spiked’s London Olympics top 10

From cycling glory to the brilliant Rudisha, spiked picks the Games' best moments.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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The past couple of weeks have demonstrated why the Olympics remains the Greatest Show on Earth: the sport. Here’s spiked‘s top 10 moments from London 2012.

10) The smiling assassin

At London 2012, women’s boxing was part of the Olympics for the first time in its history. And it provided many memorable moments. The performance of Ireland’s supreme Katie Taylor in the raucous atmosphere of the boxing arena at the ExCeL centre certainly stood out. But the fighter who gave the competition its smiling imprint was Britain’s Nicola Adams, a smiling assassin with a Leeds lilt and a good right hook. In the flyweight final, Adams demonstrated her prowess against the two-time world champion, China’s Ren Cancan, with a spectacular second-round onslaught, which included laying Ren out for the count. In the third and final round, she secured victory by dancing around Ren’s punches like a butterfly, before celebrating her victory with what must surely amount to the biggest smile in sport.

9) When losing matters

Only those with hearts of stone or a dislike of cheesy, Daz-white smiles could begrudge 18-year-old Tom Daley’s celebrations as he won bronze in the men’s 10-metre platform final. Yet, at the end, as the beaming Daley was dragged into the water by his fully clothed teammates for an impromptu pool party, the BBC switched cameras. The focus was now on the silver medalist, China’s Qiu Bo, who had lost out to the lantern-jawed American David Boudia with the very last jump. Unlike Daley, Bo was not pratting about in the pool. He was banging his head against the shower wall. It was a moment made moving by the contrast. For some, it seems, if you haven’t won, you’ve lost.

8) That 1,500 metres

Unfancied Algerian Taoufik Makhloufi won the 1,500 metres in some style, leaving the favourites in his wake by sprinting with 300 metres to go. The commentators moaned, of course. Makhloufi, having been disqualified from all Olympics competition for pulling out of the 800 metres at the last minute, had only been reinstated after the Algerian team appealed, claiming Makhloufi was injured. That’s some recovery, sneered observers. Yet could anyone really blame Makhloufi? The 800 metres qualifying round was, for reasons best known only to the organisers, scheduled for the same day as the 1,500 metres final. Makhloufi clearly didn’t want to tire himself out by simply taking part; he wanted to win. And this he did to explosive effect.

7) Michael Johnson’s voice of reason

A non-athletic highlight of London 2012 was sat in the BBC commentary box. No, not Clare Balding. I’m speaking, of course, of former US sprinter, one-time Olympic champion and all-time great Michael Johnson. While camp ex-hurdler Colin Jackson giggled into incoherence, and one-time heptathlete Denise Lewis chuntered promisingly, the phlegmatic Texan consistently spread insight. Never has that Southern drawl been as beguiling or as enlightening. He also refused to suffocate amid the sometimes narrow chauvinism of the BBC’s coverage, pointing out as another Team GB dressing-up gold rolled in from the dressage that the horses were doing most of the work.

6) The British cycling collective

Sir Chris Hoy’s dust-in-my-eye moment when he won his second gold of the Games, taking his overall Olympics tally to six. Retiring Victoria Pendleton swinging between desperation and delight. Bradley ‘Wiggo’ Wiggins prompting yet more sideburned tributes by winning the Olympic time-trial just days after becoming the first-ever Brit to win the Tour de France… There was a feast of memorable achievement from GB cyclists. Yet, what stood out was the huge collective effort from the whole cycling team. Director of British Cycling David Brailsford explained what this involved a few years ago: ‘We’ve got this saying, “performance by the aggregation of marginal gains”. It means taking the one per cent from everything you do; finding a one per cent margin for improvement in everything you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards. If a mechanic sticks a tyre on, and someone comes along and says it could be done better, it’s not an insult – it’s because we are always striving for improvement, for those one per cent gains, in absolutely every single thing we do.’ Despite the sheen of management-consultancy speak, it is an admirable sentiment. And at London 2012, this collective striving for perfection, with each individual involved, from the physio to the mechanic, to the state-of-the-art lycra-clad hero hurtling at nearly 50 miles per hour round the velodrome track, delivered glorious results.

5) An achievement to celebrate

Although plenty of plaudits came the way of retiring, record-breaking American swimmer Michael Phelps, the real headline maker in the Olympic pool was a little-known 16-year-old marvel from China: Ye Shiwen. Yet the attention wasn’t simply down to her remarkable achievement – winning the 200 metres and 400 metres individual medleys in world-record times. It was also due to the incredulity of a largely Western contingent who refused to see Ye Shiwen’s feat as anything other than potentially drug-fuelled. This despite the fact that plenty of swimmers, including Australia’s Ian Thorpe and Britain’s Adrian Moorhouse, have since come out and said that when they were teenagers, growth spurts similar to that which Ye Shiwen underwent allowed them to improve their times by several seconds. When the fug of doping allegations clears, perhaps the magnitude of Ye Shiwen’s youthful achievement will finally be recognised.

4) Jessica Ennis remains the face of the Olympics

The phrase was a cliché, but it rung true. Twenty-six-year-old, Sheffield-born Jessica Ennis was the face of London 2012. Her face was on billboards, stopping traffic on bus stops, and invariably on the front of magazines. And with this exposure, there came not only several advertising contracts, but immense pressure, too. Sometimes the focus and pressure heaped upon Ennis in the run-up to London 2012 seemed more than a little unfair: in March, her coach Toni Minichiello revealed that a ‘high-ranking person’ within UK Athletics was making disparaging remarks about Ennis’s weight. No matter, despite the level of expectation, Ennis didn’t wilt in the London summer. She blossomed, running her opening event, the 100 metres hurdles, in 12.54 seconds – a time equal to that which won US athlete Dawn Harper the individual event at Beijing. From that point on – a little flutter in the long jump aside – there was little doubt that Ennis would win the gold in London.

3) David Rudisha’s 800 metres sprint

Perhaps the most impressive achievement in a single event belongs to the 23-year-old Kenyan David Rudisha. He not only won the 800-metres gold – he overhauled his own world record in the process, knocking it down from 1:41.01 to 1:40.91. It was a jaw-dropping performance. The incredible thing about Rudisha is that he doesn’t simply run the 800 metres, he sprints it. As he demonstrated in London to such striking effect, he transforms the 800 metres from a short middle-distance event into two 400 metres events run consecutively at breakneck pace. And he does so with such light-footed ease. What made Rudisha’s performance even more remarkable was the effect it had on his beaten competitors – all but one ran a season’s or personal best. Even the last-placed runner, the young Brit Andrew Osagie, ran a time that, four years ago, would have been enough to win Olympic gold. Stunning.

2) Mo Farah’s long-distance double

By winning first the 10,000 metres and then the 5,000 metres on consecutive Saturdays, 29-year-old British distance-runner Mo Farah certainly rose to the occasion. After all, that is what separates the great from the good: the ability to perform when it matters. Plenty of athletes can run fast. Plenty win their respective events at various meetings. But Farah did it when it mattered. Twice. It might seem strange to say this, but in some ways, Farah’s success has been a long time coming. Up until last year, when he became the 5,000-metres world champion, Farah had been something of nearly man. But his decision to move to America and train under Alberto Salazar in February 2011 changed all that. He became yet more focused, more dedicated to what he finally grasped as a vocation. The West London boy who wanted to be a footballer had finally recognised that he was an athlete. Last year, he admitted as much: ‘The Kenyan runners are so humble and hard-working. They run, sleep, train and that’s it. I’m living my life in that manner now. That’s exactly what you have to do to be among the best in the world.’ Running that final 400 metres in his 5,000-metres triumph in 52.9 seconds – a virtual sprint – Farah proved beyond doubt that he is not merely among, but currently is, the best in the world.

1) The lightning Bolt

What is there to left to say about the awe-inspiring Usain St Leo Bolt? Since 2004, when the then 18-year-old Jamaican became the first-ever junior to run 200 metres under 20 seconds, Bolt has always stood apart. His signal achievement before London 2012 came at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when he won gold medals in the 100 metres, the 200 metres, breaking opponents and world records in the process, before topping it off with a gold in the 100-metres sprint relay. At that point, the man seemed several thousand streets ahead of his opponents. Fast forward four years, and Bolt, who will be 26 next week, was under pressure for just about the first time in his career. His sprinting rivals were no longer gasping in Bolt’s wake, they were happily breathing down his neck, with young Jamaican Yohan Blake even having the temerity to beat Bolt earlier this year. And that’s what makes Bolt’s achievement in London – becoming the first man to win the Olympic sprinting triple for a second time – so incredible. This time, he showed not only his supreme talent, but his grit, too, drawing inspiration from the opposition. Tormentor-in-chief Blake said as much back in January this year: ‘[Bolt] knows I work harder, much harder. He has said it himself, but now he is training harder, too.’ Blake needn’t feel too disheartened. Running in the same team as Bolt in the sprint relay, the two of them not only won gold – they set an astonishing world record in the process: 36.84 seconds. Watch that final Blake-Bolt 200 metres again: it is, quite simply, brilliant.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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