This weekend saw the 2016 Anniversary Games come to the Olympic Stadium in London. These games have been held annually since 2012 and act as a Diamond League Grand Prix fixture and a showcase for athletics and para athletics.
We were lucky enough to have great seats for the action this year, close to the track about 40m down the home straight, and as it turned out right in front of where the athletes took their run-ups to the long jump.
Throughout the weekend I was struck by the contrast the athletes seem to have to deal with between being connected to their fellow competitors and the crowd, and the necessary solitude required to focus on their goals.
Take the men’s T42 and T44 long jump. This was a field of 8 para athletes with lower limb disabilities, including single and double amputees. This group of men showed enormous camaraderie. As they started setting up, those who were more able to bend to the track to stick down markers helped others who could not. Every time an athlete looked for the support of the crowd by beginning the now classic slow clap build up to their jump, all of the other athletes joined in. They were chatting, sharing water, and congratulating each other on their jumps.
This group included Marcus Rehm, who is the world T44 record holder for this event with 8.4m. That’s only 10cm behind Greg Rutherford’s British record. He leapt through the air like his blade was an anti-gravity boot, and more than once we feared he would jump clean out of the far end of the pit. It was incredible to watch and he was a gracious victor.
We also watched the ladies long jump in the afternoon, a competition that included Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katerina Johnson-Thompson, and it was a very different story.
KJT was on fire – she had a great day and won the event, and she seemed to spend most of the competition alone. From when she lined up to practice, to when she was checking her own spikes, to when she was putting in good clean jumps, she kept herself to herself and was clearly focused on getting the job done and taking advantage of a good opportunity to put in a solid performance before Rio.
It was interesting to watch Jessica Ennis-Hill. The Olympic and World heptathlon champion was quite subdued for most of the event. Like KJT, whilst she was in the zone and competing she was happy to stay in her own company. However she was interviewed about the run up to Rio before the event started, meaning she was not in the line up when the athletes were announced to the crowd, and this seemed to single her out rather unfairly. She was also mobbed by fans once she had finished jumping, with a relentless line of people clamouring for selfies and autographs having to be limited with a security guard acting like one of those ‘this till is closing soon’ signs to prevent too many people joining the queue.
This is just how it looked to me, but it seemed like Ennis-Hill isn’t too comfortable with this attention. She had a disappointing day – finishing 7th out of a field of 8 – and yet all the attention was on her. KJT won the long jump and had also looked strong in the high jump the day before, when Jess again struggled in the 110m hurdles, but she wasn’t interviewed for the crowd.
Ennis-Hill has tried to play down her gold medal chances for Rio, which suggests that the pressure is mounting on her and she is keen to manage expectations. I don’t blame her in the least for this and I hope people listen. It must be a very difficult balancing act to keep giving the crowds what they want whilst trying to concentrate on your job, and at the same time try not to let the media push stealing all the thunder of your fellow athletes onto you. It seems like she is really conscious of this every time she gives a shout out to her competitors. She may be at home on the podium but I don’t think she wants to linger on the pedestal that has been built for her.
Don’t get me wrong – I think she’s amazing too, I think they are all amazing and inspirational. Its brilliant that we have these role models for young women (not to mention us older ones) who do something incredible and worthwhile in the midst of this large bottom obsessed insta-world of pointless celebrity. There was a young girl sitting behind us who squealed with delight to see Jess and KJT, and I’m pretty sure she went actually supersonic when Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Dafne Schippers came out for their races. It was sweet, funny, and encouraging for the future to hear her unabashed joy. But it puts a huge amount of pressure on these athletes, who are maybe less used to such close scrutiny in the press. You get the feeling sometimes that they are appreciative of the crowds, but want to be let be for long enough to focus on the job in hand.
And then there was Mo.
In the last event of the games Mo Farah stormed to victory in the 5,000m, at one point half the track ahead of his closest rival. He crossed the line a world apart from them, completely alone but with his solitude pierced by the screams of 60,000 people. We roared him to victory in a Mexican wave of sound which circled the stadium for the last two laps, with the whole crowd on their feet. The perfect contradiction between being completely alone, and completely connected as he acknowledged the support when he finally came to a stop.
What athletes. What warriors. What a Games Rio will be.