Greg Baum August 05, 2012
Mixed emotions ... Mitchell Watt celebrates winning silver in the final of the men's long jump. Photo: Pat Scala
When the story of Australia at the London Olympics is written, assuming there is an interested publisher, it could be called Second To A Brit. Not only has Great Britain enjoyed stunning success, disproportionately it is making Australia its explicit fall guy. It is changing the dynamics of the relationship.
On what henceforth will be known as the Ennis night, Mitchell Watt’s bid for long jump gold was faltering until Jessica Ennis gusted past, doing a Freeman while the stadium did a Sydney.
‘‘I just pretended I was British for about 30 seconds,’’ Watt said. Promptly, he landed what was in context his most important jump of the night. ‘‘I have to thank her for that,’’ he said.
But in these Olympics, fate does not just meet Great Britain half-way, it home delivers. Red-headed Briton Greg Rutherford had already stuck what would survive as the gold medal winning jump. At 8.31, it was the shortest winning jump at the Olympics since Munich 1972. Watt twice leapt to better it, but could not. He knew it before Omega did.
‘‘I can’t believe I’m a silver medallist with 8.16,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve lost count how many time I’ve done 8.30. It’s probably a dozen times. But I don’t think I had an 8.30 in me tonight.’’ Justifiably, Watt talked up the virtue of silver, but his body language contradicted him. His lap of honour had the aspect of a jog, but the weight of a trudge. After winning in last year’s world championships in Daegu, he said it was probably his finest achievement, but did not feel like it. Last night, ditto.
As Great Britain’s exultant rampage yesterday suggests, the historical tide has turned, and Watt was helpless to stand against it. Last night, he represented Australia’s last fingerhold on its Olympic dignity. ‘‘I was pretty aware there was was a gold medal tag around my neck,’’ he said.
For the second time, the pressure on him was measurable in fathoms. In last year’s world championships, it was because of his own expectations; he was the best jumper in the world then. Last night, it was because of his country’s expectations. Both times, he came up short, literally. Both times, his coach, Gary Bourne, has noticed a lack of fluency and rhythm, betraying tightening. Give the stage and the stakes, it is scarcely surprising.
Rutherford is. His record is modest beside Watts’s, but last night the force was with him. He made three of the four best jumps by anyone on the night, and Watt, a close friend, said he deserved his gold. This was not the time to be curmudgeonly.
The odd thing is that none of his jumps would have won Olympic gold in the last 40 years. In seasonally adjusted terms, long jumping has gone backwards. The world record stands from 1991, the Olympic record from 1968. Last year, world record-holder Mike Powell said that Usain Bolt would break his record if he put his mind to it. Last night, American Will Claye a specialist triple jumper, dabbled in the long jump. He won bronze.
The best explanation anyone can offer is that the likeliest leapers now play football or basketball for money. The most sobering is that out-of-competition testing for drugs was introduced in 1988.
On any given night, an Olympic athletics stadium is a hive of of fluid and restless activity, overlaid by highly amplified music, announcements and commentary in the epic voice, regular ceremonies and anthems and a crowd as excitable as if full of red lemonade, racheted up here by the local hero factor. There is never a lull, and on great nights it escalates into agreeable pandemonium. All this, a jumper must both absorb and at the same time quarantine from his consciousness at the critical moment.
At first, Watt struggled. He fouled three of his first four jumps, twice running through the pit. His face showed the strain. But the beauty of long jump is that a man is only ever one hurtling moment away from redemption, even deliverance. Suddenly, a jump of 8.13 catapulted Watt into second place. Now he paced the arena; if he was a bull, he would have been snorting. Fortified by technical advice from Bourne, Watt stood at the top of the runway, remembering his best jumps and envisaging a repeat.
But fate had made up its mind. Fate and tide are not meant to imply that Great Britain’s rise has been some sort of accident. Rather, it is the outcome of a well-planned and exhaustive effort, sanctioned, supported and now celebrated by a people once regarded as a bit sniffy towards the idea of sporting virtuosity. Rutherford is one of many manifestations.
Standing history on its head, once masterful Australia must now learn from its British sporting masters. It has started already. Watt and Rutherford are best mates. Watt revealed that they had soothed one another as the tension rose last night. He also said that he intends to move in with Rutherford for a year. Unable to beat him, he is joining him.