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The greatest night in the history of British sport

August 5, 2012 Leave a comment

For those of us born and raised in Great Britain sporting disappointment is something all too familiar. Too often we let ourselves buy into the media hype and get carried away only to feel that well-known sense of utter deflation when we come up short. However, for one magical night on the 4th August 2012, our tiny island of 60 million people took on the world… and won!

The stadium announcer in London called it ‘the greatest hour in the history of British athletics,’ while the BBC’s Brendan Foster opted for ‘the most exciting day in British athletics history.’ I would go one step further and say that it was the greatest chapter in the history of British sport full stop as three of our athletes won gold medals in front of a home crowd in the world’s biggest sporting event.

Superstar heptathlete Jessica Ennis (who The Sunday Times’ Chief Sports Writer David Walsh today accurately describes as ‘the nation’s favourite woman’) started the gold rush when she produced a barnstorming 800 metres to win her race and the gold medal by a whopping 306 point margin. Nobody has had to deal with more pressure in the run up to the games than Ennis. Her status as an elite performer in her sport, combined with her affable personality and photogenic appearance, meant that she became the face of the London games and carried the nation’s hopes on her slight shoulders. In short, Ennis was expected to win gold.

Jessica Ennis: The nation’s golden girl (This image is the property of AP)

She handled the pressure brilliantly, setting personal bests and entertaining the adoring crowd across two days of intense competition. She can now call herself the Olympic champion and the nation could not be happier for any athlete. She is surely a shoe-in for Sports Personality of the Year and may yet compete for gold in the 100m hurdles. Her time in the hurdles event of the heptathlon would have won gold in Beijing four years ago, so if she does decide to go for double glory, don’t write off her chances.

While Ennis was preparing to start her 800 metres race, Milton Keynes’s Greg Rutherford was about to take his fourth round jump in the final of the long jump. He was leading the competition with a distance of 8.21m but his fourth round jump saw him go out to 8.31m, just 4 cm short of his British record. Jumper after jumper went without threatening Rutherford’s mark and just minutes after the nation’s golden girl was crowned Olympic champion, Britain had won a second gold.

Rutherford’s gold was much more of a surprise than Ennis’s and sent the crowd in to an even greater frenzy (and me watching in my living room). TeamGB was on fire. Next up: Mo Farah in the 10,000m.

Farah has always been seen as something of a nearly man but his 5000m gold in last year’s World Championships in Daegu gave us all hope that he might win a gold on home soil. There was stiff competition in the form of Ethiopia’s Bekele brothers and the pressure was on to follow Ennis and Rutherford. Could the Londoner deliver?

It was certainly one of the strangest 10,000m races I can ever remember watching and in commentary Brendan Foster described it as ‘a race without a plan.’ The lap times were all over the place and nobody seemed to want to take it on. With 600 metres to go the race was anyone’s and that is when Farah started to make his move. He lengthened his stride, upped his leg churn and went. The Kenyan Masai attempted to go with him as did the Ethiopians, but Mo would not be denied as he streaked down the home straight to glory and a place in British sporting history.

Three gold medals in an exhilarating 47 minutes in the Olympic Stadium: what a night to be British.

Categories: Athletics

Doubling Up: A Bridge Too Far For Allyson Felix

September 19, 2011 Leave a comment

At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta two athletes stood head and shoulders above the rest. France’s Marie José Perec and poster boy of the games Michael Johnson both won two individual golds apiece in the 200 metres and the 400 metres. No athlete, male or female, has since matched this feat, but one was expected to have a serious chance of doing so in London next year; the USA’s Allyson Felix.

Since bursting on to the scene as an 18 year old in 2004 with a silver medal in the 200 metres in Athens, Felix has established herself as one of track and field’s true superstars and most consistent performers. Since clinching that silver medal in Greece, the affable American has won three consecutive world titles in the 200 metres (2005, 2007 and 2009) and a second Olympic silver in 2008.

2010 saw the Californian place much more emphasis on running the 400 metres as she looked to prepare for a potential double assault in London. Felix proved that her graceful running style makes her the most naturally talented sprinter in world athletics (with the exception of Usain Bolt) as she took to the longer distance like a duck to water. Running both the 200 and 400 metres did not seem to be a problem at all as she became the first person to win two IAAF Diamond League Trophies in the same year, winning 21 of 22 races she started. Felix was looking a hot bet to emulate Perec and Johnson.

Fast forward 12 months and many are now questioning the wisdom of Felix’s planned double in London next year. The reason? A sub-par showing at this year’s world championships in Daegu.

Allyson Felix will hope to raise the US flag in victory next year in London (This image is the property of AP)

It seems odd to describe a silver medal and personal best in the 400 metres and a bronze medal in the 200 metres as disappointing, but for Allyson Felix, it is. Given her talent and dominance in both events in recent times, she was expected to return to the United States with two gold medals in her suitcase.

Her second place finish in the 400 metres was the more satisfactory result as she ran a personal best of 49.59 seconds in a close race won by Botswana’s Amantle Montsho. Felix’s performance and her strong finish in particular suggested that there is more to come over the longer distance, but her bronze medal in the 200 metres in a time of 22.42 will have been a great disappointment for the three-time champion. The final took place only four days after the final of the 400 metres, with the heats starting only three days after her silver medal performance and if truth be told, the 25 year old looked fatigued. It is one thing doubling up at Diamond League meets, but another matter altogether at World Championships and Olympics when there are three and four rounds respectively. The 200 and 400 metres are all about speed endurance and so fresh legs are crucial. As such, it is a particularly hard double to achieve, especially for one of Felix’s build. In stark contrast to the more powerful and muscular Veronica Campbell-Brown and Carmelita Jeter, Felix is a very slight, very graceful runner and the sheer amount of running she had to do looked to have taken it out of her. She did recover to run an impressive leg in the USA’s 4×100 metres relay, but again looked jaded in her country’s 4×400 metres triumph.

There is no doubt that Felix is an Olympic champion waiting to be crowned but if she attempts to win two gold medals in London next year, she may jeopardise her chances. This is not to say that winning gold in both events is beyond her, but her sub-par showing in Daegu will have given her food for thought. One individual gold medal will complete her collection and so it is now up to her and her coach Bobby Kersee to assess what happened this summer in Daegu before deciding what to do in London next year. Let’s hope they make the right decision as Felix’s talent and exemplary attitude are more than worthy of Olympic glory.

Categories: Athletics

Jess has the X-Factor

August 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Jessica Ennis is Britain's golden girl but she will have to prepare for intense media attention in the run up to London 2012 (This image is the property of The Independent)

At just 24 years of age, Sheffield’s Jessica Ennis has the athletics world at her feet. Last week she added the European Heptathlon championship to the world title she won in Berlin last summer, setting a new personal best and championship record in the process.

In modern-day sport, there are certain characteristics that make somebody a star; Ennis has them all. Firstly, and most importantly, she is exceptionally good at what she does. She is after all, the world champion. Crucially, she realises that this comes above all else. She is dedicated to her chosen career and understands that success on the track is integral to any success she may enjoy otherwise. Secondly, she is an attractive girl which never harms an athlete’s chances as far as endorsements are concerned. Thirdly, she is extremely likeable. She is a smiley character devoid of ego or bad attitude (Mark Lewis-Francis take note). Jessica Ennis is fast becoming the nation’s sporting darling.

These are all elements more or less within her control, but she also looks set to benefit from circumstances over which she has no influence. In short, the stars seem to be aligning for Jessica Ennis as she may just be the right person in the right place at the right time.

 It is not often that Britain gets the opportunity to host a major, global sporting event, but in 2012 the world’s greatest sporting extravaganza (with the possible exception of the World Cup) is coming to London and as far as Ennis is concerned, the timing could not be better. The country will be looking for a ‘face’ of the games and Ennis’s status as a leading heptathlete, coupled with her looks, make her perfect for the role. Michael Johnson was the poster boy for the Atlanta games in 1996 and it was interesting to listen to him speak to Ennis in the BBC studio in Barcelona. Recognising that she was in the presence of an athletics legend and somebody with great experience, she hung on to his every word. He spoke of his own experience from those games including the fact that somebody called him asking for tickets on the day of one of his finals and warned Ennis that the added responsibility and expectation at home must not become detrimental to the bread and butter task of winning races. During the conversation, she intimated that she is now having to juggle training and competing with increased commercial commitments, but so far, she is doing a good job. It will be turned up several notches as 2012 nears as she has the chance to become a golden girl in her home country and she will have to deal with it as Johnson himself did. It should be noted however that she seems level-headed and has a good team around her, including a close-knit family. She also took the added responsibility of being Team GB’s captain at the European Championships in her stride which bodes well.

However, before 2012 comes round, there are the World Championships next year in Daegu where the 24 year old will look to defend her title. If she can, she will cement her place as one of the sport’s elite performers and her stock will rise further.

There is of course one potentially huge spanner that could be thrown in to the works; injury. It is always a possibility with top athletes as their bodies are fine tuned to the extreme and it can either force them out of competition altogether or lead to sub-par performances (see Usain Bolt this week). Ennis knows this better than anyone having been forced to sit out the 2008 Olympics in Beijing with stress fractures in her foot. If she can steer clear of any such issues both in the run up to and during the games in 2012, she has an excellent chance of winning gold on home soil and catapulting herself in to the upper echelons of sporting stardom in Britain, and who knows, maybe the world. With talent, looks and a media-friendly personality, Jess has the X-Factor.

Categories: Athletics

Athletics: Still a marginal sport

May 18, 2010 2 comments

Athletics is a sport, or collection of them, in which human beings push themselves to the limit, and in the case of some, beyond. How fast can a human run? How far or high can a human jump? How can far can a human throw a given object? These are just some of the answers elite athletes strive to provide. Intriguing? One would think so, but for one reason or another, athletics somehow fails to capture the imagination in the way that, say, football or basketball do. Apart from the odd crossover star like Carl Lewis or Usain Bolt, athletics has not produced a plethora of luminaries. Why?

In all honesty, the sport has not exactly helped itself. Constant cases of substance abuse to aid performance have eroded fans’ confidence in the integrity of the sport. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has not helped either, failing to arrange a series of regular meetings that feature top stars competing against each other. In truth, the Olympics and World Championships apart, it very rarely happens and this has turned fans off.

To their credit, the IAAF has now realised this and looked to address the issue by replacing the outmoded Golden League with the new IAAF Diamond League, a series of fourteen meetings around the world that will feature the big names racing against each other. The sport’s marquee event is the men’s 100 metres and the two fastest men in the world, Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay are scheduled to go head to head at least three times. Add to the mix the fact that the third fastest man in the world, Asafa Powell, is also scheduled to compete and that at least one of the three will race at every meeting, and you have a winning recipe. Outside of the men’s 100 metres, there are many other World and Olympic champions pencilled in to compete like America’s 200 metres champion Allyson Felix and 100 metres hurdles star LoLo Jones. The IAAF has succeeded in attracting the big names by offering big prize money and they hope it will generate interest in the sport. Great.

Usain Bolt will be the Diamond League's star attraction (This image is the property of The Daily Telegraph)

Then came even more good news as the BBC announced that it will broadcast all of the meetings live, thus giving the event some exposure. BBC 1, no more likely BBC 2 I thought. Err… not quite.

The BBC has instead chosen to air the meetings on BBC 3 and ‘behind the red button.’ Yes that is right, channel 301 on Freeview. One has to applaud the BBC for broadcasting the Diamond League and their athletics coverage is always first rate with former top athletes like Steve Cram, Colin Jackson and Jonathan Edwards providing intelligent, insightful commentary and interviewing affable stars like Allyson Felix and Usain Bolt who are always willing to stop and chat. So why has the BBC chosen to relegate the event to secondary and even tertiary stations?

Allyson Felix is the biggest female star on show in the Diamond League and is also an ambassador for the event (This image is the property of AP)

In truth, it sums up the position of athletics in the sporting galaxy. If football and basketball are Earth and the moon, then athletics is Halley’s Comet, receiving attention very, very rarely. The public just does not think about it. The men’s 100 metres has always attracted interest as people are eager to see how fast the fastest man on the planet can run, but athletics has a whole has been allowed to plunge to such depths that what is an excellent initiative by the IAAF is relegated to a channel that shows ‘Gavin and Stacey’ and one that most people do not even know exists. Roll on 2012.

Categories: Athletics