Faster, Higher, Stronger

A collection of track and field writings from the                                      London 2012 Olympic Diary:

Golden Saturday

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.

Jessica Ennis

Jessica Ennis

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.

Mo Farah

Mo Farah

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.

 

Bolt Still The Greatest

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.

Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt

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 conservative, 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.

 

Idowu Fails To Reach Triple Jump Final

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.

 

Rudisha Breaks 800m World Record

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.

David Rudisha

David Rudisha

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 Athletics Treading Water

Mo Farah is now a distance running legend. It is impossible to do justice to the majesty of his accomplishment in adding the 5000m title to his earlier clinching of the other half of the coveted double. His reading of the race, and execution of his plan, was again flawless. We would have forgiven him if his previous exertions had blunted his edge but he was not to be cowed. In bookending the track and field programme in charismatic style, Farah lent a rosy hue to the British efforts at London 2012. Do not be fooled. Remove this epic contribution, and that of the marvellous Jessica Ennis, and we have a far less auspicious picture. A significant proportion of finals passed by without any home involvement. In areas we were once strong our athletes flattered to deceive. Nor can we honestly invest high hopes for the future in too many of our lacklustre entrants. Adam Gemili could become the new Linford Christie, but we must prevent him from being the next Mark Lewis-Francis. There were injuries, disappointments and excuses, and once more the sprint relay team failed to get the baton round. Mo and Jess will need to inspire a generation. Currently, they are merely papering over the cracks.

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