A single athlete can define an Olympic Games. Atlanta 1996 had Michael Johnson, Sydney 2000 had Cathy Freeman and London 2012 had Jessica Ennis. After the Brit, now Ennis-Hill, announced her retirement, we relive one of the most iconic heptathlon performances in history.
The London Olympic Stadium was full an hour before the starter’s gun fired. The silence as Jessica Ennis settled into the blocks for her first Olympics was as deafening as the clamour that had preceded it.
When the gun fired, the explosion of noise from 80,000 fans was matched by Ennis, who flew to a 12.54 national record and heptathlon world best. Her time was equal to the winning mark in the individual event in Beijing 2008. Simply stunning.
The face of the Games stamped her authority. History was in motion.
In the high jump, Ennis failed her first two attempts at 1.86m. When winning the world title in 2009 she had cleared 1.92m. The pressure was on.
A nerveless third attempt kept her at the top of the leaderboard and on track. She didn’t even touch the bar as she went clear. The relief around the stadium was plain: she let out a little jump of excitement on the mat while the crowd were sent in to further raptures.
Yet Ennis would not emerge from the shot put feeling quite so rosy. While Lithuania’s Austra Skujyte set a heptathlon world best 17.31m, the Briton could only go out to 14.28m with her second attempt.
She left the circle with her head in her hands – and in second place behind Skuyjte.
The slip from the top was only temporary. In the closing event of day one, Ennis and Dafne Schippers went stride-for-stride in the 200m to stop the clock at 22.83, the fastest time in the field by nearly half a second.
It was Ennis’ second personal best of the contest and nearly half a second faster than the third best athlete. It meant she finished the first day at the top of the leaderboard and ensured the British fans went home happy.
Conditions were, well, British for the first event of day two, the long jump. As with the previous morning, the stadium was full long before the athletes took to the run way.
Jumping into a swirling headwind, Ennis found the board with each of her jumps – a sign of an athlete in complete control. She went out to 6.48m with her third effort, just 3cm down on her lifetime best and the second best mark overall, to entrench her position at the top of the standings.
At the previous year’s Daegu World Championships, Ennis had only mustered a 39.95m javelin. With Tatyana Chernova – the Russian who had beaten her to world champs gold in 2011 – breathing down her neck, she could not afford a repeat. Nor would she allow it.
Ennis produced a 47.49m personal best – her third of the competition – that gave her a lead only a disaster could undermine.
Nothing was left to chance in the 800m finale. Ennis took up a position at the front from the moment the athletes broke down into the back straight. She was passed with 300m to go but looked in full control of her pacing.
As the roar from the crowd grew, she resisted the impulse to kick until until entering the home straight. Showing no emotion, Ennis switched gears, moving silkily to the front and crossing the line first in 2:08.65.
You could see the pressure lift. Arms spread wide, eyes closed, destiny fulfilled.
Ennis’ 6955 points puts her fifth on the world all-time list and remains the British record; her 306-point winning margin was the best at the Olympics in 20 years; her status as the face of the 2012 Games is ensured forever.