London 2012 Olympics: First steps on the path to greatness
FOR athletes who have just a few years at their peak, the Olympic Games are the be-all and end-all, the dream that sees them through their darkest hours, the focus upon which their entire career has been trained.
When those Games just happen to be in your homeland – a rare privilege that many of the greats cannot claim to have enjoyed – the desire to make the most of it, to soak up every eye-popping moment, gives the experience another dimension.
When the Games of the XXX Olympiad, as they are officially known, get under way in London this week, more than 10,000 competitors, particularly those in British vests, will approach the challenge with a mixture of excitement, pride and pressure, while the rest of us gaze upon it all with fascination. Although England’s capital will become the first city to host a modern Games three times, it will be a spectacle not seen on these shores since 1948, when the country was rather less inclined to hyperbole.
In 2005, when London won the vote in Singapore, the Games were but a hazy image on the horizon, a concept to be written and talked about rather than experienced in the flesh, but here we are, seven years later, bemused at the speed with which they have crept up on us. After all that planning and investment – in security, organisation, transport – all those promises, all that talk of times and targets by obsessed athletes, suddenly it is judgment day.
The clamour to be at a part, any part, of the Games, whether it is Friday’s opening ceremony, the 100m final or just a preliminary round of the beach volleyball, comes from the need to say that “I was there”, something they will all be claiming a few decades hence – even if they weren’t.
In a digital age that has eroded the collective experience, the London Games look set to imprint themselves on the national consciousness – whether Scots like it or not – and the heroes who emerge will earn a bigger place in history than any of their predecessors.
Of course, the Games are not without their critics. Quite apart from the sniping about budgets, security fears and the mythical “legacy” they are supposed to leave behind, the quadrennial bash is seen by some as a high-profile crutch for assorted minority sports otherwise unable to support themselves.
For two weeks, every four years, the public inexplicably becomes passionate about pursuits it does not understand, and people they have never heard of, before shamelessly returning all but the best of them to obscurity for the rest of the Olympic cycle. That, though, isn’t such a bad thing. If some of us become interested in canoeing or archery or handball for two weeks, it’s two more weeks than would have been the case without the Olympics. And what are the Games if not an opportunity to hail the unsung heroes, some of whom gave up their job, their friends, their life, not for money or celebrity or for any of the trappings that come with the likes of professional football, but for a medal. Maybe.
Scotland’s Eilidh Child suggested recently that merely to run well in London, where her target is to reach the 400 hurdles final, would mean more to her than the silver medal she won at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi two years ago.
“The Olympics is definitely that bit special,” she said. “That’s what you always aim to do. That’s what people always ask you. When you say you’re an athlete, it’s ‘are you going to the Olympics?’, ‘have you been to the Olympics?’ To call yourself an Olympian does make a big difference. I think just to go there and run well would be nice.”
For some Scots, a gold medal is within reach. Aberdeen-born canoeist David Florence is aiming to improve upon the silver he won in Beijing four years ago.
Hannah Miley, the Inverurie-based swimmer, will become a household name if she secures the first gold of the Games in the 400m individual medley final on Saturday. Then there is Andy Murray, hoping to go all the way on Centre Court at Wimbledon, whose manicured lawns will be an unusual feature of these Games.
That said, the biggest hopes are with Sir Chris Hoy, the cyclist who will match rower Steve Redgrave if he can win the fifth gold medal of his career, and Kath Grainger, the rower who, more than anyone else, will have the nation behind her these next couple of weeks. At 36, this is her final chance to secure the gold that agonisingly eluded her in each of the last three Olympics. Whether she wins it or not, there will be tears.
The Great Britain team’s immediate target is to surpass the 47 medals, 19 of them gold, won in Beijing, a haul that was bettered by only three other countries. Host nation status should work in Team GB’s favour, although it has sometimes proved to be a dubious advantage.
Rebecca Adlington, the swimmer who is hoping to repeat her 400m and 800m freestyle victories in Beijing, is renowned for her nerves, which will be fully tested by the weight of expectation. So, too, will Jessica Ennis be under pressure in the heptathlon to justify her reputation as the poster girl of London 2012.From triathlete Alistair Brownlee and sailor Ben Ainslie to Mo Farah in the 10,000m and a queue of world-class cyclists, Team GB has plenty of gold-medal prospects but, if they do come up short, there are global icons who can be relied upon to provide the theatre instead.
In Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, London 2012 is blessed with two giants of their respective sports, both suddenly threatened by young pretenders.
Phelps, with 14 gold medals to his name, is in danger of being usurped by Ryan Lochte in the swimming pool. Yohan Blake, meanwhile, has the potential to upset the hitherto invincible Bolt on 5 August. If anything defines an Olympic Games, it is the men’s 100m final, and this one could be among the best of all time.
Add to that the superstars who will emerge – including Missy Franklin, the American swimmer – the inevitable controversies, in and out of the arenas, as well as the political hot potato that is Olympic football (will the Hampden crowds exceed Queen’s Park’s average for the season?) and it all adds up to a fascinating couple of weeks. Even if it were possible to escape the 2012 Olympic Games, you wouldn’t dare.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west