Britain’s golden girl of the 2012 Olympics more than lived up to expectation during two spectacular days of pure heptathlon brilliance
A thousand flashbulbs lit up an Olympic Stadium that shook with noise. They captured images of Jessica Ennis as she lay on the track with her hands over her face, holding back the tears as the culmination of two days of heptathlon genius began to sink in. It was the moment she passed into Olympic legend and became an athletics immortal.
If such a thing as a stadium ‘noiseometer’ existed, the audio levels in the 80,000 arena would surely have matched those inside the 112,000 Olympic Stadium in Sydney back in 2000 during the women’s 400m. Ennis is the Cathy Freeman of these Games and Britain’s super Saturday, which included British victories in the men’s 10,000m and long jump finals, was a decent match for Sydney’s magic Monday.
Amazingly, Ennis had never competed in the British capital city before this week. It is hard to believe, as she looked completely at home.
She did not simply win the competition, but she obliterated her rivals with defending Olympic champion Natalya Dobrynska no-marking in the long jump and Tatyana Chernova a shell of the athlete who won the world title last year. Out of form perhaps, or simply shell-shocked by an all-round athleticism that included a 12.54 sprint hurdles – good enough to win the 2008 Olympic 100m hurdles title.
How the 26-year-old has managed to handle the pressure of being ‘golden girl of the Games’ is beyond me. Her image has been everywhere; the expectation immense.
Indeed, some people have been worried that she has done too many media events and commercial deals. Yet she has taken it all in her stride, soaked it up, channelled it – and then spat it out on the track and in the field in the shape of phenomenal athletics performances.
While fellow Brits Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Louise Hazel broke into huge grins when they received unprecedented plaudits from the 80,000 crowd in the Olympic Stadium, Ennis tried her best to keep a poker face before often allowing herself just a polite smile and wave as the deafening cheers were dying down.
The pressure has been building for years, too. When London was awarded the Games in July 2005, Ennis won the European junior heptathlon title shortly afterwards and therefore suffered being billed as a “2012 hopeful” from those early days.
It has not fazed her, though, and guided by long-time coach Toni Minichiello she has coolly developed her ability. From Commonwealth bronze in Melbourne 2006, via world championship ups and downs and Olympic disappointment in 2008, she has grown from promising teenager to world-beating Olympian. The tadpole, as she was once dubbed, has evolved into an athletics alligator who destroys everything and everyone in her path.
Let’s not forget her personality either. Ennis is not a mean machine who grunts her way to victory. Instead she competes with a smile not a snarl. She is the archetypal ‘girl next door’, so far unfazed by her fame, always smiling, ever gracious – the perfect role model in every single way.
The heptathlon – and its forerunner the pentathlon – were already Britain’s most successful Olympic events before London 2012. With gold medals from Denise Lewis in 2000 and Mary Peters in 1972, plus silver from Mary Rand in 1964 and bronze from Lewis in 1996 and Kelly Sotherton in 2004, it is the nation’s strongest track and field event at this level.
Ennis has cemented this tradition and hopefully her historic performances in the Olympic Stadium at the London Games will inspire an army of athletes to keep the flame burning for years to come.