A few nights ago, having temporarily given up trying to get to sleep, I was reflecting on the recent Rio Olympic Games—just as an aside, the Paralympics are producing some equally wonderful performances and inspiring stories—and in particular on the gold medal won by the women’s hockey squad.
Last year, I wrote a charity book about some of my favourite ever sporting moments… poor timing on my part as Leicester City’s Premier League success would now have to be included, and the hockey gold would replace the story of the bronze medal won at London 2012, which had been my personal highlight of the home Games.
It’s never easy trying to rank any personal list—my top ten records would change on an almost daily basis—but the more I think about it, the more I am certain that the achievement of Kate Richardson-Walsh and her squad (plus everyone behind the scenes) is the single finest team performance in British Olympic history. Subjective I know, but this was sporting excellence, drama and emotion of the highest order and whilst it’s absolutely fine to disagree… you’d be wrong!
What I can’t decide is whether the 2016 hockey success is “better” than what I class as my favourite Olympic moment; Ann Packer’s 800 metre triumph in Tokyo back in 1964 (hence the addition of “team performance” in the previous paragraph)—actually I’m not sure how you could, or even if you should compare the two.
I’ve interviewed Ann (who married the fellow Olympian Robbie Brightwell shortly after the Games) about events leading up to her participation in the 800 (a distance she’d only ever run competitively on two occasions prior to Tokyo), the remarkable conclusion to the race, and the moments immediately after she crossed the line when she ran straight into the arms of her future husband who had just finished a relay heat and had managed to avoid the often over-zealous officials and remain trackside to watch his fiancée.
The footage is still remarkable more than fifty years after the event… a quick search and you should easily find the BBC coverage and the official colour film from the Games….
We stayed in touch after speaking on the phone and I had the absolute privilege of being invited to Ann’s home last November to meet her, Robbie and the three medals they won between them in Japan. It was a day I’ll never forget.
Those Games were memorable for Great Britain because they marked the first ever track and field gold medal won by a British female athlete. Ann’s was the first on the track, but she was preceded onto the top of the podium by Mary Rand, one of the finest all-round athletes this country has ever produced (back to that search engine…), who won the long jump–a feat matched by her counterpart in the men’s event; Wales’ Lynn Davies.
Fast forward fifty-two years, and it’s a measure of what Mary and Ann achieved that only seven other female British athletes have subsequently won track and field gold: Mary Peters, Tessa Sanderson, Sally Gunnell, Denise Lewis, Kelly Holmes (twice), Christine Ohuruogu and Jessica Ennis (as she was in 2012).
As for the women’s hockey team, the third-place finishes in London and previously in Barcelona were close as Britain had come to success on the biggest stage of all…. but how all that changed (as undoubtedly will the lives of all those involved) on that incredible evening in Brazil.
I have been fortunate enough to meet four of the squad, albeit over two years ago now, but whilst I may never get the chance to congratulate any of them in person (especially not over tea and biscuits), I hope this short blog gives an idea of just how I view the sheer scale and magnitude of what they collectively accomplished.