In the rush of gold medals, world records, personal bests, triumphs and disasters which have made for compelling viewing during the opening week of the London 2012 Olympics, it’s easy to miss some of the stories behind the headlines. Here are ten which may have escaped your attention, or at the very least bear repeating.
1. What’s in a number?
The opening ceremony contained subtle nods to two of the darker moments in Britain’s recent history. The singing of the traditional football hymn Abide With Me featured 96 dancers – one for each person who was killed in the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. And the lighting of the Olympic cauldron featured seven young torch-bearing athletes, who had been nominated by seven Olympic legends – a nod to the 7/7 bombings. Subtle, but beautifully understated.
2. Jobs for the boys
When Michael Phelps won his 19th career Olympic medal during the week, he moved past Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina to become the most decorated Olympian of all time. Latynina offered to present Phelps with his record-breaking medal, which would have been a lovely PR moment to celebrate an achievement which may well never be beaten. (At the time of writing, Phelps had added two more medals to move on to 21, of which a remarkable 17 are gold.)
What did the IOC do? They politely declined Latynina’s offer, and instead Phelps was presented with his historic medal by … a basketball administrator, in a clear case of jobs for the boys. Go figure.
Incidentally, did you know that Phelps’ middle name is Fred. Now you do.
3. Answering the small ads
Half of the pair which won Great Britain’s first gold medal of the Games would not even have been competing in London 2012 had she not responded to a classified ad in the paper. Okay, not quite a classified ad, but rower Helen Glover – who partnered Heather Stanning to victory in the women’s coxless pairs – was training to become a PE teacher when she answered the call of the Sporting Giants scheme, a programme aiming to recruit taller athletes to compete in specific events. She was directed towards the rowing squad, and the rest is history.
Glover did already come from impressive sporting bloodlines. Her father captained Cornwall at rugby, she attended the famous sport-focussed Millfield School, competed internationally as a junior in cross-country and was a member of the England satellite squad for hockey. But the fact is that without a recruitment scheme that many people (myself included) sniggered at at the time, Britain would have been waiting a bit longer for its opening gold medal of its home Games.
4. One tough cookie
On paper, Gemma Gibbons should have followed all the preceding members of the British judo team – including her boyfriend Euan Burton – in suffering an early exit from Olympic competition. I get the feeling Gemma Gibbons doesn’t much care for the laws of probability. Born in Charlton, virtually a judo throw away from the Olympic park, the 25-year old overcame an absentee father and the loss of her mother to leukaemia while still a teenager to win a heart-warming silver medal in the 78kg category. The 42nd-ranked judoka beat three top-10 ranked opponents en route to the final, including a semi-final win over world champion Audrey Tcheumeo. More than that, she did so fighting with an injured hand for most of the competition as Burton revealed in a tweet the following morning which showed a close-up of what appeared to be a sprained thumb sustained in one of her early bouts.
Media coverage at an Olympic Games often focuses heavily on the big names winning the big medals. But it is medallists such as Gibbons who reveal the true core of the Olympic spirit.
5. Two tough cookies
Gibbons lost in the 78kg final to the American Kayla Harrison, who herself had quite a back-story. In defeating Gibbons, Harrison became the first American to win an Olympic judo gold, despite tearing a medial collateral ligament in her knee earlier in the season. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Harrison took up judo aged six and won two national championships by the time she turned 15 under the tutelage of coach Daniel Doyle. However, it was later revealed that Doyle was abusing Harrison during this time, for which he subsequently received a ten-year prison sentence.
6. Simply the best
Jessica Ennis goes into the second day of the heptathlon competition with a useful 184-point lead over Lithuania’s Austra Skujyte. The 26-year old recorded a personal best in the final event of the day, the 200 metres, but she also opened her campaign in the most spectacular fashion, clocking 12.54s for the opening event, the 100 metres hurdles.
Her run established a new personal best (by a huge 0.25s margin), a new British record and was the fastest time ever recorded in the discipline in a heptathlon competition. It also matched the time in which Dawn Fraser won gold in the 100 metres hurdles individual event in Beijing. Mighty impressive.
7. Eyes down for a full house
Tennis’ career Golden Slam – wins in each of the four majors (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open) plus the Olympic Games – has been achieved by just three singles players to date: Steffi Graf, Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal. At the start of the 2012 Olympic tennis tournament, three players had the opportunity to achieve the feat. All three – Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova – have reached their finals.
The fourth finalist? Britain’s Andy Murray, who takes on Federer in a repeat of last month’s Wimbledon men’s final. Only he stands in the way of the original trio being swelled to a quintet.
8. So near and yet so far
Fourth is the loneliest position in which to finish an Olympic event – within touching distance of a medal, but not quite enough to avoid going home empty-handed. So you have to feel sorry for the USA’s Taylor Phinney – a 22-year old cyclist who led the Giro d’Italia for three days back in May – who finished in this position not once but twice. First he was fourth in the men’s road race, just eight seconds behind the gold and silver pair of Alexandre Vinokourov (Kazakhstan) and Rigoberto Uran (Colombia). Four days later he was fourth-fastest in the men’s time trial. That’s got to hurt.
9. The Mail at its jingoistic worst
I’m not a big fan of the Mail newspaper in either its daily or Sunday incarnations. It is a newspaper which appeals to the most basic and jingoistic lowest common denominator, and it managed to outdo itself twice before the Olympics was 72 hours old.
Firstly the Mail on Sunday carried the headline ‘Nowhere Man’ in reference to the aforementioned Alexandre Vinokourov – largely because he wasn’t Mark Cavendish and some hack sub-editor was too lazy to look him up in Wikipedia. This is a man who cycling fans will tell you has won the Vuelta a Espana (one of cycling’s three Grand Tours) and several of the sport’s most prestigious stage and one-day races. In football terms, it’s a bit like calling Andres Iniesta a ‘nowhere man’ because he doesn’t play in the Premier League.
The following day the Daily Mail, via the column of the odious Jan Moir – whose many headline-grabbing crimes against decency and reasonable thought I will not even begin to list here – referred to women’s road race winner Marianne Vos – who many fans agree to be the greatest all-round rider of her generation – as “some bitch from Holland”. As proud as I was to be British after Danny Boyle’s wonderfully quirky opening ceremony, this had me ducking my head in shame.
10. Golden (and silver and bronze) oldies
Youth counts for a lot in Olympic competition – as amply demonstrated by the number of winners in the swimming pool and gymnastics arena who are still not legally permitted to drink or drive – but so does experience. Of course, there are events in which age is no handicap (the equestrian events, for instance) but even in those which require immense physical power and endurance the older generation have still held their own (and then some) in many cases.
Cycling gold medallists Vinokourov (yes, him again) and Kristin Armstrong are both 38 – indeed both turn 39 within the next six weeks. Rower Greg Searle – a gold medallist in Barcelona 20 years ago – won a bronze medal in the men’s eight at the age of 40. And, also at Eton Dorney, Kath Grainger finally won gold in the double sculls at the comparatively youthful age of 36, having claimed silver in each of the past three Games. There’s hope for all of us yet.