Tokyo 2020 Paul Hayward: Jason Kenny - From the kid no-one knew to the greatest Brit to ever do it
After he became Great Britain's most successful Olympian of all time Paul Hayward reflects on the remarkable career of Jason Kenny, which may not be finished yet. Kenny burst onto the scene as more or less a complete unknown and now will go down as the best ever for Britain. You want it? We have it. Stream every Olympic event live on discovery+.
‘Absolutely remarkable’ – Jason Kenny storms to historic keirin gold
It may surprise you to learn that Jason Kenny is only 22nd on the all-time list of summer and winter Olympic gold medal winners. In the summer Games, Michael Phelps is as remote as Mount Fuji, with 23. But Kenny’s seven titles have raised him to the commanding heights of British sport.
There’s no need to overstate it. Lewis Hamilton is probably still going to win a record eighth F1 drivers’ championship, Andy Murray stays radiant as a two-time Wimbledon winner, Davis Cup hero and double Olympic singles champion. None of Nick Faldo, Ian Botham, AP McCoy and Jess Ennis-Hill have not been chopped down by Kenny’s seventh Olympic gold on the final day of the Tokyo Games. After all Steve Redgrave still won gold at five successive Games (1984-2000), which remains mind-blowing. The hierarchy of British sporting history has been tweaked but not rewritten.
But still: the GB Olympic list is led today by the modest monster of track racing, a kind of anti-hero who called his effort in the men’s team sprint “rubbish” and then demolished the Keirin to help Britain match their London 2012 medal total. Still hooked on the thrill of the chase, Kenny now says he might have bought himself “more time” for a swansong in Paris in 2024.
‘I felt like I was cooked!’ – Kenny after historic gold
Jason Kenny’s haul, in full: seven golds and two silvers stretching back to Beijing in 2008 when he emerged from nowhere to take two medals aged 20. He’s half of one of the best double-acts in sporting history, here or anywhere. Jason and Laura (nee Trott) have 12 Olympic golds between them and, even better, one son, Albert, who will have a job carting all that metal into school for ‘show and tell.’
British cycling is no longer the genius child of the British Olympic movement. There has been too much darkness in the sport in recent years for them to retain that glow. The Tokyo campaign began ominously but was saved largely by the Kennys, who set a gym up in their garage to restart their careers after Rio, much as musicians build home studios to re-stoke their creativity.
Anyone looking at the all-time list of British Olympic medallists for the first time might think cycling gold medals grow on trees. The top three - Jason Kenny, Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins - are all bike riders, and Laura shares fourth spot with Steve Redgrave. But track cycling is deceptive. Its explosive speed and power look like science fiction. Few see the work that gets the riders to that point. In Tokyo, both Laura and Jason showed the strain, in different ways. Jason’s way round it was to talk himself down, as if he might have overplayed his hand by going to Tokyo.
“They are all special, they are all different, and they are all really hard to get,” he said as the Games prepared to close. “In a four or five-year gap, you look back, and it just seems so easy in your memory. You watch videos and it looks so easy, you forget the hard work that goes into it. I fought really hard for them all."
This evoked something Hoy told William Fotheringham in The Guardian before the Games: “He [Kenny] is like a big cat in the Serengeti. He lies around not using any energy. He walks more slowly than anyone I’ve ever seen. He goes to the loo from the track centre, and 10 minutes later you’re thinking: ‘Where has he gone?’ and he pops up. Everything he does is slow, until he has to go and hunt and kill his prey. Then there is a transformation … 99% of his life he seems to be on standby, and when he turns it on it’s quite remarkable. I’ve never seen anyone like him.”
These are startling words to be able to say in one house, one family: Jason Kenny is now Britain’s most prolific Olympic gold medal winner and Laura is GB's most successful female athlete. These two, plus Hoy and Wiggins, are also the hardest act to follow. Other countries are catching up.
The company Kenny now shares extends not only to Murray and Hamilton but Seb Coe (1,500m champion in 1980 and 1984), Lennox Lewis, Anthony Joshua and many Paralympians. You could go on forever with fun but ultimately futile selective judgments about who is “the greatest.” But we know Kenny is British Olympic sport’s No 1, by the simplest measure.
In all Olympic activities, 39 athletes have won more medals of all colours than him - many from the old Soviet bloc. Phelps is in another universe with 28 (23 of them gold). But that’s just context. In Britain’s private table of people with gold medal addictions, Jason Kenny bows to nobody.
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