Team GB's Friday of fun distracts from Tokyo track record
A string of impressive performances, wonderful competition and surprise medallists for Team GB on Friday may be covering up deeper problems with the athletics squad. Paul Hayward takes a look at what went right - and what might be going wrong. You want it? We have it. Stream every Olympic event live on discovery+.
'A fantastic night for Team GB' - Relay teams and Muir celebrate together after medals
The probable lack of an athletics gold medal for the first time since Atlanta in 1996 was covered up brilliantly on a Friday of fun. Thanks to Laura Muir and the sprint relay teams, Britain’s track and field team laid on too much entertainment for anyone to think of inquests.
Maybe British athletics will get away with it, especially after the men’s 4x100m relay gold was lost to Italy on the final leg by a hundredth of a second. That excruciating late turnaround is likely to end up as the difference between a Tokyo campaign that produced a gold medal and echoes of Atlanta 25 years ago. Poor Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake has to bear the burden of being passed by Italy’s last-leg runner. ‘Passed’ is being generous. Mitchell-Blake was beaten by the length of a chest hair.
The group shot at the end with Muir and the medal-winning relay teams festooned with union flags burst on to TV screens back home. It spoke of a triumphant day’s work and an injury-ravaged track and field campaign redeemed.
And it was, to some degree, but the diminishing chance of a GB gold still hangs over the team captained by Dina Asher-Smith, who returned from the shadows to claim her medal (bronze).
If these Games close on Sunday night with nobody minding that no track and field gold was claimed then the management can be grateful to Muir and Keely Hodgkinson, who’ve started a renaissance in women’s middle-distance running.
'What a performance!' - GB's Muir takes quite brilliant silver in 1500m
Britain has dined out for decades on the deeds of Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and Roger Bannister at 800m-1500m, but Kelly Holmes was an outlier with her middle-distance double gold in Athens 17 years ago. Now, Muir (1500m) and Hodgkinson (800m) - silver medallists over super-difficult distances - have given British athletics something new to be thrilled about.
Women are to the fore in keeping it respectable for Britain in Tokyo. A bronze in the women’s 4x100 for Dina Asher-Smith, Imani-Lara Lansiquot, Daryll Neita and Asha Philip augmented Muir’s superb run behind Faith Kipyegon in the 1500m and inspired the men’s sprint team to dash to the very edge of victory.
They were defied by a country who can claim to have won the summer of 2021. Italy have swept up Euro 2020, half a high jump gold, the Olympic men’s 100m title and now the 4x100m relay. Not even the most patriotic Roman punter will have landed that Yankee. The Euro 2020 penalty shoot-out win and late relay rally in Tokyo broke English, and then British, hearts.
For generations athletics has been the mothership of Olympic sport, the biggest success-gauge. As the spotlight moves inexorably to other, newer sports, track and field would be unwise to assume its primacy will last forever.
British athletics has struggled to keep pace with cycling, sailing, rowing (until Tokyo), swimming and boxing - and may now seem less relevant to younger viewers than BMX, skateboarding, climbing, and other activities that reflect modern interests more than the shot put, pole vault or triple jump. Until the 21st century gold rush changed appetites, British eyes would always turn to track and field as its primary source of entertainment.
Asher-Smith back with a bang, Walls rides to gold, Bradshaw bronze - Team GB wrap, Day 13
Tokyo has been a messy mission. Asher-Smith, Adam Gemili and Katarina Johnson-Thompson all pulled out of contests with injuries, or injury-related issues. Asher-Smith and Johnson-Thompson carried onerous expectations and were devastated by the rotten timing of their setbacks.
“After the 100m, there was no way I wasn’t going to be here with these girls,” Asher-Smith said.
She took one day off after pulling out of the 200m, then redoubled her efforts to leave Japan with at least one gong.
For a purist, nothing beats the blend of speed and stamina needed for middle-distance racing, and here Britain is blessed on the women’s side. At 19, Hodgkinson broke Kelly Holmes’ British record. Also in the 800m Jemma Reekie ran a new personal best to finish fourth and Alex Bell also ran her fastest 800m in seventh place.
Muir came of age as a world-class metric mile runner. The flashing speed of the defending champion, Kipyegon, was impossible to answer. Muir had the misfortune to chase home an imperious champion who set a new Olympic record. But she did so with big-race hunger and authority. This was the graduation ceremony she has promised for so long.
They’re not done yet, these GB athletes. Steph Davis, Jess Piasecki and Steph Twell contest this weekend’s women’s marathon, Morgan Lake is in the women’s high jump final, Jessica Judd and Elish McColgan go in the women’s 10,000m, Britain is in the women’s 4x400m final and, at middle-distance again, progress has been made in the men’s 1500m. Jake Heyward, Jake Wightman and Josh Kerr are all through to the final. Britain also has three in Sunday’s men’s marathon (Callum Hawkins, Chris Thompson and Ben Connor).
A British medal in the men’s 1500m would sit snugly with those won by Hodgkinson and Muir. In the reckoning, though, the likely lack of gold will hurt nobody more than Mitchell-Blake, who now knows how it feels to miss a penalty.
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