London: When Jessica Ennis’ parents in Sheffield took her to an athletics programme for children at the city’s Don Valley Stadium (later Ennis would joke that her parents—her father a painter and her mother a social worker—took her there just to get her out of the house), at the event, Ennis won a pair of shoes, her first prize in athletics.
But it was also at that event in 1996 that Ennis met Toni Minichiello, the man who would coach her ever since. Buoyed by her success at this starter event, Ennis joined the City of Sheffield Athletic Club the next year at the age of 11.
All-round champ: Jessica Ennis after winning the heptathlon gold medal. Photo: Luke MacGregor/Reuters
On Saturday night, Ennis capped what has been a stellar career as one of the world’s best multidiscipline athletes with a gold medal in the heptathlon for Team GB.
Mohammed Farah’s career could have ended up differently if it wasn’t for the physical education (PE) teacher at Isleworth and Syon School in Hounslow, London. Farah had moved to England from Mogadishu when he was eight years old, capable of speaking little English. For several years, all Farah wanted to do was become a football player for his favourite club Arsenal.
But right from the moment he enrolled in school, PE teacher Alan Watkinson realized Farah had pace. Watkinson proceeded to bribe Farah with 30-minute football sessions and football T-shirts to get him to participate in running meets. In his second year on the school circuit, in 1997, Farah won five titles.
On Saturday night, Farah drove an entire nation mad when he calmly won gold in the 10,000m in the Olympic Stadium.
Unbelievable: Mohammed Farah is the 10,000m Olympic champion. Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Greg Rutherford comes from a family of footballing stars. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather played for Arsenal. But young Rutherford’s attempts at football glory were futile. A six-month trial with Aston Villa FC in his early teens led to nothing. So he joined the Milton Keynes Athletic Club.
Unlike Farah and Ennis, Rutherford had limited immediate success. He turned to the long jump only after realizing that he was poor at most of the running events. Despite being unsuccessful at the school-level, Rutherford persisted. In 2005, he won the British junior title. The next year, he was picked for the 2006 Commonwealth Games squad.
Rutherford’s career has been one full of hard graft and tough decisions. He has had to change coaches several times and grapple with injuries. In 2011, he tore a hamstring, which is when British athletics administrators brought in American coach Dan Pfaff to help the team deal with injuries.
On Saturday, Rutherford won Team GB’s first gold medal in the men’s long jump since 1964.
Ennis, Farah and Rutherford are just some of the athletes whose success made Saturday what some people are calling the greatest day in British sport. Team GB won six golds and currently sits third on the medals table.
There are interesting commonalities to all these stories—all these sportspeople started relatively young, and almost all of them first picked up their disciplines in the late 1990s. This was also the time when Britain returned humiliated from the Atlanta Games, having finished 36th on the table. What followed was a slow but purposeful stream of investments into sport and the rebuilding of the British Olympic Association.
Ennis, Rutherford and Farah all entered the senior sporting establishment just when the establishment was being rebuilt inside out. In the 15 years since Atlanta, leading up to London 2012, the British sporting establishment has invested £740 million (Rs 6415.80 crore today) on Olympic athletes and infrastructure. This might sound like a lot. But do remember that India’s sporting budget just for 2010-2011, as published by the ministry of youth affairs and sports, was over Rs 3,500 crore.
In Team GB’s case, that investment has been rewarded handsomely.
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