The ambition was gold but bronze didn’t seem too bad. It did, after all, match the best ever Olympic finish for the Great Britain women’s hockey team. They will rue the timid start to their semi-final with Argentina for they proved in the consolation game that they are, on their day, as good as anyone in the competition. They were the overall top scorers and the most lethal from penalty corners, but the magic surfaced only in patches. At key times, frustratingly, they failed to impose themselves, poor decisions were made, and the punishment was harsh. Emerging stronger from their disappointment to salvage a medal, they showed a spirit that will surely carry them to better things. Hockey failed to capitalise on its finest hour back in Seoul, the goals of Sean Kerly and the unabashed jingoism of Barry Davies, so these girls have both an opportunity and a responsibility.
A game of great skill, trickery, speed and courage, it always surprises me that it does not enjoy a greater profile away from its sporadic appearances on such a public platform. It is an invigorating alternative to football, retains the values of honour and sportsmanship our national game appears to have left behind, and incorporates many of our favourite rivalries. I was briefly introduced to it at school, but hardly in a way designed to foster a lifelong interest. Now, outside the more select educational establishments, I suspect it is rarely played at all. If the politicians are serious about encouraging a more active future, this is exactly the sort of situation which needs to be rectified. If you can’t kick a ball to any great effect, there are alternatives available. Hockey is an example of a sport which has used its funding wisely to create growth and interest, so success at London was crucial to widen this reach.
The men’s team also made the last four but inexplicably blotted their copybook with an insipid performance which led to humiliation at the hands of the Dutch. They too, most notably in their rousing comeback against Australia, demonstrated flashes of inspiration. Ashley Jackson, like his female counterpart Alex Danson and her indomitable skipper Kate Walsh, caught the eye with some champagne contributions. There is plenty to be optimistic about. The building blocks are there but only enrichment of the grassroots will turn bronze into lasting gold. If the false dawn of 1988 was the product of complacency, it might turn out to be a blessing that, this time, there is still something to strive for.
David Rudisha runs like a dream. As with many Kenyans, it is in the blood. Kicking astonishingly off an already fast pace, his languid surge took him to a new 800m world record time and pulled his opponents to new heights of their own. This two lap distance has a special resonance for those of us of a certain age, brought up on the glorious British hegemony of Coe, Ovett and Cram, even Elliott and McKean. The fascination that Coe’s best mark remained beyond reach for sixteen years, and Rudisha is still only the second man to have bettered it, makes this a holy grail among track achievements. Much of the appeal lies in the intermediate nature of the event. Does it require a sprint-trained power athlete or one with a more endurance based background? Is it more aerobic or anaerobic in its demands? Perhaps in this debate lies the secret of the record’s durability.
Roared on by his home crowd, Andrew Osagie hauled himself onto the same page as his illustrious forebears with a time which would have won gold in Beijing, yet finished last. All eight finalists attained personal improvement. The runner-up still only equalled Coe’s thirty one year old numbers. Sports science has progressed immeasurably in the intervening years so we probably failed to appreciate the significance of the performance back then. It is possible that Coe was already pushing at the limits of human potential. Rudisha now owns the three fastest runs in history but is dealing in fractions of a second. It may not have had the dynamic impact of Bolt but as the humble African breasted the line in London, undeniably we had witnessed one of the greatest races of all time.
British sports stars most often achieve through the solid Victorian values of hard work and application. We do not generally have a reputation for flair. That’s why young Jade Jones so captured the imagination with her rousing repertoire of taekwondo skills, executed with a fearless attacking panache appreciated even by those of us with only a rudimentary grasp of this Korean fighting style. Known as the ‘Headhunter’ due to her preference for targeting the highest scoring kicks, her refreshingly brash approach struck a chord.
It was much needed too, for her Federation has been ripped apart by a rancorous affair concerning the non-selection of Aaron Cook, the world number one ranked competitor at his weight deemed surplus to requirements in London. Despite his replacement winning a somewhat fortuitous repechage bronze, some awkward questions remain unanswered. That inquest will come but for now, thanks to the gold standard of its marketable new heroine, taekwondo can bathe in a more positive light. Jones’ real achievement was to give her sport a priceless reference point. It was captivating stuff, even if we didn’t quite know exactly what was going on.
They were the perfect combination. Valegro, the Lionel Messi of dressage, and Charlotte Dujardin, ‘the girl who could make a donkey dance’. Together, they produced one of the most beguiling moments of this extraordinary sporting compendium. Trotting, cantering and pirouetting to the strains of Elgar and ‘The Great Escape’, horse and rider gave a masterpiece of interpretation, a thrill reminiscent of that Torvill and Dean sensation all those years ago. Half a tonne of equine bulk, a youthful prodigy among more experienced steeds, daintily finessed his way to a record score, and a gold medal, with an artistry harnessed by the former lowly stable groom, whose ascent added a romantic twist to the story. Odd, and maybe not quite sport in its most obvious sense, it provided a sublimely diverting interlude.