This article titled “Jessica Ennis leads charge in golden Olympic weekend for Team GB” was written by Owen Gibson, Olympics editor, for The Guardian on Monday 6th August 2012 07.10 UTC
It was beyond the “wildest dreams” of London 2012 chairman Lord Coe – a golden weekend that reaffirmed Britain’s place at the top table of world sport, sparked a wave of euphoria across the country and further elevated soaring expectations for the rest of the Olympics.
After the heroics of Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford in the stadium on Saturday night, the medal charge continued on Sunday, with Ben Ainslie becoming the most successful Olympic sailor of all time and Andy Murray winning at Wimbledon.
It was a stunning first week for the organisers of the London Games and Team GB officials. By Sunday night, Britain stood third in the medal table with 16 golds, half of them arriving on a single wild weekend.
Coe said Saturday’s magical sequence in the stadium was the best night of sport he had ever seen, topping Cathy Freeman’s emotional gold in the 400m at the 2000 Sydney Games, on which he had modelled so much of his planning for London. “This did edge it,” he said. “Particularly if you put it into context of what else was going on in the day, from the earliest moment with rowing. There was a narrative of infectious success. It probably was, for me, the greatest day of sport I’ve ever witnessed.”
It was 47 golden minutes that made London’s Olympics and will form the basis of a concerted campaign to force the government to place sport at the heart of its education and health policies and protect funding and facilities.
As Ennis was being introduced to a hysterical crowd ahead of an 800m that became a coronation, Rutherford was preparing to leap to a surprise gold medal.
A few minutes later, the unheralded long jumper from Milton Keynes was preparing his final leap and taking the acclaim of the enraptured crowd as Farah was easing through the gears in a 10,000m final that would end with the Somalia-born, London-raised distance runner winning the first British gold in over a century.
From a slow start, the medals have not stopped flowing since Helen Glover and Heather Stanning broke Team GB’s duck at Eton Dorney on Wednesday, unleashing a wave of euphoria across the country.
Saturday’s six gold medals represented the best return in a single day since the first London Olympics in 1908 and left Team GB well on track to hit its pre-Games target of fourth in the medal table, delivering more medals in more sports than for over a century.
The so-called “Formula One” sports that delivered so spectacularly in Beijing have continued their success. The £550m in lottery and exchequer funding over eight years poured into a high performance system overseen by UK Sport’s Peter Keen, allied to the talent and dedication of driven athletes, have allowed rowing, cycling and sailing to deliver again. Keen believes there has been a shift from “solo Alpinists” to a system designed to underpin consistent success.
But these Games have also showcased greater strength in depth. The sizeable investment has delivered vast improvements in those sports that have been able to convince the funding body UK Sport that they are now capable of competing for a medal under its ruthless “no compromise” funding formula.
Peter Wilson won a shooting gold, Etienne Stott and Tim Baillie won the C2 canoe slalom and Gemma Gibbons fought her way to a silver in the judo.
In athletics, still the blue riband event of the Games and the one in which it is arguably hardest to win medals, the rowing and cycling formula has started to pay off, too. “What success does is breed confidence in the ability of athletes to deliver,” said the British Olympic Association chairman, Lord Moynihan. “It’s an intangible. But if you go back to rowing it wasn’t really until Steve Redgrave came along that they believed they could win. It wasn’t until the [Katherine] Grainger era began that the women really believed they could win. “If you see your own teammates deliver gold on the greatest sporting stage in the world, that self-belief is as important as the home nation advantage of crowds that have exceeded all expectation.”
A driven, imported coach in Charles van Commenee has been mixed with world-class coaching and a support service providing the best in sports science, psychology and nutrition.
It has provided the platform for success that – with notable exceptions in Jonathan Edwards, Sally Gunnell, Linford Christie and Kelly Holmes – has proved elusive since Coe’s own glory days in the mid-1980s.
That uncompromising approach is personified by Van Commenee’s take-no-prisoners approach – he has made clear his high expectations of a “golden generation” of athletes and promised to quit if they failed – and has also provoked a change of mindset.
“In previous years a lot of British athletes were just happy to make the teams,” said Rutherford after his victory. “Then people came through like me, Jess [Ennis], Dai Greene, Martyn Rooney, [Robbie] Grabarz, we were all juniors together and we had a different ethos. It was more about winning. It’s the greatest night in British athletics history. I’m happy to be part of that.”
David Hemery, a gold medallist in 1968 in Mexico City, said: “Before it was about individual athletes and coaches [but] we’ve got a system now and we’ve got a head coach who takes no prisoners.”
All of Britain’s gold medallists have praised the crowd. It was also highlighted by the International Olympic Committee’s director of the Olympic Games, Gilbert Felli, as he hailed a “fantastic” first half of the Games.
But as they came down from their highon Sunday, there was also an insight into the huge pressure that has been heaped on the shoulders of Team GB’s favourites to deliver at their home Games. “Everyone was just expecting me to win,” said Ennis. “So I have had a few moments at home with my fiance worrying a bit and wondering if it was all going to go right – the way I wanted it to – or whether something would happen and it would fall apart, so it was a huge amount of pressure.
Asked by Absolute Radio host Johnny Vaughan if her triumph had sunk in, she said: “No, I’m still in shock. It’s been a whirlwind and I’m just blown away by how many people are here. I slept with my medal beside me. It was an amazing feeling to wake up this morning and know that it wasn’t a dream.”
Ainslie, famously as competitive on the water as he is polite off it, said it was not an experience he wanted to repeat. “It’s been incredibly hard, there’s been huge pressure for people to perform at a home Games. It’s been the hardest couple of weeks of my life and I haven’t slept much the past couple of days,” he said.
Coe, Moynihan and others involved in British sport are determined to use the feelgood factor engendered by Britain’s medal success to put the case for sport being at the heart of government health, education and social policy, as well as securing funding for elite sport.
“We need politicians to move forward by raising the bar significantly. Now is the time that athletes and the country will look to politicians and ask them to step up to the mark,” said Moynihan.
Coe, who sat next to David Cameron on Saturday night, said the prime minister was enthused about the possibilities of capitalising on the performances of GB athletes beyond the Games. “He was very seized by the need to build on everything he was seeing in that stadium, whether it was the extraordinary performances of our teams, the ongoing challenges of getting more young people into sport, and the extraordinary potential for the economic legacy,” he said.
“He is very seized by the need to leverage legacy from every nook and cranny of the project. There is a limited window of opportunity.”
For the heptathlete who has coped with being the face of these Games for the last four years, and maintained her steely focus to win the gold medal that could define them, there are more pressing concerns.
“I’m definitely going to relax, eat lots of rubbish food, have a few glasses of wine and enjoy this moment for as long as possible,” said Ennis.
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