There’s nothing like a great summer of sport for bringing a nation together: a glorious few weeks when partisanship, drama and sporting excellence all combine, and huge numbers of us are out there rejoicing beneath the great gold medal of the sun.
This has been such a summer. England had a great ride in the World Cup, refreshing and noble, the disappointment as Gareth Southgate’s young charges lost in the semis – watched by 26 million – only adding to its poetry. On the same day, Roger Federer went out of Wimbledon, proving an iron rule of sport: that you can’t win ’em all, though a genius can get close. It seems like generations since we went through similar agonies and delights – but six years ago, the London Olympic and Paralympic Games brought one of the greatest summers of all.
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So it’s always a delight, when the Anniversary Games come round again, to recall that sporting euphoria. It’s just an athletics meet on the IAAF Diamond League circuit – nothing like the mad omnisport grandiosity of the Olympics – but over two days we will be able to set the athletes who currently lead the world against memories of those golden days of 2012.
The event takes place at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, which is now the London Stadium in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The current crop of all-time greats, aspiring hopefuls, ageing champions, has-beens, never wozzers, nearly-but-not-quiters, maybe-this-timers and all the other members of the cast of breathtaking talent will be out there doing their stuff in the context of all our memories of greatness.
The athletes will have their eyes turned towards the future and the unanswerable question of what happens next. But we who watch have the luxury of comparing one generation with the next. And, using clues from the past, we can pick out the greats of the future. Or try to.
I was there in the stadium for Super Saturday, when British athletes won three gold medals in half an hour, but I remember it as the culmination of two days on the track and field. I watched every second of the two quiet morning sessions and two infinitely noisier evening sessions – concluding with the din of that triple victory.
My assignment was simple: don’t take your eyes off Jessica Ennis, our gold medal hope in the heptathlon. I saw how she coped with the expectation, withdrawing into a bubble of concentration and offering the world an expression as serene as the Mona Lisa.
I watched every one of the seven disciplines of the heptathlon. I remember her asking the crowd for help during the long jump; I remember her struggle in the shot put – but then her weaker events always revealed the competitive streak in this supremely gifted athlete.
I remember the moment she nailed a terrific long jump on the second day and briefly burst from her bubble to celebrate with the crowd. In the final event, the 800 metres, she took the lead, was passed – and then battled back to the front to win the way champions win. Before we had fully digested this, Greg Rutherford won the long jump and Mo Farah won the 10,000 metres and the night was filled with glory.
Greedily we look for the next Greg, the next Mo, the next Jess: but we look in vain because such people do not come along as of right. But at the Anniversary Games we celebrate the winners and look for the contenders for next year’s World Championships, and the 2020 Olympics, and do so while remembering glory six years old – and getting more glorious with every passing year.
The Anniversary Games are broadcast on Saturday from 1:15pm on BBC1 and Sunday from 1pm on BBC2