As an island nation we have a special affinity with boats. On the lake at Eton Dorney our rowers once more confirmed their supremacy and maintained a great tradition. Britain has claimed at least one gold in every Olympics since 1984, but four took the gains into uncharted territory. The indefatigable Sir Steve Redgrave, the father of this profusion, has national treasure status. We are still bewitched by the annual battle on the Thames between two university crews, a peculiar anachronism if ever there was one, while the Henley Regatta remains one of the cornerstones of the society summer. Despite this, actual participation levels remain remarkably low. The majority of those who are enthralled by the exploits of our enormously successful team have never so much as picked up an oar. So just why is rowing held in such high esteem and regarded as a barometer of quadrennial sporting health?
The answer, for me at least, is gauged not so much in the allure of the spectacle, though there are few more thrilling sights than these vessels gliding across the water, propelled by the military efficiency of their perfectly drilled occupants, and few more gripping finishes, but more in the sheer physical demands of the exercise. Struggling for breath as they lie prostrate on jetties, battling oxygen debt and lactic overload, these athletes are the true iron men and women of the Games. The emotions displayed, whether in triumph or despair, are excoriatingly raw. Perhaps the media blithely regard it as part of the theatre, unseemly keen to thrust a microphone under the nose of the exhausted competitors seconds after the event, but to those of us in our armchairs, it portrays the brutally punishing nature of their sport in very real high definition.
So from Katherine Grainger, who finally struck gold after three successive silvers and a decade as our premier oarswoman, to Kat Copeland, the newest member of the squad who was still competing at youth level four years ago, from Greg Searle, returning from retirement to put himself through the rigours of training once more, to the heroic Alan Campbell, the lone sculler who must face the toughest mental ordeal of all, and everyone in between, we salute you. Even if we are unlikely to set foot in a boat, we feel your pain, marvel at your dedication, and revere your triumphs.
They say lightning never strikes twice but clearly someone forgot to tell the fastest man on the planet. The hottest ticket in town did not disappoint. Usain Bolt, shorn of his aura following defeats in his domestic trials and that ignominious World Championship false start, was only teasing. On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of Jamaican independence, he kickstarted the celebrations early with a display of customary power and poise, the pretenders blitzed, each enormous stride taking him further away, on into immortality. We had glimpsed a fragility, a window on the soul which hinted at something approaching doubt. Once he emerged for the semi-final, the old showman returned, and those nagging concerns were shredded. He cruised over the line, posing for the cameras, and we knew he was ready after all.
The main event itself was brief but blinding. Had it not been for Asafa Powell’s injury, we would have seen an entire field break the ten second barrier for the first time. Bolt was not immaculate, his start understandably cautious, and you can only speculate how quick he could go if the sections all fell into place. With his training partner Yohan Blake pushing him hard we may get to find out, though the contrast in styles did the younger man few favours. The physiology may redefine the future of sprinting, but much of it is in the mind too. Bolt simply knows he can go faster and, on the evidence presented, who are we to argue?
Incidentally, Justin Gatlin once thought he had the answer. We know now that it was hatched in a laboratory. His presence was an unwelcome reminder of the depths from which this showpiece has had to recover, and shamed the Olympic movement. His is surely the most tainted medal of London 2012. Still, as very real evidence that vigilance can never be relaxed, a purpose was served. His finishing time was chillingly appropriate; 9.79 seconds, the very fractions with which Ben Johnson entered infamy. Fate, it seems, has a wicked sense of humour.
Much sanctimonious rubbish has been spoken about the presence of women’s boxing in London. A new addition to the sporting roster, it has attracted criticism of various forms, ranging from safety concerns to its perceived lack of femininity. You can make up your own mind about the latter, but the headgear and body protection, together with the medical support, is of the highest order, and as an all-round fitness programme it has few peers. Why should it be available to only half the population? Those who object have the option of switching off, ignoring it entirely. Earlier in the Games we saw history on the judo mat as Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani became Saudi Arabia’s first female Olympian. Back home she has been vilified as the ‘Prostitute of the Olympics’ by ultra-conservatives for having broken the religious taboo of competing in front of a mixed-sex audience. She is only allowed to leave home with a male chaperone. Now to which society would you rather belong?