Jessica Ennis set to spark the first Great British gold rush at London 2012
Rarely have Team GB hit the Olympic track and field with their golden hopes so high. But, says Simon Turnbull, even our best bets have rivals right behind them
Typical! You wait 104 years for a British track and field athlete to win an Olympic gold medal on home ground and two – maybe three or four or even more – come along at once. That, at least, is the dream scenario as the best of our runners, jumpers, throwers and hurdlers get ready for the third Games to be staged in London.
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that it will come true. There is a chance that Super Saturday on the track in the Olympic Stadium, 4 August, will launch a British gold rush in the showpiece arena of the 2012 Games.
There is a more than fair chance that Jessica Ennis will cross the finish line at the end of the final event of the heptathlon, the 800m, at around 8.45pm that night as Britain's first Olympic track and field winner on home ground since 25 July 1908.
It is sure to be a closer-run thing, though, for the great all-rounder from Sheffield than it was for Wyndham Halswelle, the last of seven British gold medal winners at the first London Olympics at the old White City Stadium. He enjoyed a solo run to victory in a 400m race that was controversially re-run after John Carpenter was disqualified for impeding Halswelle en route to victory in the original race and his two American team-mates withdrew in protest.
There were no home winners at Wembley in the "Austerity Games" of 1948. The great Fanny Blankers-Koen did fear she had lost to Maureen Gardner, a 19-year-old ballet teacher, in the 80m hurdles when the band struck up a chorus of "God Save the King" as the pair waited to hear the decision of a photo-finish. They both clocked the same time, 11.2sec, but the Flying Dutchwoman was declared the winner; the band had been heralding the arrival of the Royal Family.
It is just possible that there will be another British blank on the gold front this time. Ennis and the other major home contenders all have rivals capable of relegating them to silver, bronze or worse. There are enough budding Brits hitting form when it matters most, however, to suggest that a Midas touch will not prove elusive.
On that potentially Super-Duper Saturday alone, for instance, the denouement of the heptathlon is swiftly followed by the men's 10,000m, and Mo Farah will start as one of the main men – if not quite a clear favourite – in that event.
There is also a chance that there could be three British golds in that one night, the second day of track and field competition at the Games. After all, Greg Rutherford is joint leader of the long jump world rankings in 2012. However, he and Chris Tomlinson, who could also be in the medal equation, have been too inconsistent to pin golden hopes on their red, white and blue vests with true conviction.
We shall see.
There will be other golden shots as the track and field programme unfolds: the resurgent Christine Ohuruogu in the 400m the following day, Dai Greene in the 400m hurdles the day after that, then the red-hot Perri Shakes-Drayton in the 400m hurdles, possibly Phillips Idowu in the triple jump (if he manages to get to the competition in one piece and somehow find his best form) and Farah in the 5,000m.
It would be entirely fitting, however, if Ennis were the one to end the golden wait and to provide a winning push to a 77-strong squad that has enough in form talent to ride a few injury-induced setbacks and finish comfortably inside the medal target set by head coach Charles van Commenee – eight, including at least one gold – which would represent an improvement of 100 per cent on the British track and field haul in 2008.
Ennis missed out on the Beijing Olympics because of a triple stress fracture of the right foot. "It was devastating," she recalls. "I got so many flowers my front room was like a funeral parlour."
And with good reason. Ennis's family were left with £18,000 worth of unwanted flights, tickets and accommodation for Beijing. And she was left – temporarily at least – wondering whether she would be able to compete again.
Four years on, she tops the world rankings going into London, courtesy of the British-record points tally she amassed – 6,906 – in defeating Tatyana Chernona at the Hypo-Meeting at Götzis in Austria in May. The Russian, who relieved the 26-year-old South Yorkshirewoman of her World Championship title last summer, remains a real threat and a gripping battle beckons, with reigning champion Nataliya Dobrynska of Ukraine also likely to enter the gold medal equation.
Unlike Ennis, Farah made it to Beijing four years ago. In his case the bitter disappointment of failing to reach the 5,000m final has proved to be the motivational springboard to a gold medal challenge on home ground in 2012. Or two gold medal challenges, to be precise.
At the World Championships in Daegu last summer he was caught by surprise in the home straight in the 10,000m by Ibrahim Jeilan, a little-known Ethiopian, and had to settle for silver. He made no mistake in the 5,000m.
Farah will need to be at his sharpest and most vigilant on home ground but it is possible to allow for one slip or one inspired performance from one of his East African rivals, or from American Bernard Lagat in the 5,000m, and still hope with reasonable expectation that the Londoner will collect at least one gold out of two. As with Ennis, though, it promises to be thrillingly close for him.
Greene, the captain, is another member of the British team chasing gold on the back of a setback four years ago. The 400m hurdler from Llanelli missed out on selection at the 2008 trials and recalls crowding into the changing rooms at Moorways Stadium in Derby, where he was on British League duty for Swansea Harriers, to watch Usain Bolt win the 100m in Beijing.
Greene won the world title in Daegu a year ago but has since had to overcome the hurdle of knee surgery. He has not been able to get the better of Javier Culson this summer but almost caught the Puerto Rican in the Paris Diamond League meeting. He is finding his form with perfect timing and expect a humdinger of a home straight battle with Culson when it comes to the Olympic final.
Ohuruogu, of course, was the only British athlete who won Olympic gold in Beijing. The 400m runner from Stratford, next door to the Olympic Stadium, has endured three injury-addled years but returned to form with a stunning win over world champion Amantle Montsho in the London Grand Prix.
Shakes-Drayton, another East End girl, produced an equally rousing performance at Crystal Palace, shooting from 21st to joint second in the 400m hurdles world rankings. Of the two, Ohuruogu, with her knack of improving through the rounds, has the pedigree to mount a stronger gold medal challenge. Both, however, are capable of making any step on the podium.
Idowu's chances are more clouded, wit h a big question mark hanging over his fitness. If he can patch himself up, a triple jump medal is not beyond the bounds of possibility, although Americans Christian Taylor and Will Claye will be tough to beat.
There are other Britons with medal-winning potential – Rutherford and Tomlinson in the long jump, Yamile Aldama in the triple jump, Robbie Grabarz in the high jump, Holly Bleasdale in the pole vault, Goldie Sayers in the javelin, Lawrence Okoye in the discus, Tiffany Porter (if fit) in the 100m hurdles,
There is every chance that the home track and field team will hit the eight-medal target. The last British squad to do so were the class of 1988 in Seoul. They, however, failed to win one gold between them – even with Linford Christie, Colin Jackson, Sally Gunnell, Roger Black, Liz McColgan, Daley Thompson and Steve Cram in their ranks.
Three rivals for Team GB to fear
Tatyana Chernova (Heptathlon)
The tall, leggy Russian got the better of Jessica Ennis at the World Championships last summer and will have been grafting hard since the Briton turned the tables at Gotzis in May. Ennis knows she cannot afford a major slip in any of the seven events against a rival with Olympic gold pedigree – Chernova's mother won gold in the Soviet 4x400m relay squad in 1980.
Dejen Gebremeskel (5,000m)
The 22-year-old Ethiopian has the fastest 5,000m time of the year, having clocked 12min 46.81sec in the Paris Diamond League meeting. Mo Farah's British record is 12:53.11. He beat Gebremeskel in the World Championship final in Daegu last summer but the Ethiopian has taken his scalp, winning an indoor 3,000m race in Boston last year despite losing a shoe on the first lap.
Sanya Richards-Ross (400m)
The Jamaican-born American had Olympic 400m gold in her sights as she led into the home straight in Beijing four years ago but faded to third, Christine Ohuruogu taking the title. After suffering with illness at the World Championships last year, Richards-Ross has returned to form in 2012, winning the world indoor title in Istanbul in March and the US trials last month in 49.28sec.
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