Great British Olympians

What does the Olympics mean to you? We’ll all have different perceptions, according to our exposure, experiences and the national importance given to the events – I suspect the games have more of an impact in the more successful countries. For me, the Olympics is defined by a fairly select group of British athletes who have brought home gold medals and (mostly) become household names. To be more precise, ten Olympic heroes.

I’ve lived through nine Olympiads – London will be the tenth. My memories of the first, being just three years old, are <ahem> sketchy to say the least. I know there were many wonderful British winners prior to 1980, but in any Top Ten style list, I am confined by my age to start at the Moscow Olympics. Two names stood out and were the talk of the school playground. The swimmer Duncan Goodhew, who won gold in the 100m breast stroke. But really, we were more interested in why he was so totally bald. He fell out of a tree, apparently. And then his hair fell out. Bizarre.

But there was a more important medal winner in 1980. In the blue riband 100 metres track final, Allan Wells stormed home in first place. The absent US runners mocked him, telling any one who would listen that Wells only won because they weren’t there. They continued to mock him. For about a year. Until Wells beat them in the World Championships. A year after that he won gold at the Commonwealth Games, beating Ben Johnson. Presumably a pre-steroid Ben Johnson.

In 1984 the Americans rejoined the Olympic party. And the Russians left. Daley Thompson put in one of the greatest decathlon performances of all time. No one disputed his supremacy. In 1988 Lennox Lewis won gold, destroying Riddick Bowe in the final. US boxers disputed his supremacy for another couple of decades. He knocked them all out, one by one. Bizarrely, he still doesn’t always get the due credit.

In Barcelona, 1992, one man stood out from the crowd. Linford Christie reached the promised land, and won gold in the 100 metres track final, Britain’s second gold in four events. That highlight had to last eight years – Britain failed to win a single gold medal in track and field in Atlanta in 1996. Conversely, Sydney in 2000 proved to be one of our best performance, with Jonathon Edwards living up to his pre-games world record breaking expectations and bringing home the bacon.

Athens in 2004 at last gives me an excuse to include a female athlete – Kelly Holmes. Female athletes are often overlooked. I don’t know why, but I do it myself. I just don’t find women’s sports as entertaining as men’s. Perhaps it is simply the knowing that a female winner would still be struggling for a place in the men’s team, let alone getting to a final. Forget the medals. But anyone who wins gold in both the 800 metres and 1500 metres is a legend, testicles or no testicles.

Beijing 2008 was a fabulous Olympiad for the Brits. We finished fourth in the medals table, with Chris Hoy doing his bit with three cycling golds. But as good as all those I’ve already named are, none can claim to be Britain’s greatest modern Olympic athlete. That honour could only be contested by two men. The first is Sebastian Coe, who won gold in the 1500 metres in 1980 and 1984, and who dominated middle distance running so completely is what was a very competitive era. At one stage Coe held the world record at 800m, 1000m, 1500m and 1 mile consecutively. He set records that stood for 16 years (800 metres) and 19 years (1000 metres).

But still, I can’t can’t bring myself to name Coe as the greatest British Olympian. Although he can claim that honour as far as track and field are concerned. But the greatest British athlete of the modern era – nay, of any era – is Steve Redgrave. He rowed his way to five gold medals at five consecutive Olympic games from 1984 to 2000. Three golds were won with Matthew Pinsent, and two with Andy Holmes, who sadly died a couple of years back from Weil’s disease.

Disagree with my list? Make your feelings known. Ten points for the first person to spot the obvious ‘odd one out’ in my list.


10 thoughts on “Great British Olympians

  1. Francisco says:

    I enjoyed your post this morning. I’ve always loved watching the Olympics. My vote for greatest Olympian of all time would be Jim Thorpe a Sac/ Fox Indian from Carlisle Indian Academy (which beat the mighty Harvard football team, a power house in those days). He won the Pentathlon (no longer

    exists) and the Decathlon in the 1912 Olympics. A total of 15 events in which he managed 7 first place finishes. When the Olympic commitee stripped his 2 gold medals and offered them to his 2nd place competitors, they each refused them, stating “he beat me fair and square” I think representing your country in this competition is the hightest honor an athelte can achieve.


  2. Dan in nc says:

    Gary, THE MOST FAMOUS Brits? TORVILLE & DEAN!!!! I do not think anyone has ever skated better than their “Bolero”.. I still love to watch it when it is replayed!
    Dan in NC


    • Dan, I originally had a list of twelve. I knocked Ben Ainslie off, because despite all his fabulous achievements, I just can’t bring myself to give a monkeys about sailing. That left eleven. A Top Eleven? Doesn’t work. One more had to go. Exit Torvill and Dean. They were marvellous. But they were also Winter Olympians. Didn’t you spot the odd one out of my final ten though?

      For anyone wondering who Torvill and Dean are…


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