Now for London 2012: Ohuruogu's already fretting about the Liu Xiang factor

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was the afternoon after the night before and Christine Ohuruogu was sitting on a sofa in the Olympic Village, her chunk of precious metal zipped up in the pocket of her Team GB tracksuit bottoms.

It was the gold medal for which she had battled down the home straight in the Bird's Nest the previous evening, surging from fifth to first in the final quarter of the women's 400m final in that powerful, gliding, utterly irresistible fashion of hers – the only British track and field gold of these Olympic Games, the gold she intends to defend next door to her family home in Stratford come the summer of 2012.

As her sights shifted from the Olympic mission accomplished at Beijing 2008 towards the long-term home-town target, the young woman from the East End of London was not exactly thinking of the Cathy Freeman Moment at the Sydney Games in 2000, when the Aussie poster girl memorably delivered a home gold in the showpiece track and field arena – and in the women's 400m, coincidentally.

No, as she looked down the line and considered her starring role in a reworking of Great Expectations, Ohuruogu was thinking of the Liu Xiang Moment of Beijing 2008, when four years of mounting pressure and the hopes of 1.3 billion people ended in tears, national mourning and an apologetic address to the nation on television.

"It was really painful to watch," Ohuruogu said, reflecting on the Monday morning 110m hurdles heat and the defending champion's limping exit down the tunnel entrance of the Bird's Nest. "It did kind of make me think, 'Hang on a minute. If it's like this for Liu Xiang, imagine what it's going to be like for British athletes – not just myself, but other athletes from all sports – who are going to be competing in London'. I just think of the disappointment of Tom Daley in his first event here and how he was hyped up so much and in the end he cracked.

"I think, in a sense, everyone's responsible for that," she added. "We hyped him up so much. He's only 14 years old. We're all responsible for that. It's up to everyone, I think, to make sure that British athletes have the support they need to go out and do well and not to crack under the pressure. I think it takes a lot of sensitivity to make sure of that, to make sure that when they go out our athletes can perform to their best."

But how might the pressure and the expectation possibly be avoided? "I don't know how you can avoid it," east London's Olympic 400m champion said, "but I think it'll take a collective effort to make sure that we do support our athletes and give them the best help that they need – to make sure they're in the best shape that they can be. And if they do fail, they do fail. But life goes on. It's not for them to start slitting their wrists and stuff. That's a bit extreme, but you know what I mean..."

Indeed we do, though it is often wounds of a less critical nature that prove to be the death of Olympic dreams. Paula Radcliffe has come to appreciate as much, a leg injury and the debilitating effects of an antibiotics course having done for her on the road from Marathon to Athens in 2004, and a fractured femur having rendered her a long way short of fitness for the women's marathon here in Beijing last Sunday. The one thing you need above all else in the four-year cycle of an Olympiad is a state of rude health come the one day that matters most out of the 1,460.

Only three British athletes in the 112-year history of the modern Olympic Games have been blessed with sufficient health and fitness to defend a track and field title. Douglas Lowe won the 800m in Antwerp in 1920 and in Paris in 1924. Sebastian Coe won the 1500m in Moscow in 1980 and in Los Angeles four years later. And Daley Thompson prevailed in the decathlon in 1980 and again in 1984. No British woman has ever managed to hold on to an Olympic track and field crown, though.

So the girl from Stratford, the 24-year-old graduate in linguistics from University College, London, will have to create a little piece of history if she is to produce a golden home run four years from now. She has already done that here, becoming the first British athlete to win the Olympic women's 400m final.

Lillian Board came tantalisingly close in Mexico City in 1968, losing out in the last few strides to the fast-finishing Colette Besson of France. Board was 19 then. Her time was supposed to have come in the Munich Games of 1972. She died of cancer in a Munich clinic in December 1970, 13 days past her 22nd birthday.

"Someone told me about that recently, when I was at the team holding camp in Macau," Ohuruogu reflected. "I didn't know about it until then." Forty years after Mexico and 36 years on from the Munich Games that never were for Lillian Board, in Beijing's Bird's Nest last Tuesday one supremely gifted London girl finished the golden job that another was so tragically unable to complete.