It was a magical, unforgettable night. These are relatively lean times for British athletics, and the success of the London Games from a sporting perspective would inevitably rest heavily on performances in the main stadium. If the track and field contingent failed to deliver, achievements elsewhere might be overshadowed by the subsequent inquest. With so few world class competitors, the weight of this intense burden fell on the shoulders of a small, elite group. The prospect of buckling under the strain was very real.
Three gold medals later, the single greatest session in Olympic history for the host country, and the reputation and legacy is secure. Pressure comes in many forms, the manner in which it is handled defines careers and creates legends. For Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah, the expectations must have burned deep, the prospect of failure almost too ghastly to contemplate. Placed in the context of grim reality, their tribulations were meaningless. Yet this is where sport and life merges. Their struggles and sacrifices are viewed through an altogether more substantial lens, one which projects the essentially trivial beyond its material form. Whether the hyperbole is ever justified is irrelevant. This is what the gathering is all about, the distillation of the human experience. The power of sport to uplift, to unify and to transform was never more vivid.
As a multi-discipline athlete, Ennis had a thousand technical details with which to grapple. The capacity for something to go wrong was palpable. A solid start was essential. To use the energy of the crowd to fuel a personal best in her first event, posting a time over the high hurdles so rapid it might have threatened the podium in the individual contest, was confirmation of her mettle. Towered over by many of her rivals, you got the impression of dynamic force, a power to weight ratio of immense proportions. The face of 2012 honour carried with it an onerous responsibility. After all, for every Cathy Freeman there was a Liu Xhang. What might have proved an ordeal became a glorious coronation. The opposition wilted; the 800m finale permitted her two laps of honour.
Farah had to contend with a different challenge. The most arduous track discipline puts tactics as well as stamina to the test. With the atmosphere inside the cauldron already electric, he had to shut out the maelstrom of anticipation and run his own race. He knew his schedule, his limitations, yet the Kenyans and Ethiopians were loath to relinquish their grip on the long distance crown and made it an uneven pace, full of bustling and barging, injections of tempo and constantly changing positions. There was a serenity amid the chaos. Farah, his matchstick frame surging ahead as the bell invited the finishing kick, had never ceded control. The hopes we had invested in this calm and unassuming man had been splendidly realised.
Carried on the tide was long jumper Greg Rutherford. His face had not been plastered on advertising hoardings and promotional detritus. Shielded from the unremitting glare that had focussed on others, he saw an opportunity and grabbed it. His winning leap was the shortest to have claimed gold since 1972; indeed he managed only 24cm further than Lynn Davies, Britain’s last Olympic Champion in the sand almost half a century ago. It mattered not. The standard may have been weak this time but he exploited the chance to join the roll of honour. In his case, the pressure was only that which swirled within.
Added to the previous triumphs in rowing and cycling, this momentous evening took Britain’s gold rush to six over the course of the day. Memories of Games gone by, my youthful recollections of Moscow, Los Angeles and Seoul, and later Barcelona and Atlanta, this was more than we achieved over the entire fortnight. We have come a long way, even if our stuttering start in London caused a little apprehension, and on this night we realised exactly why we care. In the smile of Jessica Ennis was a little reflection of our national sense of self.
So familiar is Andy Murray with the encumbrance of historical baggage that he may be forgiven for scoffing at the stresses of Ennis and Farah. Back at Wimbledon, venue of his emotion drenched defeat to the inestimable Roger Federer just four weeks previously, he summoned up the remnants of his broken spirit to exact revenge on his Swiss nemesis in swashbuckling style. It may not be the Grand Slam he cherishes but this was a significant juncture in his frustrating quest. A two fingered salute to those who label him a choker on the big stage, the quashing of the internal doubts was perhaps more relevant. Could he back up the win over Djokovic with another top three scalp? Could he beat Federer in a five set match? Could he deal with the patriotic fervour gushing from the stands? Yes, yes and yes again. Even the great man, unable to resist from over the net, lacks an Olympic title in his glittering horde. The national shirt might just have made the difference. If it did, maybe they’ll let him take it to Flushing Meadows in September.