Monday, 13 August 2012

Top Ten Olympic moments

The Games are over and I’m doing cold turkey. To keep the adrenaline surging, here are my favourite mainstream and off-beat highlights.

1. FlyMo
This is an entirely predictable choice to head the list. But unashamedly so. Mo Farah, the brilliant Somaliland Londoner joined a small band of truly great British runners on an emotional final night of athletics when he brought home the 5,000m gold to add to his memorable 10,000m victory the week before.

On that first Super Saturday we had been in the Olympic Park and were still tripping on exhilaration by the time we got home to watch Mo’s race. Something about being exposed to the highly charged atmosphere of the Games had turned Mrs A into a distance running tactical genius. After only a couple of laps, she was belting out considered advice to Farah about his track position and pace. “What are you doing back there? Get up amongst them!” It clearly worked.

For the 5,000m final, we were at Granny’s. There is obviously something in the genes, because unbelievably, she too is a top level race analyst. From the gun, it was “Go on Mo, you need to be nearer. That’s no good, don’t let them get away. Are you really trying?” For my part, I was the doubting thomas. Confidence dented by his lacklustre qualification and convinced this was too big an ask, I spent the final 600 metres predicting doom. “They’re lining up behind him! He can’t hang on! He can’t shake them off” But his control was extraordinary. His confidence unshakeable. His pace judgement imperious. Mo wound the speed up by small increments and would not let anyone pass. At 200 out he turned both taps on and kept finding more. Only Gabremeskel from Ethiopia looked like a threat in the home straight. And then only briefly.

This was an awesome display. Brendan Foster gushed that it was the greatest single moment in British athletic history. I initially baulked at that. And then I thought, well, what else would be up there? Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute barrier, maybe? But that wasn’t in the Olympics. Coe and Ovett’s mid-80’s middle distance medal domination? Arguably they are devalued by being achieved in boycotted games. Thomson, Lewis and Ennis in multi-disciplinary Golds? Yes, but they weren’t single moments. So in fact I’m happy to go along with Brendan on that.

Later, in the aftermath of a brilliantly a stage-managed medal ceremony climax, Farah could be seen doing The Bolt and Usain was Mo-Bot-ing like a natural. An informal touch of mutual respect.

Mural on a wall in Brick lane
2. Angry Ben Ainslie
This is not so much what he won, but how he won it. Off his game and languishing somewhere clostrophobic in the Finn pack, three-time Gold medallist Ben Ainslie found some motivation at the expense of two of his competitors and channelled it ruthlessly to land a fourth. From the moment the series leader, Jonas Hogh-Christenson conspired with Dutchman Pieter-Jan Postma mid race to allege a buoy infringement on the part of Ainslie, the Gold medal was in the bag. Ainslie immediately took a penalty turn – the standard price of such an infringement – rather than appeal after the race. He said of the incident, "They've made a big mistake. They've made me angry and you don't want to make me angry."

After his penalty turn, Ainslie fought back brilliantly, catching up 70 metres on the final downwind leg to overhaul Hogh-Christensen before crossing the finishing line and exploding in anger, pointing and shouting at the Dane.
He was still livid by the time he made it back to shore. He explained that he decided not to risk a protest post-race since he would have been outnumbered and might have been disqualified from the race.

The next day, the Briton hit back with a first and a third to narrow the gap to leader Jonas Hogh-Christensen to three points. In the Gold medal race two days later, Ainslie targeted his man and made sure he finished in front. Job done.

The clip of Ainslie’s outburst was shown on Gabby Logan’s evening highlights programme. John McEnroe and Michael Johnson, snuggled up on the couch that night, were both impressed. “Wow!” said Johnson. “That guy can talk trash!” said Mac, an expert in the field. I’ll never forget the steely look in Ainslie’s eyes. Wonderful stuff.

3. Bert le Clos
Chad le Clos did what had been unthinkable only a few weeks earlier and beat the great Michael Phelps in a dramatic final of the 200m butterfly. That was pretty remarkable. But this engaging, humble and respectful Olympian was completely upstaged by his father, Bert who was captured on camera in the midst of the packed banks of seating, gesticulating wildly, mouthing congratulations and waving flags.


Mark Foster was immediately dispatched to drag the exultant Bert le Clos to an interview with Clare Balding. He was brilliant. Talking whilst watching images of his pride and joy walking around the pool after the race, Bert kept shouting "unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable!", and "Look at him, he's beautiful, I love you". He noticeably jumped back and paused when he saw images of himself looking a touch on the large side on the BBC monitors. “Look at me”, he said holding his belly, “I’m sorry…” And then to Clare, “Is this going out live!”

Wonderful scenes. Bert went on, at a million miles an hour in clipped, hoarse Afrikaans tones, "I have never been so happy in my life … It's like I have died and gone to heaven. Whatever happens in my life from now on, it is plain sailing."

Inspire a generation? Well the swimming has certainly had an impact on Mrs A. Her breast stroke at the regular 7.30am Aquaspace session has come on a bomb. She’s adapted what she’s seen in the pool to develop a new breathing technique and is currently half way round Guernsey. In bite sized chunks, of course. Thank you Bert le Clos.

4. Judo medals
There was a brilliant piece in the paper that described a women’s judo bout as “to the uninitiated it is two very drunk women having a fight in a storm on the deck of a ferry.” But for Gemma Gibbons, judo looked like everything for a few brief moments. Following her victory over Tcheumeo of France, the report carries on, “a tearful Gibbons falls to her knees, points the sky and mouths ‘I love you, Mum’. A Disney director would cross out the scene on account of it being too corny”. But this is real life. And not a dry eye in the house. For the judokas who only appear on the big stage once every four years, this is genuine sentiment.

Bronze for British judo journeywoman Karina Bryant was in some ways even sweeter. There are stories circulating that only two months ago she was asking strangers for cash so she could buy a car to get to training. Bryant is four-time European champion but has never won an Olympic medal. Her participation here was threatened by a neck injury that requires surgery, but she chose to fight through it. At the fourth time of asking and at the mature age of 33, in front of her own passionate crowd, fighting an opponent 4 stone heavier, coming back from two-scores down, she claimed an emotional bronze. Karina was absolutely overcome with unbridled joy and pride. This was her last chance of Olympic recognition. She got it and it was fully earned.

5. The Republic of Yorkshire
How could I ignore the sensational story of Yorkshire’s stunning Olympic performance? God’s Own County bobbed along at a high water mark of 7th in the Medals Table as the Games entered their 2nd week and finished with a cool dozen gongs. Reports of tykes out-medalling Australia had Ian Thorpe making those eyes at Gabby Logan and mouthing “Eh up” and “Nah then”.

And it’s not all exported talent or tenuous linkage either. Jess Ennis still turns out for her local Sheffield club and scares the living daylights out of opponents as she jumps out of the bus for a regular season meet at the likes of Worksop and Retford. The awesome Brownlee brothers are based in West Yorkshire and train up and down Pennine slopes made of the same granite that forged their limbs. The story of their race can only grow more remarkable with time. Jonny had incurred a 15 second penalty for a cycling infringement. Alistair and he hatched a plan to go out severely hard in the final 10k to stretch out the field so that Jonny could complete his penalty and still have enough of a time buffer to land a medal. Alistair won and Jonny was third. The Guardian called it ‘Tear-jerking brilliance’.

I’m not entirely sure where all the other Yorkie medals have come from. There are some cyclists and rowers for sure. I like to think that the sphere of excellence is widespread. Who knows, maybe dressage Gold medalist Charlotte Dujardin can claim some Yorkshire heritage. I wouldn’t be surprised if her middle name is Arkengarthdale or some such...

6. Equestrianeous
Sticking with the gee-gees, here’s a big shout out to those barking mad showjumping course designers. What are they on? With every new competition, we were treated to increasingly outrageous symbols of Britain represented as jumping obstacles. Big Ben, the Cutty Sark, the Millennium Wheel… naval flags representing letters of the alphabet to spell out LONDON 2012. I kid you not. I even saw Stonehenge at one point, which brought
shades of Spinal Tap firmly to mind. “Break Like The Wind, Zara”.

And what are those letters around the dressage arena all about? According to the International Equestrian Federation, they just "appeared" for the first time in the 1920 Olympics held in Belgium. No-one has been able to find out the origins.

Greenwich has been a fantastic venue for the horsey events. It was one of the more controversial choices, but in fact the cross-country course winding through the park with views over the Thames was stunning. The arena set against the backdrop of the Royal Naval College provided some appropriate gravitas, too. I’m less convinced that Horse Guards Parade did the same for beach volleyball, though maybe that wasn’t the point...

7. Sitting down v standing up
The Aussies have this jibe that we are only good at sitting down events. Well, it appears that this year, there’s not too much substance to that cheap allegation. By Saturday morning, the penultimate day of competition, we had won 30 medals on bikes, in boats, on horses and the like, whilst 28 had been earned in athletics, gymnastics, swimming and other biped events. But add to that a bunch of subsequent Golds and Silvers in running, boxing and pentathlon and I’d say it is honours almost even. What’s wrong with a sitting down medal anyway?

8. Stephen Kiprotich
Kiprotich is a 23-year-old from Kapchorwa in Uganda. He is from subsistence farming stock. Before Saturday, he was a big outsider for the concluding athletics event. The race was dominated by heavyweights from Kenya and Ethiopia. And yet he managed to beat off the challenge of race favorite Wilson Kipsang and two-time world champion Abel Kirui to become his nation's first gold medalist since 1972. "I was unknown before today. Now I am known," he said. "I can say I am very happy to win a medal for my country. I love my people." He received his Gold medal in the midst of a full-production closing ceremony that otherwise paid scant regard to sporting endeavour.

9. Redgrave the Mentor
It was obvious from the early heats on the water on that Steve Redgrave was fulfilling a dual role at Eton Dornay. His principal role was expert analyser to John Inverdale’s rowing anchor. But the long embraces (not just with the women either), gushed thanks and words of respect showed Redgrave as a mentor, informal coach and all round inspiration to this generation of rowers. This was spelt out by Katherine Grainger who described the value of support and advice for, and belief in the nearly-boats of the women crews from someone who had absolutely been-there-and-done it. The implication is that Redgrave has played a role in the emergence of Copeland, Hosking, Stanning, Glover and the others. And when Sir Chris Hoy surpassed Steve’s GB record haul of Olympic medals, there was the man himself to offer up the first congratulations. Hoy had barely had chance to peel himself off his machine. Taje a bow, Sir Steve. A true ambassador.

10. Wiggo
Fresh from a sublime victory in Le Tour barely 10 days earlier, and also from a typically unselfish attempt to set Cavendish up for the Road Race Gold on the first day of the Games, Bradley Wiggins’ time trial Gold is one of my very favourite moments. As a spectacle, the time trial can’t compete with the white heat of the velodrome. But in coming home 42 seconds clear of reigning world champion, Tony Martin of Germany, Wiggins delivered Britain’s first Gold and an emphatic statement of his stature in the sport. He would not celebrate until the final man had crossed the line and was prowling around on his bike whilst Martin was slumped against some railings. I like my heroes to be down to earth and approachable. On the podium in the Champs Elysee he turned away from the dignitaries to wave acknowledgement to the supporters. When handed the microphone he said “Right, we're just going to draw the raffle numbers." Here he celebrated his fourth Olympic gold medal by going out and getting drunk - and tweeting updates as he did so.

So many moments, it’s hard to choose. A couple of near misses:
  • My mate Bryn who had tickets for the rowing on the 2nd Saturday morning and tickets for the same Super Saturday in the Olympic Stadium. He returned there last Saturday to see Mo and the 4x100 World Record. In all he saw 5 GB Golds and one GB silver. A Paralympic Silver medalist from Barcelona in 1992, he is only excluded from the main list because I am insanely jealous.

  • Hungarian Modern Pentathlete Adam Marosi who has a tattoo of AC/DC’s Angus Young on his calf. Cool.

  • The Olympic Legacy. The signs are good. There is a massive feelgood factor in the wake of the Games, we are hearing of investment decisions about school sports funding and many venues will be re-used. But feelgood factors don’t last forever and there is only a small window of opportunity to capitalise on this. And regeneration hasn’t reached all parts of the East End yet.

London E1, a javelin's throw from the Olympic Park
 So the jury is still out on legacy. But wow, what a Games. Fantastic, uplifting, emotional, well organized and optimistic. A sharp poke in the eye to the naysayers and doomsmiths.

And so on to Rio…


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