the pressures of high-profile sport. For me, Pendleton’s release was one of the truly unique Olympic moments that will stay imprinted in my mind long after the furore over gold medals has subsided.

                4) For my penultimate highlight I am straying away for the first time from Team GB. As incredible as Bolt undoubtedly was, in my opinion there was one performance that stood out above any other as a shining example of pure athletic power, speed and grace. David Rudisha quite simply re-wrote the record books and tore up the 800m manual with both his time and his uniquely bold tactics. The 800m is a balance between pure speed and stamina- Rudisha had both in abundance. His race plan involved running the first 400m as fast as he possibly could, then simply trying to sustain that throughout the final lap. Not only did he succeed, but he succeeded in incredible style, smashing the world record in 1:40.91 and living up to his billing from Lord Coe as ‘the most impressive track & field athlete at these games’.
Such was the brilliance of Rudisha’s performance that he virtually pulled his competitors along behind him; only one of the eight finalists did not record a personal best in that race and no one has ever run faster to finish last in an 800m final than GB’s Andrew Osagie. Like Michael Johnson’s 400m and Bolt’s 100m records, Rudisha’s time is not likely to be beaten in quite some time- except perhaps by himself.

                5) My fifth and final highlight came on a night where Jamaica yet again proved that they are the undisputed sprint kings, blowing the USA away with a blistering performance in the 4x100m relay and ensuring London 2012 claimed yet another world record. I will keep my analysis of Mo Farah’s 5000m master class brief, as it is difficult to put into words the sheer brilliance of the first Brit to ever claim the 5k and 10k double. The pace of the race was slow (although it seems ridiculous to even think about writing that) which makes Farah’s tactical brilliance all the more impressive. Every athlete in that race was capable of running Farah’s winning time. Only Mo, however, was capable of running that final 400m. To hold his nerve for the entire race, confident that his finish would draw the strength out of his opponents’ legs, proved that Farah is not only an astonishingly talented runner but also an intelligent and courageous man. It is this blend of talent, fitness, guts and intelligence that forms something we Brits have always felt we’ve been desperately short of: a winner. London 2012 proved that if we broaden our search beyond the usual radius of football, rugby and cricket, we actually have an abundance of them just waiting to be discovered.

                You may be able to tell from having read this that I enjoyed the Olympics. The memories of both the sporting drama and the general atmosphere in London will stay with me for quite some time. Hopefully, the positivity and feel-good factor generated by the whole Olympic experience will be as enduring as the memories. The objective of London 2012, we were told, was to ‘inspire a generation’; quite frankly, if the events we were lucky enough to witness this summer do not inspire the youth of Great Britain into bettering themselves, be it through the sporting arena or elsewhere, then nothing will. Roll on Rio in 4 years.

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