2016 has not been a happy year thus far. Many high-profile and well-loved people are no longer with us; crises like terrorist attacks and public shootings have been horribly frequent; and Britain’s decision to leave the EU left me worried for the future. After Euro 2016 proved dismal, both in terms of general quality and England’s performance, I was hoping that the Summer Olympics in Rio might be able to bring along some much-needed positivity. And, in fact, it did.
It may not have been perfect: the judging and facilities were sometimes called into question, such as when the diving pool inexplicably turned an unhealthy-looking green; a few athletes, such as Ryan Lochte, were not on their best behaviour; and social media was prone to overreact to things like a US medal winner not placing her hand on her heart during the national anthem. But there was much more good than bad: images like the North and South Korean gymnasts taking a selfie together gave a wonderful sense of unity, and the better side of humanity that doesn’t make for many news headlines these days. There were even a few funny moments: on one evening, BBC Four reporter Dan Walker found a hen party going past his station near Copacabana Beach, and took a few minutes to interview the bride.
And it certainly didn’t hurt that Team GB had a better Olympics than anyone could have predicted. Things got off to a slow start – though we did get a gold medal much sooner than in London, courtesy of Adam Peaty in the breaststroke – and we had an agonising number of fourth place finishes, from the swimming to the rugby sevens. But gradually, the medals started piling up; and as it became clear that we were going to beat the medal target of 48 (one more than in Beijing), new, more ambitious questions were being asked. Could we beat the 65 medals won in London? Could we finish second in the medal table? And our incredible team of Olympians did it all!
It wasn’t just our best overseas Olympics ever; it was the first time that a country had improved its medal tally immediately following a home Olympics; and the first time Great Britain had finished above China in the medal table since the latter began participating. In fact, there was a long list of records for Team GB: first gold medal in diving; first gold medal in gymnastics; first medal of any kind in trampolining and the women’s hammer; first British athlete to win eight medals; and first British woman to win four golds. It was a wonderful two weeks, even if the time zone difference – plus, you know, going to work – meant I couldn’t watch everything I wanted to. Here are some of the things I enjoyed most:
Diving – men’s synchronised 10m platform
I don’t pretend to really understand diving, except for such basic concepts as ‘the smaller the splash, the better’ and ‘face or feet hitting the water first = bad’. Mostly, I had to rely on the tone in the commentator’s voice immediately following the dive. But watching Tom Daley and Dan Goodfellow complete in the synchronised 10m platform was still very engaging and tense: the long wait for their turn every round, and trying to monitor the points to see if they would manage to nab the bronze. After the final dive, the wait for the scores felt very long indeed – but it was enough for third place, with Daley and Goodfellow falling into the pool in their celebrations. Unfortunately, something seemed to go wrong for Tom Daley in the individual event: from doing very well in the preliminaries, he unexpectedly came last in the semi-finals. But at least he still went home with a medal.
Jessica Ennis-Hill (or simply Ennis as she was back then) winning the women’s heptathlon in London was definitely a highlight of those Games – but would she be able to defend her title in Rio? It wasn’t just that she had taken time out to have a baby; she had a rival in Team GB – Katarina Johnson-Thompson. I was really impressed with the effort that Johnson-Thompson put in for the London 2012 heptathlon; aged 19 at the time, she finished 15th, and had been showing real potential in the intervening years. I was hoping for a really great battle between the two of them – maybe they would both get medals!
On the first day, both women looked very strong in their favoured events: Ennis-Hill set a fast time in the 100m hurdles, and in the high jump, Johnson-Thompson cleared impressive heights with room to spare. But by the second day, it was clear that the most dangerous competitor was Belgium’s Nafissatou Thiam, who was setting personal bests in most of the events. A poor performance in the javelin put Johnson-Thompson out of medal contention, while Thiam managed an amazing throw to stay on top of the table. I was up at 12:30am to watch both the javelin and the 800m, where Ennis-Hill needed to beat Thiam by about 10 seconds to top the table – but she couldn’t quite manage it. I was disappointed, but reminded myself that Ennis-Hill already had a gold medal and really couldn’t have done anything more – Thiam had just been too good. But it wasn’t just the heptathlon I wanted to watch during this late night viewing…
This man has reached a point where it’s impossible to imagine him losing. Gold in the 5000m and 10,000m in London 2012 – then the same at the 2013 World Championships; at the 2014 European Championships; and at the 2015 World Championships! Of course these long-distance races are very different viewing experiences from the short-distance sprints: as long as the athlete you’re supporting keeps pace with the others most of the way, it’s in the last two laps that things really get exciting. As it was, there was a heart-pounding moment in the early stages of the 10,000m when Farah actually tripped and went down; fortunately, he was back up and running in the time it took my heart to reach my mouth. On the final lap, it looked like he might be beaten, but then he turned on the acceleration – which seems an unbelievable effort to a non-athlete watching – and pulled off another incredible victory! The following week, Farah won the 5000m too. Like Usain Bolt, watching him win never gets old, no matter how many times he does it.
It’s funny how Andy Murray is currently ranked number 2 in men’s tennis when he’s only won three Grand Slams – granted, he has been runner-up in another eight, where it was often Novak Djokovic who beat him. At London 2012, Murray was still waiting for his first Grand Slam victory, which was partly why it was so especially brilliant to see him win the gold. But could he do it again?Although Djokovic, the biggest threat in the men’s singles on paper, went out early on, Murray’s campaign was still painfully tense. In two of his matches – against Italy’s Fabio Fognini and USA’s Steve Johnson – he looked far from invincible, losing a set in both, and needing a tiebreaker against Johnson in the final set. But both times, Murray came out on top in the end, finally making it to the final against the Argentinian, Juan Martin del Potro. This one proved to be a real battle, lasting four sets, with both players giving it their all and clearly very tired by the end. But Murray won once more, the first person to defend the men’s singles title in the Olympics.
What else needs to be said about Usain Bolt? The man was already a legend when he arrived at these Olympics, and he proved just as incredible as ever, winning three gold medals for the third time. He may only be in action for up to 20 seconds at a time, but I love watching him run, wondering when he’s going to pull ahead of everyone else, what distance he’s going to win by, and how enthusiastic his celebration is going to be. It’s a real shame that this is the last Olympics we’ll see him perform.
Women’s field hockey
By this stage in the Olympics, things were winding down and the evenings weren’t quite as packed with sports I was interested in, but the women’s field hockey final between Great Britain and the Netherlands was a thriller. Great Britain were the plucky underdogs and went behind twice, but never gave up and fought hard to grab equalisers. The match ended 3-3, leading to a penalty shootout, which I had never realised works rather differently than one in football. The penalty taker had an eight-second window in which to score, during which time they would rush the goalkeeper, leading to a close-range faceoff not unlike something out of Gladiators. The number of successful penalties was much lower than in a football shootout: it finished 2-0 – in favour of Great Britain!
The unexpected medals
It’s one thing to cheer on a proven winner like Mo Farah, who is expected to do well – but just as exciting and inspiring, if not more so, were the medals that hadn’t necessarily been predicted and came as very pleasant surprises. Among these for Team GB were a gold in the men’s synchronised 3m springboard; two bronzes in the shooting events; more bronzes in the men’s badminton doubles and women’s hammer throw; and a silver in the women’s trampoline that reduced Bryony Page to tears. Set a target of 3-5 medals in the gymnastics, the British ended up winning 7 – including a bronze for the team’s youngest member, 16-year-old Amy Tinkler. Particularly inspiring was 58-year-old Nick Skelton, who won gold in the individual equestrian jumping: not only had Skelton broken his neck 16 years earlier and initially retired, but he was Britain’s oldest gold medallist since 1908.
But the absolute highlight?
Everything that happened in the Velodrome
It’s well established that track cycling is one of Team GB’s biggest strengths, and watching them prove that again in Rio was a delight. There were fourteen track cyclists in Team GB – and every single one of them got at least one medal. Not to mention, they set world records like it was going out of fashion: six times!
But it wasn’t just that Team GB was doing really well – the events were really exciting anyway. The individual sprint would begin by racking up the tension as one cyclist slowly led their opponent around the track, the two of them testing each other out until one of them finally broke and the sprint began. The third and final lap would often see the winner accelerating and pulling ahead just on the final stretch. Kristina Vogel of Germany won the women’s event, with Britain’s Becky James and Katy Marchant taking silver and bronze respectively; but the men’s event saw an all-GB final with Jason Kenny defeating Callum Skinner.
The team pursuit was a much longer race; every time the two teams completed a lap and crossed the middle of the track in opposite directions, I’d be watching closely to see who was ahead and how big the gap was, as well as when a member of one team would break away – the first team to go from four to three would usually lose. Unfortunately, I suffered a disaster watching the final of the men’s team pursuit between Great Britain and Australia, which I had chosen to watch in bed on my phone. Australia were ahead of much of the race, but the gap was tiny. Then Great Britain started pulling ahead – at which point the video suddenly cut out. I scrambled to get it going again, but by the time I did, the race was over, leaving me cursing my wretched phone. When Great Britain went up against the United States in the final of the women’s team pursuit, I watched it on television.
The men’s keirin – which saw Jason Kenny going for his third gold medal of the Games – was also a tense affair: twice, the race was stopped and restarted, because of one or more cyclists being in the wrong position when the pacer was leaving the track. For a few worrying minutes, it looked like Kenny might be disqualified; but he stayed in the race, and on the third attempt, won it in dramatic fashion. With a total of six gold medals to his name, Kenny is now level with Chris Hoy as having the most golds of any British athlete. Meanwhile, Bradley Wiggins became the first British athlete to win eight medals with victory in the team pursuit; and after winning the women’s team pursuit and the omnium, Laura Trott became Britain’s most successful female Olympian with four golds. Jason Kenny and Laura Trott also happen to be engaged; just how good at cycling will their children be?
Everybody in Team GB should be very proud of themselves, and what they have achieved should not be taken for granted, no matter how easy some of them made it look. They are all brilliant examples of where perseverance gets you, and I hope this Olympics motivates even more people to follow their ambitions in such a way. Thank you, Team GB, for one heck of a show!