Evening Standard

National honour: Jessica Ennis sent the crowd into raptures at the Olympic Stadium. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

A few hours after Jessica Ennis made sure Super Saturday will be forever special in the nation’s sporting memory, I was asked in a BBC broadcast if this was London’s equivalent of the Cathy Freeman moment at Sydney 2000.

None of us present then can forget how the stadium gasped as Freeman lit the flame. And almost all of Australia seemed to find it difficult to watch as she ran in the 400metres. Like Ennis now, she was the odds-on favourite but Australians could not bear to think she might be beaten. On that rainy evening some even feared she might slip. But she won and you could almost feel the collective sigh of relief as the entire nation exhaled.

But, while Ennis and Freeman are both poster girls of their respective Olympics, Ennis’s achievement is totally different from that of Freeman.

The first aboriginal to taste international athletic glory, Freeman was used by -Australia to redefine itself and demonstrate that its dreadful treatment of the original inhabitants was in the past.

Thankfully, we do not require our athletes to bear such an impossible burden. There have been dark moments in this nation’s past but we do not need the Olympics to redefine ourselves in that manner.

For all the hype, Ennis is a girl who likes living in her home town of Sheffield, giving the lie to the idea that, just because the Games is in London, the entire nation cannot share it.

She also exemplifies in a very British way how this nation, albeit after some struggle, has made different races blend together for she is the product of the love between an immigrant from Jamaica, who came here as a 13-year-old, and a woman from Derbyshire. To get an idea of this, look again at the joyous family picture taken last year just after the heptathlete was awarded her MBE. Much more than words, it illustrates eloquently this country’s ability to evolve. Add to that, Toni Minichiello, her coach over the last 14 years, is a Yorkshireman with Neapolitan roots.

I am not naive enough to think such diversity means we have solved all our problems. Much as I believe in the redemptive powers of modern sport, I do not believe that athletes have magic wands. They can produce magical sporting moments that uplift us but they do not have the power with one swish of their gold to make everyone’s dreams come true.

But what Ennis and all our other great Olympic champions have done is, to a large extent, erase the sense of hurt we have long nourished that our sportsmen and women do not match our glorious past. The pre-Games angst was that, despite this country having invented modern sport, our athletes kept getting beaten.

Back in 1908, when London staged its first Olympics, the Games was in such infancy that Britain could write the rules for many sports. Indeed the London police could even win gold in the tug of war by beating the Liverpool police.

London 2012 is a world removed from that time but, as these Olympics have demonstrated, Britain can still lead and even teach the world. This was magnificently illustrated in the velodrome on Saturday. Not only did Dani King, Joanna Rowsell and Laura Trott annihilate their US rivals in the women’s team pursuit but they set their third world record in three days.

Such is Britain’s dominance in this sport that our rivals freely admit that they have to learn from this generation if they want to discover the key to our country’s success. To round this story neatly, the British athletes in turn acknowledge the help the crowds have given them.

And what makes this satisfying is that this encouragement has seen the British display national pride while avoiding xenophobia. Crowds have waved the Union Flag with gusto without for one moment wanting to trample other countries’ flags. Beat them, yes but acknowledge ability, even from the Australians.

Could we ask for more?


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