Every Olympic Games has its “face”, and in 2012 it was Jessica Ennis. The small – she is a mere 5ft 5in – disarming and attractive 26-year-old from Sheffield became the symbol of the biggest sporting event the country has ever held. Her image was projected on posters all around London, and British Airways painted her face over an area the size of 15 tennis courts in a field. No one could arrive at Heathrow or travel any distance in the capital without seeing her beaming back at them.
“It was mad. Just weird,” she says. “One of the other heptathletes, Jessica Zelinka, tweeted a message saying, ‘It’s like a Jessica Ennis theme park.’ It was a bit nerve-racking. Being ‘the face of the Games’, as people called me, isn’t something you choose. It just happened.”
Even Prince William came up to her before the Games and muttered to her, “No pressure on you, then.”
Of course, Ennis lived up to all the hype and expectation, and on a warm morning halfway through the Games, she began her campaign for gold by winning the 110m hurdles in 12.54 seconds – the fastest that anyone had ever before run the race in a heptathlon.
“It was way beyond my expectations,” she says. “I just felt numb when I heard the time.” She was later told her time would have won her gold in the hurdles at the last Olympic Games.
Ennis’s victory in the heptathlon came on the day now dubbed “Super Saturday”, when British athletes stormed the podium and began collecting Olympic medals like no British team before them. “It was astonishing to be a part of it,” says Ennis. “It was the most incredible experience. I know I’ll never know another year like it. My feet haven’t touched the ground since.”
Ennis returned to her home town of Sheffield to be given the freedom of the city. A football stand was named after her and Robbie Williams invited her to appear in his music video. “The response has been incredible,” she says. “The pictures people have sent of themselves watching me win, and the messages of support… it’s been amazing. I’ve had loads of letters from young girls and that’s a really positive thing. They are interested in athletics after watching the Olympic Games. I think further down the line we will see what a big impact 2012 had on women’s sport, in terms of kick-starting it and getting girls out there involved.”
Ennis, who at 9 stone 4lbs had to shrug off murmurings in the run-up to the Games that she was carrying too much weight, is very keen to be a positive role model for girls in sport.
“I think it’s important,” she says. “We need more coverage of women’s sport, and we need to get women involved in coaching and administration. It’s important that girls aren’t afraid of sport. I remember when I first started doing weight training I didn’t want to be any good at it because I didn’t want to be all muscly. My coach sat me down and said that if I had more muscles than the average woman, but won an Olympic gold medal, it would be worth it. He was right, but it’s hard when you’re younger and want to look like everyone else. There’s a training group at home in Sheffield and some of the younger girls won’t do weights because their friends at school aren’t muscly and they don’t want to be, either. I’m always saying to them that strong can look good. Sport is a good thing.”
Heptathlon gold medal, London Olympics
What the commentator said
“Everybody else is trailing in her wake. The pride of Sheffield, the pride of Great Britain, Jessica Ennis is the Olympic champion!”
Who would be your Sports Personality?
“I’d love to see Mo Farah because he’s a good friend, but there are the Paralympians too… If you’re really pushing me, I’d have to say Bradley Wiggins because of the Tour de France and the Olympic gold — but only just!”
Sports Personality of the Year 2012 begins on Sunday at 7:30pm on BBC1