Monday, 08 February 2016

A rollercoaster ride in search of my first gold

DETERMINED to see Britain win gold, PAUL TURNER embarked on a day of high tension and drama at the London Olympics. There was disappointment, shock medals and controversial decisions, but did he manage to see that elusive victory?

THE message from HQ was clear – pull your socks up and bring us some medals.

‘When are you going to start watching sports that we are good at?’ were the exact words they used, but I got the point.

There was no explicit mention of my being a jinx, but the undercurrent was clear – wherever you are, the British are failing.

It was true. I had yet to see a home medal – my only golds had gone to China in the women’s synchronised diving and Japan in the women’s judo, while plucky defeats at table tennis and water polo didn’t cut the mustard.

As I was keen to point out, those are hardly sports Britain is renowned for producing champions in. But still, I took the point my Supreme Overlord was making. Go get some precious metal – preferably gold – and do it fast.

Assuming the ‘we’ in question referred to Great Britain and not the combined might of myself and my boss – table football and crazy golf have yet to be recognised by the IOC – there was only one place to head first thing next morning, Eton Dorney.

Rowing, now there’s a sport we’ve always been good at. Surely there would be golds on the water.

Less than 24 hours before, Great Britain had ended the long wait for gold in dramatic style as Heather Stanning and Helen Glover brought the nation to its feet, dominating the women’s pair from start to finish and having enough time to put the kettle on as they cruised home.

The second day offered well-founded optimism – the men’s lightweight four, with the Chambers brothers, Peter and Richard, aiming to become the first British siblings to win gold since Greg and Johnny Searle in the coxed pairs in 1992, were, if not hot, then certainly warm, favourites.

They had come good at the perfect time for the Games, winning the last World Cup meeting before the Games in Munich and then overhauling World Champions Australia in the semi-final here to stamp their dominance on the event and go into the final on the crest of a wave.

The only problem for them may have been sat 50m from the finish line, two rows back in the press tribunes wearing a green and white striped polo shirt. In short, me.

Was it me causing the British team to be defeated whenever I watched – even if the two water polo sides and table tennis player Paul Drinkhall had put in mammoth efforts even when they lost?

If so, were we about to watch three British boats sink, the blue ribband men’s four capsize in the semi-finals and a tornado appear from the light cloud cover to wreak havoc among the field? Stranger things and all that.

But it started well enough as the three British boats in the semi-finals all came home in first place.

There was tension no doubt, the men’s four coming from two-thirds of a length behind to beat Australia by a canvas, though the women’s lightweight double skulls of Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hosking were mightily impressive as they won their semi-final by a length from world champions Greece.

Defending champions Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter won in the lightweight men’s double skulls and I had proven I could see a British athlete – in this case three teams – win something important, so the signs were good that I wasn’t the Jonah on the GB foredeck.

All was boding well for my quest to see the Union Jack hoisted aloft by the side of the rowing lake, but there are no medals awarded in the semi-final and a final is a different animal entirely.

Could my thirst for British medals be quenched? The men’s double skulls were an outside bet in the first, but I had my fingers crossed.

It didn’t work. Bill Lucas and Sam Townsend went out fast, but fell back and finished fifth. They weren’t really expected to win a medal anyway, I told myself, though I had been hopeful they would anyway.

Don’t worry, I said, it’s the next race that’s the big one – the men’s lightweight four – they’re bound to do it.

There was a knot in my stomach at the start, my heart was racing as the teams set off and nerves were flayed in what was the best race of the entire regatta to date.

Denmark led early, Australia came back at them and GB and Switzerland refused to be dropped. It reached halfway in the same situation and then at 1,500m the Brits were closing them both down, but the South Africans were catching them all and looked the strongest team out there.

The lead changed hands several times in the last 250m, Denmark held it, then Great Britain came back at them and edged ahead – the two-time world champions looking to have found a new acceleration.

But up came the South Africans, less fancied than their three main rivals and they took over with 50m to go and were never going to let first place escape their grasp, putting in the best third and fourth 500m of the race. It was their first rowing gold in Olympic history and who was I to begrudge it them after a superb showing.

Britain won a battle for silver from Denmark by a hair’s breadth – 0.07 seconds – and claimed second. A silver then – it wasn’t what the Brits were after and it wasn’t what I was looking for either, but it wasn’t to be sniffed at and it was a great achievement.

That left the women’s eights, big outsiders for a medal, but you never now – as the Italians and South Africans had proven in the previous two races. But no underdog heroics this time. They finished fifth and were never in contention.

I’d come to Eton Dorney to see British gold. Maybe I was being greedy, but leaving with one silver wasn’t what I’d hoped for.

But I wasn’t done. There was gold out there for the Brits, I just had to find it.

There was only one place to go. The track cycling was starting – time to hit the velodrome.

By the time I reached the Olympic Park, GB had won two golds elsewhere and I’d missed them both.

Peter Wilson – who last time I checked was living in semi-retirement just across from Furness Golf Club and occasionally covering Barrow Raiders for me – had triumphed in the men’s double trap shooting and there was gold and silver in the men’s C2 canoe slalom for Etienne Stott and Tim Baillie. Two golds in five minutes. Superb. Amazing. Brilliant. Dammit, I wasn’t there!

But I was in the velodrome and both the men’s and women’s sprint teams had a chance of gold – the male trio more so than the female duo, but why take one, when you can take two?

It started in the best possible fashion, Victoria Pendleton and Jess Varnish set a world record, but that lasted less than five minutes as China beat their time of 32.526 seconds with 32.447.

Still, that qualified them second and they were looking very good indeed for a medal.

The men followed in their qualifying round and after a scary fall from the initial start and having seen Russia and then France set new Olympic records in quick succession, got back on their bikes and clocked one themselves and qualified first. Brilliant – no jinx on me here then, all going smoothly.

It carried on, Pendleton and Varnish beat Ukraine and were headed for the gold medal match against the Chinese.

But then word came through they were in danger of being relegated, down to fifth place, for an illegal move, Pendleton passing Varnish before the designated area and their dream of gold was over.

By the end of the night, China knew exactly how they felt, as they were relegated from gold to silver for exactly the same infraction.

They didn’t know I was receiving texts from my friends telling me to get out of the arena and stop cursing our chances. I was, but I didn’t.

I stayed and saw another world record from the GB men’s pursuit team and then, after that, the men’s sprint team ride out onto the track one last time. What happened next is history.

So, after 11 hours, a silver medal, six world records and two disqualifications there was British gold. And I was there to see it.

Take that curse!


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