British athletes’ success bodes well

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August’s European Athletics Championships in Zurich was full of drama and there is a welcome air of optimism in the team GB camp after a highly successful championships.

Forty-year-old Jo Pavey hit headlines the world over for her scintillating performance on the first, winning gold in the 10,000m only eleven months after the birth of her second child. The Briton is the oldest ever female athlete to win a European title. It goes without saying that Pavey’s resolute run spurred on the rest of the British team (talk less of several middle-aged mums!) to hunt for greatness in their own events.

Mo Farah gunned for gold the next day in the men’s 10,000 and got his prize, as he is often does. This win had a different flavour to it, however, as only a few weeks before the Olympic champion had suffered a severe health scare, which included him collapsing and having to be airlifted to hospital. Behind Mo, compatriot Andy Vernon fought for silver. A few minutes after these medals had been won, 23-year-old Ashleigh Nelson got another medal for Team GB, this time a bronze – running 11.22 behind Dutchwoman Dafne Schippers who won in 11.12 seconds, and France’s Myriam Soumaré (11.16). More was to come. American-born Tiffany Porter won her first ever gold in the 100m hurdles, in a time of 12.76 secs. The medals just kept rolling in for the Union Jack team; a matter of minutes later James Dasaolu won 100m gold in a time of 10.06 seconds, with Harry Aikines-Aryeetey coming through to take bronze in 10.22, and France’s Christophe Lemaitre seizing the silver (10.13).

There was drama of a different nature on the same day when French steeplechaser Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad had the nerve to take off his shirt some 100m before the finish line and motion furiously to the crowd to join in with his celebration – despite not having officially won the race yet. Ironically, despite blowing his own trumpet, the long-distance runner was disqualified – ostensibly for removing the number that identified him to officials. Mekhissi-Benabbad is already known for causing trouble – in 2011 he was involved in a fight with another Frenchman after a race, and the following year, after winning European gold, he pushed over the mascot as she reached out to congratulate him.

On 15th August, day four of the championships, Martyn Rooney finally won his first European gold medal after years of coming close. The new kid on the block, Matthew Hudson-Smith helped add to Team GB’s medal tally with an impressive second place. Christine Ohuorogu, who has a reputation of delivering at major championships, was this time unable to snag a medal, finishing in fourth place in the women’s 400m after a quiet season. Laura Weightman came through in the 1500m to get a brave bronze for Great Britain. Jodie Williams went one better later in the evening with a silver medal in the 200m, setting a new personal best (22.46) behind the phenomenal Dafne Schippers, who ran the fastest 200m by a European woman in 19 years – 22.03 – despite being a heptathlete. Jodie’s time was the fastest by a British woman since 1984. What’s more, in making the 200m final, Jodie, Bianca Williams and Dina Asher-Smith had become the first set of three women to line up for Britain in this event in over half a century. Bianca finished in fourth place, but unfortunately 18-year-old Asher-Smith was unable to finish, pulling a hamstring halfway through the race. Adam Gemili topped off a much awaited men’s 200m final, beating Christophe Lemaitre to the gold in a time of 19.98 seconds to get his first senior medal.

On the penultimate day of the competition, the Scottish lasses built on their successes in the Commonwealth Games a few weeks earlier. Eilidh Child upgraded her silver from Glasgow to a gold medal in Zurich. The last time a British woman managed such a feat was 20 years earlier, when Sally Gunnell became 400m hurdles champion. Lynsey Sharp also made history with her performance last Saturday, breaking Susan Scott’s Scottish record and smashing her own PB by 0.87 secs to run 1:58.80. Victory was arguably sweeter for Sharp – whose mother and father were international athletes in their own right, her father a competitor at the 1980 Olympic Games and her mother also an 800m runner at the Commonwealth Games – who two years earlier had been denied the opportunity to stand on top of the podium by a doping Russian athlete, and just a few weeks before had been in hospital on a drip. Jo Pavey, the heroic wonder-woman of the opening day, returned to action for the 5,000m final but this time it was seventh place.

The sixth and final day of the European Championships did not disappoint. There was more drama to unfold in the men’s 1500m, where Mekhissi-Benabbad stepped out onto the track again, after being stripped of his earlier gold medal. In a race fraught with bumps and falls, which resulted in Britain’s Charlie Grice taking two rather heavy tumbles, the Frenchman again finished ahead of everyone else, and yet again took the liberty of celebrating before crossing the line. This time, however, he refrained from removing his shirt and clutching it between his teeth for the final quarter of the last lap. His controversial behaviour earned him some boos and critics but this time the distance runner did manage to hold on to his medal. Chris O’Hare worked hard to get the British team another bronze medal.

Mo Farah became the most successful individual athlete in the history of the European Championships and the most decorated British athlete when he won his second gold in Zurich 2014 in the 5,000m. Compatriot Andy Vernon also got his second medal of the championships, this time a bronze. Greg Rutherford added another senior title to his collection with his 8.27m and 8.29m jumps in the long jump. The father-to-be now is now simultaneously Olympic, Commonwealth and European Champion. With the World Championships next year, it seems it won’t be long before the 27-year-old British record holder holds all four major titles.

Team GB medalled in each of the four relays that capped off the championships in Switzerland. The ladies’ 4x400m team made up of Eilidh Child, Shana Cox, Kelly Massey and Margaret Adeoye put in a determined performance to get the bronze in a very close finish: only a few hundredths-of-a-second separated the gutsy French runner, Ukrainian and Adeoye at the finish line. The men triumphed in their 4x400m final, an event in which we have proved medal-worthy at every  European Championships since 1978. This time it was a gold, brought home by the team of Conrad Williams, Matthew Hudson-Smith, Michael Bingham and Martyn Rooney.  

The remarkable successes of their fellow British athletes on the final day must have fired up the 4x100m teams. For a short while after the four-lap relay victory, James Ellington, Harry Aikines-Aryeetey, Richard Kilty and Adam Gemili ran a time of 37.93 seconds, to win a confident relay gold ahead of Germany and France. The women followed, not only managing to beat the French and Russian teams, but also managing to break a 34-year-old British record, lowering it to 42.24 seconds. Even more remarkably, eleven days later, (and again in Zurich) the British girls rounded down the record again – this time to 42.21.

It seems safe to say that we are in a new season of British athletics. Relays are being won confidently, rather than wrecked by terrible baton changes. Sprints are being won. Records are being broken. At this year’s European Athletics Championships, Britain topped the table, with 12 gold medals and 23 medals overall, more than Team GB has ever managed before.  It seems the legacy of London 2012 is still in the air…

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