James Lawton: The finest night in British sport
I've had the pleasure of watching Ali, Sobers, Coe and Best and World Cup glory in rugby and football but the amazing events of Saturday night eclipsed the lot
The Olympic Park
Monday 06 August 2012
The Javelin train that sped away from the Olympic Park late on Saturday might have been a magic carpet, such was the uplift of that part of the nation it bore. Strangers spoke to each other in London, some even hugged.
Imagine that. But there was another wonder and it is one which should never be forgotten when we consider the value of encouraging the potential of the best of our youth and, as enshrined by the magnificent Mo Farah, the spirit of those who come among us seeking a better, more secure life and to which they are ready to donate the greatest of their talent and ambition.
There has been much talk – and hype – about the legacies that London 2012 might bestow.
Well, we know the reality of the most important one now. It is that this old nation, which at times seems so weary and battered, retains the capacity to reach out for the highest of achievement in a place which is always guaranteed to work on the emotions of the world, every last speck of it.
It is the sports field, the running track, the rowing lake, the cycling stadium and, if we needed any kind of reminder of this, Farah, Jessica Ennis and Greg Rutherford gave us an ultimate one in considerably less than an hour at the heart of the Olympics.
Yes, ultimate. If you have been privileged enough to see some of the greatest passages of sport in your lifetime, if you have seen Muhammad Ali in the last of his glory, if you saw Garry Sobers at the peak of his powers and Sebastian Coe winning his golds and George Best and Barry John working their artistry, you like to think you are somewhat buttressed against some of the extremes of reaction. Maybe so, maybe not, but none of that came into play when Ennis and Farah and Rutherford ignited this stadium and so much of the land in such an extraordinary way.
Suddenly the babble of the public address system, the thumping music that so gratuitously accompanies even the most compelling action at these Olympics, had never seemed less appropriate. This was the creation of emotion so clean, so overwhelming, that it was possible to say that these indeed were the most thrilling, enrapturing moments we have ever experienced in a single rush in British sport.
No, we do not forget all of the great achievements: the World Cup of football in 1966, of rugby in 2003. We do not toss away the six majors of Sir Nick Faldo or the five gold medals of Sir Steven Redgrave and Sir Chris Hoy or the ground-breaking progress of Bradley Wiggins or the Ashes victories at home or abroad.
But we do say that on the day that a definitive century by Kevin Pietersen against the formidable South Africans went almost unnoticed, we saw something here quite unique in its intensity.
We saw three great prizes of Olympic sport seized in a seamless flow of brilliant performance and inspiring commitment.
Each single achievement would have shone like a diadem all on its own.
Consider the prize of the impassioned Rutherford, highly ranked in his field but required to deal with the immense pressure of performing his most demanding discipline in front of a vast and expectant home crowd. Far from intimidating, it made a roaring, belligerent giant of him.
His reward was a place in the pantheon occupied by some of the greatest athletes in Olympic history, Bob Beamon of the miracle long jump, Lynn Davies, the Welsh hero, and the astonishingly gifted Carl Lewis.
Farah, who left the war zone of his native Somalia, made a passing study of the great Kenyans, before achieving a new life here, was at pains to dedicate his trophy – the one once owned by the immortal Czech Emil Zatopek – to his adopted land. He was asked by an African journalist whether his victory should not have been part of the huge accumulation of success of his native continent, but he shook his head and said he had done it for the land which had given him and his wife and his joyfully celebrating young daughter, a new future, a new chance.
There was a point when the golden hour might have been the sole property of the winner who for the best of reasons had already been christened the face of the games. What a window to the heart and the soul of a great competitor is the face of Jessica Ennis.
Her final triumph was compressed into slightly more than two minutes of superb aggression in her last challenge before claiming the heptathlon title. She could have stepped carefully to the 800 metres result that would have gathered in her gold medal but the idea was rejected quite imperiously.
She burst into the lead and then regained it going to the line. It was marvellously consistent with her performance over the two most challenging days of her life. When she won her first event, the 100 metres hurdles on Friday morning with the first of three personal bests, it was as though the place, every single seat of it, had been charged with electricity. No one was given reason to flick off the switch.
There could have been another touch of glory if her 800 metres time had been marginally faster. She would have become only the fourth heptathlete to break the 7,000-point barrier which separates the most formidable of champions from those of the ages but it was a detail that did nothing to lighten the weight of emotion that greeted her success.
While Rutherford had followed in the strides of Beamon, and Farah those of Zatopek, Ennis had elected herself to the company of the sublimely gifted Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who smashed the world and Olympic records in Seoul in 1988.
For that, the American was billed as the superwoman of track and field.
Ennis, for the moment at least, may have to settle for a lesser plaudit but it will be at no cost to her meaning in the lives of ordinary people.
The girl from a terraced street in Sheffield has shown that if you have the will and the guts and the basic requirements of talent you can indeed set your own agenda. This, you had to suspect, was a key catalyst of the emotion that rose so swiftly in this stadium and then radiated across the country. It was not just the winning of a clutch of gold medals and it wasn't some workaday surge of national triumphalism.
More than anything it was an understanding that these were most significant rewards at the highest level of sport and that they had come only after years of the highest dedication. If Ennis is the face of the Games, she, along with Farah and Rutherford, has also become the heart.
So was it really the best night in British sport? Yes, indeed it was, because in their separate ways the heroes and the heroine could not have made their people any prouder to be who they were on a night none of them will ever forgot. The Javelin, by the way, made what in all the circumstances was quite an orderly stop at St Pancras.
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