24 August 2008

Hoy, Adlington, Ohuruogu – three very different names, faces, ages and backgrounds united by more than their gold medals in Beijing. They are symbolic of a hard-working, socially diverse, multi-cultural new Britain, taking us forward with surging confidence to London 2012.

Chris Hoy was in the velodrome on Tuesday – a bulky, ruthless, white-helmeted figure inching out young pretender Jason Kenny to win the cycling sprint final. It was his third gold medal of the Games, and when he talked later there was a strange clanking noise as he bent down for his bag – it was the sound of the golds banging together. “Sorry about that,” he said.

That’s very Chris Hoy – polite, calm and careful, despite being festooned with his own achievements. A quiet-speaking surveyor’s son from Edinburgh, he went to George Watson’s College like his rugby hero, Gavin Hastings, and thought it “hilarious” when Hastings’ child recently asked for his autograph. He went into competitive cycling for the chance to see the world with his sport and to represent his country. But at the age of 31, with Olympic, Commonwealth and World Championship golds in his saddlebag, he has a presence on the track bordering on arrogance.

He picks that up straight away. “Never arrogance,” he says. “That leads to complacency and making mistakes. What I like to have is the confidence that I will get to the start-line best prepared, best trained, and best coached without any last-minute worries. It then becomes exciting because it is your moment to shine, your reward for all the hard work you and all the back-up staff have put in. I love the training, the satisfaction at the end of a hard session that I have taken one small step to an overall goal. You have to have motivation, and there can be no greater motivation for me than to get gold in London.”

On Tuesday evening, Hoy’s eyes had the calm satisfaction of a job well done. Next morning, at a swimmers’ reception at the Speedo Club in Chaoyang Park next to the beach volleyball centre, Rebecca Adlington’s face just beamed with the thrill of it all. “It’s just been absolutely amazing,” she says of the reaction to her world record-breaking second swimming gold medal in the 800 metres. “I have had so many messages and things to do that it hasn’t sunk in yet. But I am really looking forward to getting home to Mansfield. No doubt it will be crazy for a few days, but I am so looking forward to seeing all my family and my boyfriend and taking the holiday that we have planned from day one. I won’t be back into the pool until September.”

Behind her, Michael Phelps was being induced to take off his top for publicity photos and Natalie Coughlin was showing her perfect teeth and ‘Miss America’ charms as the TV cameras rolled. You would have thought it would need the most precocious of 19-year-olds to look as comfortable as Adlington did. But she talked on with a friendly, outgoing Nottinghamshire ordinariness which masked the extraordinariness of her feat in taking the first British swimming gold since Anita Lonsbrough, in 1980.

“What has happened out here has been just fantastic,” Adlington says. “This is the best British team I have seen by a long way, and it is just getting better and better. Because we have done amazing things, people are taking more interest, and that should get us more support and better facilities to make London 2012 the best experience of all.”

As she talks, the long, blonde hair, so lank and unappealing when she clambers out of the pool, tosses beautiful and shampoo-golden in the sun. You wonder whether places like California might not be more appealing than the delights of Nottingham baths in the early morning. “I have still got a lot to prove,” says the businessman’s daughter who refused to wear water wings when she first followed her sister into the local pool at Sherwood. “It’s never easy getting up at five in the morning, but it is just something you have to do to achieve what I have. Swimming for two hours, doing some gym or something in the day and then another two hours in the evening is the programme I have done with Bill Furness, and when I get back I am not planning to change anything.”

They are incredibly mature words from someone so young, and give hope that she may handle the fever of the media’s new love affair and the bitterness that can linger if something goes wrong. Christine Ohuruogu is five years Adlington’s senior, and Tuesday night’s 400m victory was the crowning moment of a life that is in almost every sense a perfect example of hard-working, God-fearing new-British achievement.

Just as her Nigerian father built up his computer business through unflagging diligence, so Stratford-born Ohuruogu got herself a 2.1 in linguistics as well as an international athletics cap. But then, in 2006, she missed three dope tests. And it seems some people will never forgive her. It has made her wary, but just saying, “I won a gold medal and that is all that matters” is never going to be enough. When she gets home, she needs to sit down and publicly open her heart again about the unhappy set of circumstances which led to the missed tests and reaffirm her opposition to every sort of drug. That done, only a stone heart will not relent.

On Friday night, Ohuruogu nearly got pipped when easing up in the 400m relay semi-final. “It was a bit of a scare,” she said, “but we are through, which is the main thing for the team.” She stood there for a moment, a lovely, bright, achieving British girl. She, like Hoy and Adlington, should be leading us, high-spirited, to London four years on.

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