This post was originally written for my blog to mark the anniversary of the London 2012 Opening Ceremony, and offer my thoughts on what Olympic legacies really mean. This extended version was published on Frontier Sports yesterday, and is now available to read in full here.
This time last year, the word on many people’s lips was “legacy”. London 2012 had a series of objectives, and one was to “inspire a generation”. As an events professional – and amateur sports-lover – the concept intrigues me. Many people jump to the conclusion that what LOCOG wanted was to use London as a springboard for Rio: that people could get off their sofa having watched the Jamaican relay team storm to victory, and be wearing a Team GB jersey four years later. I very much doubt that was LOCOG’s intention, and here’s why.
I have one memory of the summer of 1996: watching agog as Mary King and Star Appeal completed the cross country phase of the Olympic eventing competition in Atlanta. My love (there’s the L word you assumed I was talking about) affair with horses had been burning brightly for six years already, but this is the first occasion I remember sitting up and thinking little else but, “wow”.
Mary and Team GB didn’t win the gold that year, but they won my heart. Eventing became my favourite equestrian sport, and I went to my weekly riding lessons imagining that my steed was not Cherry the riding school pony, but Ready Teddy, Broadcast News or Primmore’s Pride (anyone who knows about eventing – or has now Googled these animals – will know that my slightly tragic thought pattern continued well into my teens, and I can’t promise that it doesn’t still happen occasionally…)
Atlanta 1996 was just that: 17 years ago. I’ve sat just as hooked on eventing for every year since – Olympic and non-Olympic. I’ve shouted “keep kicking!” at the TV many times. I’ve been frustrated at a blatant rule break which saw Team GB (temporarily) awarded two medals of incorrect colour. I’ve been to the brink of tears upon hearing that they had been crowned World Champions and I’ve tasted disappointment at other near misses.
But I haven’t just remained glued to the sofa and watched my sport go by. So far, my endeavours haven’t taken me as far as the professional competition circuit (though equestrianism is known to produce some of the oldest Olympians, so I haven’t yet written off my bid for glory in 2044…) But the inspiration I gained from my first insights into top-flight competition did encourage me to become more involved: caring for loaned ponies, attending local competitions and working at a world-famous show jumping venue. Perhaps the ultimate culmination (or continuation, depending on how you look at it) of my memories of Atlanta is the fact that I now teach children to ride horses. Many of them are younger than I was in 1996, and others had only just been born (which is a more terrifying concept in print than it is in person). Given that I recall not only my heroes of the competitive world from that era, but also the names, faces and commonly used phrases of my instructors from that period. I can’t help but wonder if I am planting similar seeds.
And I’m far from alone in having been encouraged by a particular person or event. Within my exploration of equestrianism and other sports, I’ve read many articles and books about the people who put in these astonishing performances time and again, and there’s a theme: they too have found inspiration in the feats of others. In his recent autobiography, (Sir) Mark Todd describes growing up on a dairy farm in New Zealand, soaking in photographs of eventing competitions in faraway lands. When, on the brink of his first retirement and being named the FEI’s Rider of the Century, he finally got the chance to meet the athlete who originally sparked his own interest, she and her horse were still heroes to him. Those photographs drove him to compete overseas, allowing him the opportunity to become the subject of his own famous pictures, an Olympic medallist in two sports at one Games.
More recently, a young South African idolised a legend of his sport, poster of the more senior athlete stuck to his bedroom wall… until he stepped onto the same stage as the person he looked up to. The inspiration paid off last year when Chad Le Clos stood above Michael Phelps on the podium in the London 2012 Aquatics Centre. Phelps himself was already an Olympic star, churning through the wake of previous standard-setters Mark Spitz and Ian Thorpe in pursuit of his own greatness, working to raise the bar and the profile of swimming beyond what his predecessors had managed.
The stadia in Atlanta closed a long time ago. Some medals may now bear dust. The legacy of the 1996 Games burns on in my heart. London’s legacy is flickering, a generation has hopefully been inspired by the performances of Bechtolsheimer, Hester, Dujardin, Charles, Maher, Brash and Skelton, plus their compatriots from other sports. Steps have been taken, dreams will have been had. Ponies and bicycles and boats and trainers and rackets will all have been transformed in young minds to create gold medal-winning performances. I hope that the flames are fed, encouraged.
Legacy isn’t the equivalent of a 10 second sprint race. It’s the agonising, painstaking hours of a marathon.
I’d be intrigued to hear about my readers’ early Olympic memories – which ones really hit home for you and for what reasons? Were you inspired to try a new sport, or make a career out of one?