Jessica Ennis and the night Britain's Olympics all became worth it
Britain had a big night at the Olympic Stadium Saturday, winning three golds including one for Jessica Ennis, the British face of the London Games.
In the years to come, when the British people take stock of their Olympic adventure and ask themselves the inevitable question – "Was it all worth it?" – this night will enter their reckoning. And maybe, just maybe, that will be enough.
Was "God Save the Queen," sung by 80,000 people to that trembling mighty mite atop the medal stand Saturday, audible across the Atlantic?
It surely echoed across this land – into pubs and living rooms and through city squares into the nation's very consciousness. For months now, all Britain has climbed upon the muscular shoulders of Jessica Ennis – wishing, hoping that the heptathlete with the six-pack abs and million-dollar smile could win them all a gold medal. Then, in that moment on the top step of the podium, when dreams of athlete and nation intertwined in perfect fulfillment, the British people seemingly took her upon their shoulders.
She was their Jess, and they were singing to her.
In an age when the communal moment has been sacrificed on the altar of Netflix and Facebook updates, Britain enjoyed something nearly extinct Saturday. For the space of an evening, those who watched saw themselves as a harmonious whole, each man and woman unified in awe of what emotions a girl from Sheffield could inspire within them – just for throwing a stick and jumping into a big pit of sand.
There is no doubt that the Olympics are a big, messy business, and sometimes it takes an iron stomach to look at the balance sheet or those BMWs zipping past bumper-to-bumper traffic in their precious Olympic lanes. But when the abacus of Olympic calculators clicks, it is foolish to discount nights like this one, when the Olympic ideal of uniting through sport becomes more than pleasant words, but a million hearts burning together.
In the end, Ennis acknowleged the weight of expectation and the toll it had taken. How could it not? How often do heptathletes become national icons? Indeed, even now, what percentage of Britons could even name the seven events of the heptathlon – the women's version of the decathlon?
Suffice it to say, a typical day of training for elite heptathletes does not involve managing the expectations of a entire country, whose soccer team has conditioned it to hope for the best but expect the worst. As with Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang in Beijing and Greek weightlifter Pyrros Dimas in Athens, this was a setup of Olympian proportions; history did not offer promising precedent.
But then Saturday came, and Ennis was impeccable. When the last event – the 800 meters – arrived, it was more celebration than competition. The gold was already virtually assured, but she still won the race, coming from behind down the stretch.
"I'm going to savor the moment," Ennis said Saturday. "I've had great support, although I have been under a huge amount of pressure."
What was not virtually assured was what came next. As Ennis was on the track, a carrot-topped dead ringer for Doogie Howser named Greg Rutherford launched himself into the air and came down 27 feet later, claiming a long jump gold for Britain. Then, a bunch of men ran around the track for a ridiculously long time (27 minutes, 30.42 seconds, to be exact) and the first man across the line happened to be a Somali immigrant by the name of "Mo."
Need we add? He's British, having moved here when he was 8.
When Mohamed Farah crossed the finish line, he did not collapse into a heap. Instead, he went absolutely nuts. If Ennis's story had a scripted dignity to it, then this was spontaneous exuberance of the most irrational sort. Even before he finished, Farah looked back over his shoulder, and there was Galen Rupp, his friend and American training partner – an improbable second.
This is after running 10,000 meters, mind you.
Perhaps that is where his daughter got the idea. As the crowd roared and Farah searched for a proper Union Jack, she came streaking out of the stands, dodging stewards on the track until she at last reached Farah and jumped into his arms. His wife, eight months pregnant with twins, followed after (at a much more measured pace).
"It was the best moment of my life," Farah said.
It was the Olympics, and every so often, they remind you why we make such a big fuss every two years.
For Britain, Saturday was that night.