Three weeks before it had been announced there would be no spectators. That meant no family and no supporters shouting encouragement. And no one, apart from coaches and team members to celebrate or commiserate with.
These competitors had to do this alone. But then that’s how many of them were forced to train this last year and to keep the momentum going a whole 12 months longer than they had meticulously planned.
Then there were those who said taking part, even winning, would mean less against the backdrop of the biggest pandemic in living memory. Others went further and said nobody cared. And when it did happen there were even those who criticised the brilliant new breed of BBC commentators and presenters, most of them elite sportsmen and women themselves, for not being posh enough. Of course the critics were wrong on all counts.
So here is the humble opinion of someone who was lucky enough to report on the 2012 London games, who is lucky enough to have been there on ‘Super Saturday’ when the wonderful Jessica Ennis brought gold home to Yorkshire in the heptathlon. Not only that, I watched Andy Murray win at tennis, Nicola Adams change the attitude of the world towards women’s boxing, and the Brownlee brothers take their place together on the podium in the triathlon. It was a privilege and a joy to welcome home to Yorkshire and the North so many victorious Olympians.
To be honest, I thought nothing could top that until the events of the last two weeks. These were the Games which more than any before them have put into sharp focus the highs and lows of being a top class athlete, where winners were made of those who didn’t even win. Where the stresses and strains of the past 18 months, experienced by all of us, were played out on a world stage. If I were a filmmaker I wouldn’t know which story to sign up for. .. there were so many. But here are my magic moments.
Best gold. For me it had to be Tom Daley. Not just because he finally won gold after two bronze medals having first competed as a 14 year old in Beijing, but because for me he personifies the inclusive world we now enjoy. Bigots be damned.
Here is a gay sportsman not afraid to come out when historically so many have been. He is a father who had to watch his own father die a slow and painful death and still remain committed to going for broke. But the money shot for me was him knitting while watching his fellow diving competitors. How to break down the stereotypes in one easy lesson. What’s more, he was knitting a pouch for his gold medal. His GB jumper is pretty smart too. ‘Boom’ I think is the parlance of the young.
My heart goes out to all those who tried against the odds and failed. The quiet courteous Yorkshireman Ed Clancy, for twenty years a stalwart of our track cycling, sacrificing a silver medal by pulling out and announcing his retirement after the heats because injury finally caught up with him and he didn’t want to let the team down. The heartbreaking tears from Katharina Johnson-Thompson having fought to recover from a ruptured achilles heel only to be felled by a calf injury. Refusing medical assistance she limped across the finishing line in her 200m heptathlon race, saying “I started the year in a wheelchair and I was not willing to end my Olympic campaign the same way”.
Then there was sprinter Adam Gemili walking his heat having torn his hamstring moments before his race. What disappointment. But what guts.
There have also been some incredible comebacks. Simone Biles, the world’s greatest gymnast, had the guts to tackle the beam and come third when she had told the world her mental health was damaged. Or how about 13-year-old Sky Brown falling twice in her first two skateboard runs to nail it in the third for bronze. I repeat she is 13. Then the golden boys in the pool and on horseback. Show jumper Ben Maher who last year had two major operations on his back and still climbed onboard to destroy the opposition. Tom Dean battled Covid twice and was told he might not make the team, yet he did and won two golds in the pool.
However, my last words of admiration are saved for Jack Laugher. The North Yorkshire diver has achieved much including a previous gold and silver but nothing was more important to him than this week’s bronze having thought he had lost his form forever and having cried himself to sleep for two years wanting to give up and pack it in. But he didn’t.
That sums up the Olympics and never more so than this year. This is the year when athletes haven’t been afraid to say it can all get too much, that the heart may be big but sometimes the mind or the body can be broken. A reminder that though they are superheroes they are not superhuman.
As Jack Laugher said, clutching his comeback medal, “Redemption” indeed. Redemption from the doubters. Redemption from those who said it shouldn’t happen. And redemption from those who believe we throw too much money at elite sport. What a wonderful two weeks they have given us.
Now all there is left to say is Bring on Paris. Only this time we just have to wait three years to do it all over again.
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