London Olympics 2012

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  • London Olympics 2012: Ten things

Athletics finally arrives

Steven Lynch
August 3, 2012
Mary Peters finally got her hand on gold in 1972 © Getty Images
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Each day of the Games we will bring ten facts you may or may not know about the great sporting spectacle that is the Olympics. The athletics gets underway today

After what has seemed like an age, the athletics - the main event at the Olympics for many - finally gets under way today. The first men's medal to be decided will be in the shot put: don't hold your breath for British medals, as the one and only one in this event came back in 1908, when 37-year-old Denis Horgan won silver in London. And he was actually a New York policeman, born in Ireland!

British medal hopes are high, though, in the heptathlon, with Games poster-girl Jessica Ennis having won the world title in 2009. By the end of the first day, after four of the seven events, we'll have a fair idea whether the girl formerly known as "Tadpole" is in line to emulate Denise Lewis, the champion of Sydney 2000. Kelly Sotherton, of espn.co.uk fame, took the bronze in 2004.

The 10,000 metres was added to the women's Olympic programme in 1988, when the hot favourite was the Norwegian Ingrid Kristiansen. But she hurt her foot in the heats, and dropped out of the final early on. That first final ended up as a shootout between Olga Bondarenko of Russia's and Britain's Liz McColgan - and regular McColgan watchers feared the worst when it was obvious it was boiling down to a sprint finish. And indeed, Bondarenko shot off in the last 200 metres, leaving Liz with a silver which remains GB's only medal in this event. Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia won in 1992, and again in Sydney eight years later after missing out in Atlanta.

Before the heptathlon, there was the pentathlon ... an extra two events were added in time for the 1984 Olympics. Back in the days of five events, Mary Peters from Northern Ireland won an emotional gold in Munich in 1972. Eight years previously, Peters had just missed out on a medal in Tokyo, finishing fourth. Her team-mate, the long-jump gold medallist Mary Rand, took silver, beaten by the controversial Russian Irina Press - she and her even more muscular sister Tamara retired abruptly a couple of years later when athletics introduced mandatory sex tests.

It's the first round of the men's 3000-metres steeplechase, an event dominated in recent times by the Kenyans, who have taken gold at each Games in which they have competed since 1968 (they didn't take part in 1976 or 1980). The last man to win the Olympic final ahead of a Kenyan was the Belgian Gaston Roelants, in Tokyo in 1964, when Midlander Maurice Herriott picked up silver for Britain. Chris Brasher, the co-founder of the London marathon, took gold in Melbourne in 1956.

In the pool it's time for the shortest swimming event, in terms of time - the men's 50m freestyle. It was competed for in 1904, but not again until 1988, when Matt Biondi's time of 22.14 seconds was more than six seconds quicker than Zoltan Halmay had managed in St Louis - mind you, Halmay did have to swim the race twice, after officials disagreed about the winner and a fight broke out.

The main event in British eyes will be the women's 800 metres, Rebecca Adlington's favourite distance and one of the two golds she won in Beijing. The only woman to retain the title until now was the great American Janet Evans, who won in Seoul in 1988 and again - winning by more than eight metres this time - in Barcelona in 1992. Evans held the world record from 1988 until Adlington smashed it by two seconds at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

At Eton Dorney today's finals include the men's pairs, the event memorably won by Steve Redgrave in 1988 (with Andy Holmes), and 1992 and 1996 (with Matthew Pinsent). Drew Ginn, an outstanding Australian oarsman, has won the last two gold medals.

At the Velodrome it's the men's team pursuit, won in Beijing by Team GB. There's no Bradley Wiggins this time (barring a surprise call-up for the man of the moment!) but medal hopes are still sky-high. Wiggins won a bronze in this event as a 20-year-old at Sydney in 2000, and silver in 2004, before he topped the podium in Beijing with Ed Clancy, Paul Manning and Geraint Thomas.

Tommy Simpson, the first Briton to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France (this year's winner Wiggins was only the fifth), collected a bronze medal in the team pursuit at Melbourne in 1956.

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