Rio 2016: From the magic of Mo to the brilliance of the Brownlees - Britain's greatest Olympic Games

Kevin Garside looks back at Team GB's best Olympic Games since 1908

Kevin Garside
Rio de Janeiro
Sunday 21 August 2016 22:26
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The women's team pursuit with their cycling gold medals
The women's team pursuit with their cycling gold medals

These games were by any measure a stunning triumph for Britain, reflecting the centrality of sport to the British way of life. The hardware flowed across a broad spectrum, golds coming in 15 sports, a spread five greater than even the American battering ram could manage.

The second place finish in the medal table represents Britain’s greatest achievement, surpassing London. There was no home advantage here. Nor did we have the full compliment of athletes across all disciplines that London afforded. The target was 48 medals. Such modesty. Team GB knocked that off with five days to go.

Across the board the narratives soared. Where to begin? On whom to shine a light? Let’s start with Britain’s first medal of the games, Adam Peaty’s motorised swim to breaststroke gold. His performance in the pool was arresting, or "insane" if you prefer the description of Michael Phelps after Peaty's split time in the 4x100m medley.

Rio 2016 - picture highlights of games

Peaty dived in sixth and hit the wall first to give Britain a fighting chance of gold. Phelps would later recover the losses for the United States as only he can, but that did not remove the gloss from another stirring British effort against the most powerful swimming nation on earth.

Justin Rose’s gold in golf was particularly significant since so many of the world’s finest players found a zika-coated reason not to be here. Rose was taken to the very last hole by Sweden’s Henrik Stenson. Locked on 15 under par it came down to a chip and a putt. Rose made his for birdie, Stenson bogeyed. Rose described it as his greatest victory, powerful sanction from the 2014 US Open champion.

The story didn’t end there. Rose forgot to remove his ball from the hole in the excitement of victory. It was spotted an hour later by a Brazilian photographer taking some retrospective shots. Rose signed the ball, which will take pride of place in the clubhouse, when it is finished, of course.

Andy Murray showed what Olympic competition meant to him in a lung busting five-setter with Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina. Their embrace over the net at the end, a moving show of profound mutual respect, remains one of the most enduring images of these games.

Up there with that kiss. Laura Trott and Jason Kenny barely acknowledged each other before setting out for track cycling gold on the last night in the velodrome, she in the omnium, he in the individual sprint.

Trott got their first and had to wait an hour for Kenny to cross the line after two false starts.

The emotion Trott had earlier suppressed erupted uncontrollably, almost taking the lid off the arena. Her face, reddened by effort and tears, sought his. Pure rapture.

There was love of a different order in the men’s triathlon with the Brownlee boys, Alistair and Jonathan, collapsing in blissful fatigue after becoming the first siblings to win gold and silver in British history. Alistair attributed at least a part of their success to Britain’s sporting heritage.

Yes, money counts. Without UK Sport funding the Brownlees would not be able to prepare so rigorously. He acknowledged that while pointing out that were it not for the default setting of sport-obsessed Briton, neither he nor his brother would have been out swimming, cycling and running in the first place.

"Under it all we are actually a sports-mad nation,” he said. “There is so much that goes on away from the funding. There is a massive sporting heritage and that gets overlooked. Day in, day out we see people cycling, cross country races, people running, people swimming. There were easily more British flags out there than all the other flags put together.”

For sheer drama nothing came close to Britain’s first women’s hockey gold against the brilliant Dutch. Britain drew level at 3-3 in the final quarter and showed the greater resolve in the penalty shoot-out. It was a special moment for all involved and gave skipper Kate Richardson-Walsh and spouse Helen the distinction of being the first gay married couple to win Olympic gold.

Have I not mentioned Mo Farah, he of the 5000m and 10,000m gold repeat from London? Ho hum, so routine. Sorry Mo, you were magnificent as ever, as too, by definition, were all the golden men and women of Britain whose names space did not allow a tag in this piece.

Outside Britain’s narrow concerns we said goodbye to Phelps and the incomparable Usain Bolt. You know their stories. Suffice is to say we shall not see their like again. Hopefully the same can be said of Ryan Lochte, the American buffoon whose overbearing conceit turned a night out with the lads into an embarrassing diplomatic incident.

It took the arrogance of a swimmer in love with himself to highlight some of the the first world condescension showered on the hosts this past fortnight. Brazil, a conflicted country riven by inequality is a soft target for liberal hauter.

The elites and the politicians deserve what they get, but don’t confuse them with the ordinary folk, most of whom were priced out of these games. The majority were pleased to see us, made us welcome, and have to soldier on when we have left.

Late on Saturday night in the Maracana Brazil’s footballers gave them what they wanted above all else, football gold, achieved via penalty kicks against Germany, revenge of sorts for the World Cup humiliation of Belo Horizonte two years ago.

The blight of empty stands was not a feature on this occasion. The night convulsed to a percussive soundtrack of drums, whistles and car horns. The Olympics had arrived on the streets of Rio at last.

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