A few years’ ago every time I was asked who is Britain’s greatest Olympian I always came up with the same name – Sir Steve Redgrave. Why? Well five gold medals for a start when it was the record, but also that he achieved this in five successive Games which brings the longevity argument into the process. Add on the fact that the great man was riddled with debilitating health issues during a period when Team GB did not enjoy the level of success it now does, and I felt I made a compelling case.
Even then many disagreed. Redgrave always did it with others sitting alongside him in a boat, either Andy Holmes or Sir Matthew Pinsent in the pairs, or three others (including Pinsent, one of the greats himself by virtue of his four Olympic golds). What about Daley Thompson, who had one shot at the gold in a ten-discipline event in track and field? To win the Olympic title twice was staggering. It is why Lord Seb Coe always insists his great athletics mate is number one. Coe, of course, has a claim too, after defending his 1500m title. Throw in the small matter that he was instrumental in London staging the 2012 Games and there are many who will plump for Coe.
The past two Games, however, have thrown up quite a few more contenders. Sir Chris Hoy has six gold medals and a silver to his name, which sees him equal first in the all-time GB individual medals’ table based on golds won. The man he shares parity with is his protege, Jason Kenny, who matched the great Scot’s tally last night in dramatic fashion. Both, of course, compete in a sport that can provide the opportunity to win three golds in one Games, an opportunity accepted by Hoy in London and Kenny in Rio. Still, you’ve got to go out and do it.
Then there is Bradley Wiggins. I have already argued that he is the greatest British cyclist courtesy of his road as well as his track feats, but he also holds the record for most medals won by any British competitor at the Games with 8, made up of 5 golds, 1 silver and 2 bronzes.
Another star often seen as the best of all is Sir Ben Ainslie. Never mind the fact that he has 4 golds and a silver to his name (the silver achieved when he was 19), Britain’s greatest sailor save for Francis Drake and Horatio Nelson (although they never competed at the Olympics) won his 5 medals in 5 successive Games, a la Redgrave, and this time completely by himself.
Now we can add Laura Trott to the list. In winning the omnium last night in such emphatic fashion she holds the record for most gold medals ever won by a British women with four. I suspect there is more to come from a woman who is still just 24. Another two in Tokyo will put her right up there but already she deserves to be sitting at the very top table.
So too will Mo Farah if he pulls off the double double in the early hours of Sunday morning. Would four golds in the long distance events in two Games make him Britain’s greatest athlete? Many think so? In which case if Thompson and Coe are in the reckoning, then so too must Farah.
How on earth can you decide between this lot? One can make a strong case for all of them. And isn’t it wonderful that we can have a debate about so many multi-Olympic medallists? You will all have a different answer to the question. Me? I’m just happy there are so many.