Moments after conquering the world this week, British sailor Eilidh McIntyre was apologising to her mother.
‘My poor Mum — she’s had to live through this twice!’ she said, blinking back the tears on a sweltering Japanese afternoon.
Back in Britain, Caroline McIntyre admitted that she had wanted to ‘hide under the duvet’.
She’d endured the same stress 33 years ago when her husband Mike was competing at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. And here was history repeating itself as she watched her daughter fighting for gold in the 470 class together with Hannah Mills.
Hayling Island Sailing Club was rammed as Eilidh’s family and friends gathered nervously to watch it all at the crack of dawn — and then erupted at the end.
Charlotte Worthington spent three years doing 40-hour weeks in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant in Manchester just to maintain her dream. She couldn’t even think about applying for Lottery funding until BMX freestyle was finally admitted to the Olympic pantheon in 2017. Now, she need never fold another fajita again
Here was yet another delightful snapshot of Tokyo 2020, one we have seen replicated in sitting rooms and sports clubs all over the country, as this troubled Olympiad has given us a whole new generation of sporting greats.
And, like Olympians of yesteryear, they have done it without their support bubbles, without their fans, without Mum and Dad and the family waving hysterically from the grandstands. In some cases, they have also done it without any Lottery funding, too.
Instead, we have had the glorious sight of gobsmacked families back in Blighty dancing round the garden, jumping up and down on the sofa and tearfully acknowledging that all those years of hideous 5am starts for some far-flung training session really had been worth it after all. And it has cheered us up immensely.
These were the Games that no one really wanted. Yet, they have turned out to be just the tonic we all needed. And now we’re going to miss them after tomorrow’s closing ceremony.
The omens were abysmal. The host nation was so unenthusiastic that the only crowds at the opening ceremony were the ones booing and protesting outside the stadium.
Much of the world either yawned at the prospect or sneered that they were a year late, or else complained that it was the height of irresponsibility to gather tens of thousands of people from all over the globe in the midst of a pandemic — and let them pant and sweat over one another in a confined space.
But since these Games could hardly get any worse, there was only one way to go — upwards. And, as far as Britain is concerned, that is what they have done.
For a start, they have managed to eclipse the pain and shame of the Euros. They have also been a gratifying reminder of what the U in UK stands for; a very welcome — and, sadly, increasingly rare — outing for the Union flag.
We’ve heard barely a squeak from Nicola Sturgeon and her lemon-chewing cohorts this past fortnight (except to complain that the Prime Minister has turned down her invitation to tea).
These Games have allowed us that rarest of pleasure: the chance to wake up each morning, turn on the radio and hear the headlines kicking off with good news.
These were the Games that no one really wanted. Yet, they have turned out to be just the tonic we all needed. We are clearly going to see a good deal more of Wigan wonder kid, Keely Hodgkinson, after her dazzling silver medal in the 800 metres. She is pictured above with teammate Alexandra Bell
They have also shown us that we do not need to be cowed by Covid (if Team GB can get a thousand athletes and staff to Tokyo and back without illness or infection, then is it not time to start opening up our travel corridors rather more?).
Best of all, they have helped to revive some of that feel-good spirit of 2012, that glorious summer of the London Games hot on the heels of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
What makes these Olympics different from London 2012, though, is the sense of the ordinary suddenly becoming extraordinary.
Once again, our athletes have put us very respectably near the top of the medal table. But unlike Beijing 2008 or London 2012 or Rio 2016, there has been a homespun feel to the heroes of the last fortnight. This lot feel more grounded, more amateurish in the best sense of the word.
It’s rather like the old days, except that in the old days we seldom saw a medal. Now we see hatfuls. Since the advent of National Lottery funding in the late Nineties, British Olympic fortunes have been transformed — from a single gold in 1996 (Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, needless to say) to where we are now.
We now have ranks of ‘elite athletes’ with a special breed of Olympic celebrity superstars at the top.
And good luck to them. They richly deserve their round the world training camps, dieticians, sponsorship deals and all the other baubles.
Moderately talented footballers can expect to earn a lot more for sacrificing a lot less. So long may the Olympians fill their boots.
What these Games have done, though, is reconnect the Olympic podium to the grass roots. Those big-ticket, multi-million-pound medal machines — rowing, athletics and track cycling — have not delivered all the returns we expected.
Rowing, for example, was handed £24 million in the run-up to these Games and produced a run of fourth-place finishes (plus a silver and bronze).
There will, no doubt, be painful conversations at the headquarters of the British Olympic Association in the weeks ahead. But the public are hardly complaining. We have had had plenty to cheer in places we were not expecting.
Take Beth Schriever, the unstoppable force of nature in the women’s BMX. She was denied any funding at all in 2016 when UK Sport (which doles out the goodies from the Lottery) decided it was only going to pay for male riders.
So Beth crowdfunded the £50,000 needed to keep her Tokyo dreams alive and has repaid her family and supporters to the full.
I admit that I had never watched a single BMX event until her final but was gripped, not just by the guts required to leap off a near-precipice cheek by jowl with all the rest, but by the number of circuits they have to do in quick succession.
Beth nailed it in one heat after another before storming home in first place. She was in such pain at the end that she couldn’t walk, let alone speak. Then the BBC cut to her family back in Essex — and they could barely speak either. Wonderful stuff.
Like Olympians of yesteryear, they have done it without their support bubbles, without their fans, without Mum and Dad and the family waving hysterically from the grandstands. (Hannah Mills (left) and Eilidh McIntyre of Team Great Britain celebrate by jumping in the water after winning gold in the Women’s 470 class medal race)
These were the Games that no one really wanted. Yet, they have turned out to be just the tonic we all needed. And now we’re going to miss them after tomorrow’s closing ceremony. (Above, Adam Peaty wins gold)
These Games have allowed us that rarest of pleasure: the chance to wake up each morning, turn on the radio and hear the headlines kicking off with good news. (Above, Katie Archibald (left) and Laura Kenny celebrates after winning in the women’s track cycling madison final)
Her story echoes that of fellow-BMX rider, Charlotte Worthington, gold medallist in the freestyle event. She performed that insanely bold 360-degree backflip which wowed the world (A&E departments may be extra busy for months). Charlotte spent three years doing 40-hour weeks in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant in Manchester just to maintain her dream.
She couldn’t even think about applying for Lottery funding until BMX freestyle was finally admitted to the Olympic pantheon in 2017. Now, she need never fold another fajita again.
We are clearly going to see a good deal more of Wigan wonder kid, Keely Hodgkinson, after her dazzling silver medal in the 800 metres.
Yet, had it not been for private sponsorship by philanthropist businessman Barrie Wells, she would probably never have made it to Tokyo. Even among those who have had the benefit of Lottery funding, there have been similar tales of hard graft and sacrifice over many long years. Their modesty and their gratitude has been a joy to see.
Take our swimmers, who have had their best Games in living memory. Adam Peaty, the first Brit to defend a swimming title, and Duncan Scott, the first to come home with four medals from a single Olympiad — are now fully installed in the UK’s hall of fame. Ditto Tom Dean, just 21, who has won two gold medals. But I loved the fact that, in his hour of victory, his family were still reminding him that he is on ‘dishwasher duty’ when he gets home.
Moments after conquering the world this week, British sailor Eilidh McIntyre was apologising to her mother. ‘My poor Mum — she’s had to live through this twice!’ she said, blinking back the tears on a sweltering Japanese afternoon. Her family are pictured above celebrating her win
And who could not be moved by the story of Matt Richards? The teenager from the West Midlands spent lockdown training in a makeshift pool in his parents’ back garden, swimming against an elastic rope tied round his waist.
His parents had stumped up £1,000 for the glorified paddling pool while Matt found the money for the filter machine.
‘It meant I was able to train and give structure to my days and a sense of normality,’ he told the Mail last week, adding that the pool was always perishing in the morning but had usually warmed up by the afternoon. Now, aged just 18, he has a gold medal from the men’s 4×200 metre relay.
Even the biggest names have kept their feet firmly on the ground at these Games. They don’t come much more stellar than the husband-and-wife duo of Jason and Laura Kenny. These two have every right to behave like sporting royalty, not least since Jason is our most-decorated Olympian.
But I have loved their down-to-earth attitude throughout, typified by Laura’s response to defeat in the final of the team pursuit.
She could have stomped off or given some dull stock response. Instead, she was determined to look on the bright side. ‘I’ll just keep on turning up,’ she said happily ‘and see what happens.’
And what did happen? She won gold in yesterday’s Madison event.
This has been an emphatically British affair.
Take that gold medal in the 470-class sailing. Hannah Mills, the most successful female sailor in Olympic history, is from Wales and won her gold with a girl from Hampshire whose gold-winning Dad was the pride of Glasgow.
Duncan Scott’s path to Olympic glory began at the civic pool in Troon, Ayrshire. Kathleen Dawson is the first Scottish woman to win an Olympic swimming gold in 109 years. Yet they’ve all been ‘Team GB’ in Tokyo.
It may be why the Scottish National Party has been strangely quiet in recent days. It was only when a newspaper highlighted Nicola Sturgeon’s lack of support that the First Minister finally tweeted: ‘Massive congrats to Duncan Scott on his silver medal. And, of course, to Tom Dean on winning gold. Hopefully lots more Team GB medals yet to come.’
As Labour’s Shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray argues: ‘The silence from senior SNP politicians is deafening — even when Scottish GB athletes are making us all proud. The ethos of the Olympics, unity and working together as a team, goes against everything the SNP stands for.’
At least we have been spared the verbal gymnastics of former SNP leader Alex Salmond. In 2012, he announced he was rooting for all the ‘Scolympians’ taking part in the Games.
The all-inclusive nature of this campaign has been reflected in the coverage, too. Both the BBC commentators at the opening ceremony, for example, were Scottish (this is actually Hazel Irvine’s eighth Olympics).
The same goes for a lot of the pundits including Sir Chris Hoy, Katherine Grainger, Shirley Robertson and J. J. Chalmers. Meanwhile, one of the BBC’s most incisive experts is neither English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. Now on his fourth Olympiad for the Beeb, quadruple gold medallist Michael Johnson is a Texan.
The BBC has faced the usual pot-shots from online trolls and has had some major challenges — notably Covid and the fact that the International Olympic Committee have flogged off a lot of broadcasting rights to Eurosport. Yet, I would argue that the BBC has had a very good Olympics.
Some viewers have complained about the jargon but, surely, it is part of the joy of the Olympics to hear the gibberish that goes with a fringe sport enjoying its quadrennial moment in the spotlight.
‘Nose grind . . . a beautiful pop . . . backside air . . . ooh, she’s missed the kickflip indy!’ prattled the chap talking us through the skateboarding. Who cares what it all meant?
However, the BBC has landed itself with a problem. Having covered these Games so successfully with just a handful of people out in Tokyo, it is going to find it hard to justify sending planeloads of staff to cover future Games.
Most of its presenters have spent these Games overlooking a fake Tokyo skyline in not-so-sunny Salford. Yet it hasn’t made a blind bit of difference to the drama.
Even the mellifluous and unflappable Clare Balding had to duck out of camera range at one point this week. She had suddenly found herself overcome with emotion after Britain’s Ben Maher won gold in the show jumping with his magnificent horse, Explosion W.
Clare wasn’t the only one. Asked for his feelings, Maher replied: ‘I just called home. Everyone was just screaming down the phone. I didn’t understand anything.’
That, in a nutshell, was Tokyo 2020 — the Games that didn’t turn up on time, nearly didn’t happen but surprised us all.
Additional reporting: Michael Blackley