For a number of mornings in the past week, the nation woke up feeling disappointment and then despair, as riots spread across the capital and other British cities. In precisely one year’s time, Britons will also wake up feeling rather flat, but for wholly different reasons. 13th August 2012 is the ‘morning after’ the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, to be held in London.
In spite of the sadness at seeing the Games come to a close, the country will hopefully also have a great sense of pride, not just for having successfully hosted the world’s biggest sporting event, but presumably for a number of individual achievements on the field (and on the water, and on the track) which will live long in the memory. Who can forget, after all, Steve Redgrave’s fifth successive gold medal in 2000, Kelly Holmes’ middle-distance double in 2004, or Chris Hoy’s triplet of titles in 2008 (all three of whom proceeded to win knighthoods for good measure)?
After a spectacular medal haul in 2008 in particular, the pressure will be on for Great British athletes to deliver on the greatest stage of all. 19 gold medals and fourth place overall is a tough act to follow four years on, but let’s put the medal table aside for a moment. What is really intriguing about Britain’s prospects with one year to go is the sheer volume of different individual stories, each of which will reach their climax next summer, one way or another. Much as the Olympic movement might be the legatee of the triumph and tragedy of Ancient Greece, next year’s Games will be as much rooted in the (time) trials and tribulations of London’s East End. It was ironic to hear, therefore, that the Olympic Park and its Athletes’ Village will take on the postcode E20, previously reserved for the fictional district of Walford, the setting for the BBC’s flagship soap EastEnders.
Clearly, much of the Grecian-Greenwich drama will be purely the result of the sporting competitions themselves. For most sports (with the notable and regrettable exceptions of football and tennis) an Olympic gold medal is the highest prize to be won, the truest and purest evidence of athletic greatness. Many British athletes will return to the arena in London having tasted glory in Beijing (or, in the case of Hoy, having had a full gulp of the stuff). Ben Ainslie will likely join the rostrum of knighted Olympians if he wins a fourth successive sailing gold (and while he may rue winning ‘only’ silver in Atlanta, had he won gold and thus be seeking to equal Redgrave’s record this time round the pressure of public expectation might be almost unbearable) whilst Katherine Grainger will be looking for the inverse accomplishment, a first gold in the women’s double skulls after three successive silvers.
But whilst every Olympic success story is to some extent a tale of triumph over adversity (though some may shirk from putting the excruciatingly well paid footballers who may take part side by side with the many competitors for whose minority sport remains very much amateur) there are some British athletes whose roads to potential glory are more compellingly personal affairs. Take the triathlon. Last weekend’s London leg of the World Triathlon Championship series saw Brit Alistair Brownlee win on the same course as the Olympic competition will be run (and swum and cycled.) As promising a prospect as this is for 2012 in itself, Brownlee’s younger brother, Jonny, also finished third.
This sets up the mouthwatering notion of a sibling v. sibling contest next summer, and though Alistair is higher-ranked, many have found it hard to alchemically convert the iron weight of expectation into a solid gold medal in previous Olympic triathlons. Cain and Abel it may not be, but enthralling it will. In other sibling combinations, Andy and Jamie Murray at Wimbledon and Lucy and Kate MacGregor at Weymouth will be looking to take tennis and sailing titles respectively.
Siblings are not the only personal relationships at play in 2012. Emotions will be running high in the badminton mixed doubles, with Nathan Robertson and Jenny Wallwork partners both on and off the court, a factor which Robertson claims helps their sporting performance. Nonetheless, Robertson and Wallwork crashed out of London’s World Badminton Championships this week in their first match, whilst Brits Chris Adcock and Imogen Bankier’s platonic partnership has taken them to the semi-finals and guaranteed them at least a bronze medal in the same competition.
Then there are the stories of individual perseverance and passion. Two world champions and thus serious 2012 contenders – Tom Daley and Sarah Stephenson in diving and taekwondo respectively – both lost their fathers to cancer in the past few months. Given the minority nature of both sports, both athletes are indebted to the dedication of their parents, and so will have an especial desire to win on home soil next summer. Daley describes his father as “my biggest source of motivation” and Stevenson says her parents are “the reason I’m a champion”.
Finally there are those whose entire journeys through life are remarkable. Two athletes in particular stand out here: Luol Deng, who was born in what recently became South Sudan, was granted political asylum with his family in the UK, before moving to the States for the start of a lucrative career in the NBA for the Chicago Bulls, will represent Great Britain in the basketball tournament and seriously raise the team’s prospects. Mo Farah, European champion over 5,000 and 10,000 metres on the running track, was born in Somalia and spent his early years in Djibouti before arriving in Britain with very little knowledge of English. With family still in Somalia, the current famine over there feels “very close to my heart“.
While serious sportsmen and women are fiercely competitive when playing, many seem reluctant and reticent when out of their natural sporting environment, at press conferences or award shows, or indeed bearing flags or lighting torches. But athletes are not robots – far from it. It’s just that their individual stories reach their conclusion on the field, rather than at the pub or in the office. This time next year, we get to be the audience. And after last week’s scenes, playing witness to ambition and achievement will be all the more inspiring.å