Olympic Summary 2008

Olympic Summary 2008

Some of you might know I’ve been writing a daily Olympic blog for AOL whilst out in Beijing on BBC duty. For those who don’t I’ve placed them all below on this dedicated page on my website.

When the swimming finished I managed to see a few sites and catch some some athletics in the remarkable Bird’s Nest stadium, including the extraordinary moment Usain Bolt thundered through the 100m world record barrier. But now I’m back at home and enjoying the TV and radio coverage like everyone else. It has also given me time to take a step back from the adrenaline rush and whirl that surrounds live broadcasting and Olympic life. I can sit on my settee with a coffee and chocolate biscuit and reflect whilst continuing to enjoy the unfolding events.

And with the benefit of a few days break the achievements and advancements of GB swimming have not faded in the slightest. Quite the opposite in fact. The brilliant swims of Keri-Anne Payne, Cassie Patten and David Davies in the 10km Open Water events have wonderfully underlined the progress we are making. Remember that Keri-Anne, Cassie and David are pool swimmers and they were up against fields largely made up of OW specialists. It was only David’s third such race and in truth his inexperience over the last 200m probably cost him a gold, but that is in no way a criticism of what was a 99% superb swim.

As of Friday morning (August 22) swimming accounts for two medals of each colour which places it alongside rowing in GB’s table of success. More than 50% of the team recorded Personal Bests and the majority of that team is young enough to be around for at least one more Olympics. The bare facts are all good and encouraging right now…and it is not often we have been able to say that in the past.

Rebecca Adlington’s double gold was a staggering achievement. Remember she is only 19 and still has her whole career before her. She has already achieved good things in the pool o an international basis and I thought and predicted she had a medal in her. However she is returning to Mansfield as one of our great Olympians who also smashed the longest standing world record in women’s swimming. I can’t honestly say I saw that coming!

Jo Jackson, who took her all the way in the 400m before finishing with a terrific bronze must not be forgotten in the wake (excuse the pun) of Becky’s exploits. Apart from an Olympic medal of her own, she played a huge part in that 400m swim and setting in motion Becky’s historic double gold.

I understand Becky’s primary financial ambition in the fallout of her massive success is to secure a contract that will allow her to get free goggles! I think she might have a bit more than that coming her way but it does illustrate what a genuine and down to earth person she is and one who I’m sure will cope with the spotlight and increased profile that is now inevitable – starting with the open top bus ride around her home town.

Of course the Olympic feelgood factor and euphoria will die down over coming weeks and give way to blanket media coverage of football, but please don’t forget these last few days in the waters of Beijing as they point to a very exciting future. We will be in Rome for the Swimming World Championships next summer so that will be the next opportunity to see team GB in action and monitor our progress – don’t miss it!

Across the board we are looking at an Olympic performance more successful than even the most brazen optimists had predicted. As I write this Dr. Tim Brabants has just picked up gold in the 1000m flat water canoeing. This greatest prize of all adds to his World and European crowns…yet had you heard of him before this week? Probably not, and that is the beauty of the games. They expose the hard work, skill, talent and personality of people who achieve excellence in elite pursuits but live their lives in the sporting shadows. Fame, notoriety and riches have nothing to do with it for them, but once every four years the nation and indeed the world sits up and recognises them for the great competitors they are.

And the adjective ‘excellent’ can most easily be bolted to the verb ‘cycling’. What GB’s cycling team did was incredible. It has never been remotely approached before and may never be again…unless by the same squad and those on the fringes of it. There is no need to wax lyrical about what went on in the velodrome and the roads (Nicole Cooke and Emma Pooley), it was plain for all to see. We won four times as many medals as the next most successful nation. I have no idea when that kind of disparity existed in any Olympic discipline.

The athletes are exceptional of course, impressive people with a towering work ethic and immense talent. But the support systems and coaching structure is now the envy of the world. For once we are not playing catch up and looking abroad, we are setting the standards for others to follow.

Rowing once again delivered a healthy quota of medals which is something we have almost come to expect with the legacy of Sirs Redgrave and Pinsent. We shouldn’t be complacent though and our rowers train morning noon and night for years on end to sustain our success on the water. As with the cycling the coaching is first class the mind-sets are spot on and we look to have the strength in depth to carry out success well into London 2012. The same applies to sailing where we are still the nation to chase.

The farcical situation with boxer Frankie Gavin – our only predicted boxing gold medalist who was sent home for failing to make the weight – is now a distant memory thanks to the efforts of James DeGale who won middleweight gold. It certainly wasn’t a pretty final against the Cuban, but who cares?! And Tony Jefferies and David Price fought their way to bronze medals. And still on the combat sport front we have a prodigiously talented young Taekwondo exponent in 17-year-old Aaron Cooke came within a whisker of bronze and Sarah Stevenson who – after all kinds of judging ineptitude and behind the scenes machinations – kept her composure to win a valiant bronze medal.

The successes are all around us and all manner of people have stepped up and in some cases exceeded expectation. Christine Ohuruogu’s gold was utterly thrilling but Tasha Danvers’ bronze was equally uplifting in its own way. Whilst Christine was expected to do well and run for the medals Tasha, who missed Athens to have a baby, was quite lucky to be there at all after a relatively poor year and losing in the Olympic preliminaries. She is now 30 and has been a great servant to UK athletics, her medal was very much deserved.

In track and field there were ups and downs. Baton change foul ups in mens and women’s relays might have cost medals and there were some near misses: Goldie Sayers 4th in javelin, Lisa Dobrisky 4th in 1500m, 4th in Men’s 4×400 and 5th in Women’s 4×400. I know close does not win medals, but close is nevertheless reason for optimism and something firm on which to build.

Praise and encouragement must go to our diving girls Tonia Couch and Stacie Powell too. Both are very young, inexperienced at this level and had done well just to make the Olympics at all. Both fought through the rounds to make the final and both finished inside the top 10 – another superb brace of performances from competitors who have so much more to come. And of course Tom Daley belied his 14 years to seem very comfortable with the whole Olympic experience and come a superb 7th in his final. These are talents that will be fully blossoming in four years time.

As of Friday morning we are already breaking medal tally expectations and records and, without wishing to be negative, it is worth considering what might have been: Jessica Ennis and Zara Phillips didn’t make it to Beijing, Paula Radcliffe was unfit, Kelly Sotherton failed to medal, Shanaze Reade crashed, Frankie Gavin was sent home, Beth Tweddle was squeezed into 4th, Judo had a disaster, men’s 4 x 100m messed up the final baton change, the women’s team bungled their changeover – both looked good for a medal. Sport is of course made up of “what ifs”, but I only point this out to illustrate how great our potential actually is.

So why now? How have our sporting fortunes swung around since Atlanta where we came home with a single gold medal? There are many factors of course: the right people in the right places, talent being spotted and harnessed, desire, determination and belief of individual sportspeople, the dedication and skill of coaches, opportunities for youngsters, facilities…the list goes on. One inescapable fact is money. Without it coaches can’t be employed, facilities won’t exist, equipment won’t be available, medical support will not be in place, initiatives to attract participants will be ineffective and athletes will not be able to devote the time necessary to achieve global excellence.

Lottery funding is now having an effect. It was never going to be instantaneous but the impact is now being felt. Most people know all about the lottery and millions play it every week, however the SportsAid Foundation is probably less familiar to you but gives 1500 grants per year its work is invaluable. I am delighted to be a Patron.

The Foundation doesn’t deal in the big Lottery numbers but provides £400 here and £600 there which can make a huge difference to those making their way in sport. A quick look at our medal table as of Thursday August 21st proves this – 24 of the 36 medals won have been achieved by SportsAid athletes including the likes of Chris Hoy, Becky Adlington and Ben Ainslie. For more information on this body please go to www.sportsaid.org.uk.

Well I’ve come to the end and haven’t mentioned Michael Phelps! He has already occupied a few thousand words of my AOL blog and for good reason, he is an phenomenon. What he did was something like a track athlete winning golds in the 200, 400, 800, 1500, 4×100 relay, 4x400m relay, long jump and discuss and setting world records in seven of them. Sounds preposterous doesn’t it?!

I’m off to London on Sunday and will be involved in the Olympic Handover Party in The Mall. That will be a lot of fun and I think an interview is planned for me with Michael Phelps which will perfectly conclude for me and us as a nation what has been a truly wonderful Olympic Games. Roll on London 2012!

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