James Lawton: Canadian gold standard lights way for London
Lord Coe insists the fine performance of the home team at the Vancouver Games shows how 2012 can be a resounding success
Monday 01 March 2010
Lord Sebastian Coe, who knows all about Olympic pressure, is flying home from the Winter Games with an unequivocal message for every British athlete facing the challenge of London 2012.
It can be summed up succinctly enough – and even borrowed from an old recruiting poster of World War One: the nation expects.
The requirement is the oxygen of success that so inspired Britain in Beijing in 2008 and has to be reproduced on home soil if London is to be included in the roll call of great Olympics.
After watching Canadian athletes deliver a winning total of gold medals – after the failures to gather a single one in the summer of Montreal in 1976 and the winter of Calgary in 1988 – the man who won both gold and silver in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics in Moscow and Los Angeles is clear about what he – and, he believes, the nation – wants to see from London Games costing somewhere north of £9.1 billion.
It is that the athletes and coaches of Britain accept and deal with the responsibility that over the last 17 days here threatened first to overwhelm the home athletes, then provoked record performance.
Lord Coe, chairman of the London organising committee and the man whose huge standing among the Olympic hierarchy swung the bid away from the hard favourites Paris, said: "We have to deliver memorable, great games, something that can hopefully combine the forensic organisation of Beijing and the beauty of spirit of Barcelona in 1992, but among the things we have learned here is the vital role of the home athletes.
"Canada's Own the Podium policy has been criticised but not by me. Pressure is a huge part of the Olympics – it has to be lived with and conquered and this has been achieved here.
"British athletes and their coaches have to be aware of the enormous pressure and they have to deal with effectively. It has to be an integral part of their preparations. It is what competing at the highest level is all about."
Canada, despite being waylaid by criticism that they had piled too many hopes on the backs of their athletes, went into last night's ice hockey final needing victory over the United States to become all-time leaders of the Winter Olympic gold standard.
With their total of golds pushed to 13 by the triumph of curling veteran Kevin Martin's team, Canada shared the record mark of the Soviet Union in Innsbruck in 1976 and Norway at Salt Lake City eight years ago – and were, according to both Coe and another outstanding British Olympian, Sir Steven Redgrave, vindicated in the ambition they brought into these games.
Both men know how easy it is to be overwhelmed by the demands of an Olympics – on any soil. Redgrave, reviewing events here the other day, said: "You spend four years telling everybody, including sponsors, how you're going to win a gold and then the moment comes when you have to go out and do it. It's not an easy thing."
Coe also recalled the sense of disaster that built around him when he landed a mere silver medal in the 800 metres in Moscow – before going out to win 1500 metres gold with a masterful run a few days later.
"I entered the real world of the Olympics in the 800 metres, and looking back I realised that if I had gone to Montreal four years earlier [when he was still a teenager] I would probably have been blown away but would have learned some vital lessons."
Coe's recovery of poise in Moscow provided a classic Olympic story – as did his repeat victory in the 1500 metres in Los Angeles four years later, when he came back from illness and disrupted training with a run that inspired the Los Angeles columnist Jim Murray to describe him as the "young Lord Byron of the track''.
But if the future Lord Coe did touch poetry on that smoggy day in LA, he is all hard business now.
From the Winter Games he brings home three working models for the kind of performance, and display of character, that can set British blood racing fast in London in 2012.
They are, in no particular order Amy Williams, Britain's supremely composed skeleton gold medal winner, her Canadian counterpart in the men's event, a red-haired adventurer named Jon Montgomery who jubilantly slugged back a pitcher of beer handed to him by fans after his final winning run, and the figure skater Joannie Rochette, who a few days after the sudden death of her mother delivered one of the performances of her life.
Here, for Coe, was the essence of Olympic performance, a perfect blend of talent and unshakeable commitment.
Coe said: "If you wanted a symbol of achievement in the Olympics, of dealing with all the kind of pressures they bring up, I just don't think you could improve on the effort of this young woman who on top of all her other challenges had to deal with terrible grief.
"She handled all of that pressure and she gave a great performance. It is at the very heart of what has to be done if you want to succeed at this level. Now that British athletes are facing the pressure that so many Canadian athletes have responded to so well it cannot be emphasized enough that they have to focus on more than their times and the success of their training.
"They have to work with their coaches to deliver performance when so much is expected of them. It is the hardest thing an athlete can face and here we have seen it pulled off repeatedly, especially in the second week. When you consider the background of Canada not winning a gold medal in the two home Olympics it has indeed been a remarkable effort, and most of all by Joannie Rochette in her circumstances."
Williams will inevitably be the pin-up girl of the British Olympic Association's attempt to shore up their funding after winning the team's only medal – two less than the target set by UK Sport. Redgrave, who won gold medals at five separate Olympics, said gallantly that Williams' gold was worth five of any other variety and Coe also believes that her victory was a superb example of what can be done with the right support – and the best of competitive temperaments.
Coe says that the obligation of his committee is to deliver games successful at every level – and not least in the matter of touching the people, persuading them that it is their Olympics and something they will want to savour for the rest of their lives. It is an aspect of these initially embattled Winter Games which has hugely impressed Coe.
"They have managed to draw in the people, make them feel part of the Games and this will probably be my strongest memory, plus the way the athletes have responded to the challenge. The organisers have been smart in the way they set up live sites in the city, it has been good theatre and the people have got more and more involved."
Not every Vancouverite has been bowled over, but far more than anyone imagined when the city's plebiscite on whether to bid for the Games produced a no vote of more than 33 per cent.
Plainly, like most Olympics, these have been less than flawless and the tragic and avoidable death of the young Georgian luger, Nodar Kumaritashvili, will always remain for some an immovable stain.
However, there is no doubt that the city and the nation has been enriched by more than a mere chauvinistic craving to finish at the top of a medals table. If at times the games have brought the worst out of Canada, as they might any nation, more often they have produced the best.
For confirmation of this we really need look further than the grace of the figure skater from a little town in Quebec. She won more than a bronze, she produced life-affirming grace and courage.
It leaves Lord Coe, not unnaturally, asking for a little more of the same in two years time. The guess here is that it would probably be enough to light up the old town.
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