London 2012 Olympics: Winners’ legacy is finally worth its weight in gold
REMEMBER Beijing, when Great Britain’s total of 19 gold medals seemed almost miraculous? Remember the fears of some officials that, by finishing fourth on the medals table, the team had made a rod for its own back?
That fourth place was four years too early. The aim in Beijing had been to come fifth or sixth, and build a platform from which to go and claim fourth in London.
Remember the start of the current Games, when one gold medal chance after another went abegging? When Mark Cavendish was proved mortal? When Hannah Miley could not win a medal either?
After the euphoria of the opening ceremony, those results produced an edgy feeling. At least for a couple of days, there was a worry that a whole series of failures might follow; that the pressure of competing at home could prove too much.
Well, after the successes of yesterday, last week feels like ancient history now, and the Beijing medal haul almost mundane. It took Great Britain virtually the entire length of the 2008 Olympics to accumulate those 19 golds. When that tally was matched around lunchtime yesterday, there were five full days of these Games to go.
It was triathlete Alistair Brownlee who equalled the total, and the dressage team who surpassed it not much later. Then, in the velodrome, further golds for Laura Trott and Sir Chris Hoy brought the total to 22.
To those of us raised on a sparser diet of success, it is all barely credible. Twenty-two? Luxury I tell thee, luxury. In my day we made do with five. Or maybe even three. Then there was even that time we made do with one. Shared it between us and were grateful.
And we’re not talking that long ago either. Five was pretty much the standard haul; the best we could hope for between 1968 and 1996.
The Mexico City Games of ’68 were the first I can remember, and back then those five gold medals seemed so hard-won, so precious, that we cherished them as if they were a clutch of ducklings. Each and every winner of one was seen as a man or woman apart; a special breed who had somehow succeeded in transcending the general mediocrity of the British sporting world.
There was David Hemery in the 400 metres hurdles. Boxer Chris Finnegan. The three-day event team led by Richard Meade. A shooter called Bob Braithwaite. And Flying Dutchman class sailors Rodney Pattisson and Ian MacDonald-Smith.
If gold medals were scarce, Scottish winners of them were even scarcer, so we were particularly jubilant about Pattisson, who came from Campbeltown. Or at least he was born there, which was enough for us then – and for the curators of the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame a few decades later when they inducted him.
It was too much for Pattisson himself, though, because, having been born to English parents and having left Argyll at the age of two months, he considers himself English. Never mind.
In 1972 it was only four golds: Pattisson and Meade again, the latter in both the individual and the team three-day event, and Mary Peters. In 1976 the total was down to three, but for the next four Games after that it was back up to five.
We didn’t feel bad about it back then. We didn’t think we were a nation of under-achieving duffers. We just accepted that some countries had a more scientific approach to sport – especially East Germany, whose science of choice was pharmacology.
Our gold medallists were not specially designed products of any system, just gifted amateurs. They were eccentrics who did things their way, who stubbornly refused to listen to any advice, and who pluckily prevailed against the odds.
That’s the way it was up to and including the Barcelona Games of ’92. The five golds then were won by Linford Christie, Sally Gunnell, Chris Boardman, Redgrave and Pinsent, and the men’s coxed pair of the Searle brothers with Garry Herbert.
Each and every one was an excellent result, but perhaps Boardman’s was the most significant, paving the way for today’s generation of cyclists. The problem in general, however, was that the knowledge and experience which produced those individual victories were not transmitted to the next generation. When the athletes and their coaches left their sport to return to their day jobs, that body of expertise perished.
That had to change sooner or later, and the catalyst was the Atlanta Games of 1996. The centenary Olympics were a miserable experience for Great Britain, with one solitary gold coming our way – Pinsent and Redgrave again.
This time no-one thought ‘Ho hum, we’ve all done our best, let’s move on’. This time the solution was already in place: funding from the National Lottery , which had begun two years earlier.
The rewards were seen in Sydney, with 11 golds; in Athens, with a still respectable nine; and in Beijing, with those 19 golds. And they are being seen here too, with that tally of 22 and counting.
Clearly, the body of expertise is in rude health now, and is being passed on from one generation to the next. We have caught up with and surpassed those countries such as Australia who were early adopters of an integrated coaching system. We are world leaders in some sports, and punching above our weight in others.
It has never felt better to support a British Olympic team. This is the golden age of UK sport, and we should appreciate every remaining minute of these Games.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 10 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east