Olympic Diary No.6

Laura Trott on her way to another gold

Laura Trott on her way to another gold

Cycling

Dominance in the velodrome was a pleasant experience but I doubt the predictable fare of the six day track cycling programme was the intended consequence of the changes made after Beijing. The Brits were simply streets ahead, only this time their superiority was exacerbated by the ridiculous imposition of the one entrant per country rule. Based on a glance at results from the most recent World Championships in Melbourne, this had the effect of weakening the level of competition. In the two individual sprints alone it deprived the audience of a number of potentially significant second string contenders from France, Germany and Australia in particular, as well of course of our very own Chris Hoy. Had he been afforded the opportunity of contesting the men’s final against team-mate Jason Kenny at least then the outcome might have been in doubt. Imagine if this self-imposed dilution of strength had been repeated across the sports. We could not have enjoyed the tremendous theatre of the Bolt versus Blake showdown, nor could we have been thrilled by the aquatic rivalry of Phelps and Lochte.

As it was, too many of the disciplines were disturbingly lacking in depth and interest inevitably suffered. However, the governing body (UCI) could not be held responsible for the shocking paucity of the resistance to the home nation’s mastery. While our stars, like thoroughbred racehorses, were primed to peak at the optimum moment, too many overseas riders were either jaded or clearly not up to the task. Even the untrained eye could notice the poor drilling of the pursuit teams, whether shallow banking or losing the wheel, the lack of tactical awareness and the deficiencies in basic speed. This was supposed to be the Games where the opposition caught up but instead they were reduced to carping about equipment and methods, unable to accept or comprehend just how completely they had been left behind. To compensate for the shortcomings elsewhere, Britain’s heroes simply set about demolishing world records instead.

The UCI have applied for a further two medals so the schedule can be balanced more evenly between sprint and endurance events in future. While it is only fair that the calendar be identical for both sexes, it is still perplexing that achieving this needed to entail the loss of opportunities for the men. After all, the introduction of women’s boxing into the Olympics did not bring with it the axing of male weight categories. This aside, the controversial omnium worked well, proved easier to understand than first feared, and provided exciting finishes, notably the dramatic last-ditch gold medal triumph of the ebullient Laura Trott. The elimination race element was one of the highlights of a week generally devoid of truly thrilling action. For the purposes of memorable entertainment, we were simply too good.

 

Athletics

For an athlete, injuries are more than just an occupational hazard. A niggle at the wrong time, a tear, a strain or a trapped nerve, and years of preparation and conditioning are ruined at a stroke. Admitting that the cherished dream is over can be a traumatic experience. Denial is an obvious emotion; coming to terms with the hurt and anguish undoubtedly a very personal journey. Just weeks before her home Olympics British javelin thrower Goldie Sayers, whose prospects had been favourable, tore ligaments in her elbow. She made the decision to compete, knowing those hopes were destroyed, and braved the pain to great public sympathy. We knew her story and shared her disappointment, but admired her honesty and spirit.

We had no idea whether Phillips Idowu would turn up at all, nor what shape he would be in for the triple jump qualification. His last few months have been shrouded in mystery and secrecy, his fitness the source of constant speculation. A lack of communication with team management meant a series of conflicting bulletins as to his physical wellbeing and mental state. He missed competitions and did not attend the final training camp in Portugal with his fellow competitors. On Tuesday morning our fears were realised. While many still clung to the belief that here was another genuine gold medal aspirant, it soon became abundantly clear that the body was broken, the mind scrambled. A shadow of his usually effusive self, right down to the lack of flamboyant hair decoration, he was sluggish, losing momentum through his technical phases, and landing dejectedly well short of his capabilities. His plight did not elicit the same degree of compassion. He had faced his demons in private, but, in concealing his torment from colleagues and supporters, had forfeited the right to their warmth and appreciation. It was a sad affair, and one he will almost certainly regret.

 

Luol Deng in action for Team GB

Luol Deng in action for Team GB

Basketball

A number of sports have issues to confront in the wake of London 2012. Building upon the structures which have been put into place specifically for the Games will be a difficult challenge. Without the publicity afforded by the two weeks in the spotlight, nor a quite so obvious aim to work towards, there is a serious danger that precious impetus will be lost. That is why the decision of the English and Scottish Basketball Associations to give up their independent status and effectively join forces is to be welcomed. Having demonstrated their competitiveness at the top level, and the men in particular went heartbreakingly close to toppling world number two ranked Spain, it would have been demoralising had petty parochialism stood in the way of progress. Politically, of course, the two nations are moving apart and worries over their autonomy within FIFA prevented the Scots from participation in the Great Britain football team. Yet the two issues could not be more diverse.

Both England and Scotland have long traditions and clearly separate footballing identities and leagues. The idea that coming together for a one-off occasion might threaten this position was always absurd in the extreme. Basketball does not have the luxury of being strong enough to sustain two competing representative teams from these Isles. To stay apart would be to condemn both to the margins of the international game. Sadly, Wales did not have the foresight to see it this way. A senior British league is already established and relatively well-supported. Luol Deng, the refugee from Sudan who grew up in Brixton and made it big in the NBA, is an exceptional role model. The real problem is to locate and nurture more domestic talent and grow the pool of players available for selection. The club franchises have a big responsibility here. Rio might be too soon but hopefully we will not have to wait another half century to see a British basketball team shooting hoops on the Olympic stage again.

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