Golden Cooke’s tour of Beijing kickstarts Team GB

From Barry Newcombe, SJA Chairman
Beijing, Sunday:
We have a medal – and a gold at that.

Nicole Cooke‘s women’s road race gold medal came after a 75-mile ride up through the mountains by the Great Wall of China in the most appalling rainstorm – so probably weather that Cooke is used to after all those training miles logged on the roads near her home in south Wales.

â–¡ One of the great factors in Cooke’s gold medal to kickstart Great Britain’s performance was the huge support of her own team on the rainswept hills.

Those of us who remember Cooke’s bitter disappointment in Athens, where she felt she lacked team support and finished a crestfallen fifth, could share in her joy this time. Her finish was something to behold and the roaring from the British press in the MPC was loud enough to stop anyone else working.

Cooke has always had the pedigree to win an Olympic title and quite rightly paid tribute to her team mates Emma Pooley and Sharon Laws who contributed fully to her win. When Pooley broke from the pack to lift the pace on the final circuit was part of a well-conceived and well-fulfilled plan to break the rest of the field. Pooley’s hard riding cracked the race leader and protected Cooke from having to be a front runner herself.

The other key riders in the field waited throughout for Cooke to make her presence felt. Little did they realise she was enjoying the rewards of a tactical race which left her with just enough gas to win the sprint for the gold.

“It’s just joy,” she said. “It’s just so exciting. I still fell like the normal old Nicole that I was before the start of the race.

“I just came over the line and there was so much in me. So many emotions that all came out at once. I was not composed enough to take my hands off the handlebars. So much came out of me because that’s just the person I am.

“Before the race we had a plan but the plan went back more than 12 months in terms of what we wanted to do today. Sharon, Emma and I all knew we were good riders but we knew our best chance to be successful was to ride as a team,to ride to our strengths.

“I think it was a very important part of the race. The way Emma attacked she was going for her own glory but it also enabled me to ride defensively, allowing me to save myself, which put the other teams on the back foot and me in a good position. So I blocked for her and then she was blocking for me in the end.

“I think as a team we rode a fantastic race and I couldn’t wait to give Sharon and Emma a big hug because they shared in this medal as well.”

Cooke was always regarded as a strong medal contender but whether she was real gold medal material was open to conjecture. Today she competed in a way which ended all doubts. The promise of her early years was finally realised in the greatest theatre of them all.

Britain has been labelled as the team which will win a lot of medals sitting down – in a rowing boats, in yachts, on a horse or on a bike. Cooke has given a huge boost to the British effort, especially in cycling where the track team will be anxious to add to this early success.

â–¡ Cooke would have done well to match American swimmer Michael Phelps in terms of her supporters out on the road race course: waving the star spangled banner at the Water Cube on the first morning of finals were two US Presidents, current President George W Bush and his father, plus former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

â–¡ After a medal-less first day for Team GB, Cooke’s achievement was just what the British press pack needed. Following the early return home of boxer Frankie Gavin and Craig Fallon‘s disappointment in the judo, the rumblings of discontent were beginning to grow, with calls for all sorts of inquests into the British team’s performance. And despite the usual accusations of cynicism and pessimism among sports journalists, there is little doubt that we all far prefer to report on successes, rather than failure.

â–¡ There will be no complaints from the media about Cooke’s gutsy performance. With a breakaway in the final10 miles of the race, she ground out an advantage over her four closest rivals in the gruelling uphill finish to add a golden glow to the 25-year-old’s already stellar road racing career, which we at the SJA are proud to have recognised regularly at our annual Sports Awards.

Cooke has been runner-up in our Sportswoman of the Year poll of SJA members the past two years, to Zara Phillips and another world champion cyclist, Victoria Pendleton, and she was awarded our President’s Award in 2006 (pictured left receiving the trophy from SJA member John Inverdale) in recognition of her achievements, although we first recognised her potential and hopefully offered her some encouragement as long ago as 2001 when Cooke took our International Newcomer award.

Clearly, this will make Cooke a strong contender for the Sportswoman of the Year award once again: our SJA 60th anniversary Sports Awards will be staged in London on November 26.

â–¡ Another friend of the SJA, Mary King, at her fifth Olympics and a recent guest at a SJA Olympic lunch, is in ninth place after the dressage phase of the three-day event being staged in Hong Kong. After some disappointing performances in the dressage ring by other British riders, tomorrow’s cross-country phase will be crucial if our equestrianists are to deliver on their medal projections.

â–¡ Andy Murray will make his Olympic tennis debut tomorrow when he faces Lu Ven Hsun of Taipei in the singles first round. Murray will be playing with his highest ever world ranking of sixth.

Murray and brother Jamie were due to play doubles today, but rain curtailed the programme.

â–¡ Blogs are certainly the fashion for many newspaper websites in their coverage from Beijing. Uniquely, though, The Times photographer Mark Aspland is filing a blog from the snapper’s perspective, with loads of tips for aspiring lensmen. Check out Aspland’s latest entry here.

â–¡ The Times team seems to be having an unlucky Games so far. Owen Slot has had to go for the best part of a week wearing the same set of clothes while he waits for Air China finally to deliver his luggage, while Rick Broadbent, the paper’s athletics man, made an attempt to walk from his hotel to the MPC, rather than take the officially arranged buses. Ought to be simple enough.

Even in intense heat and humidity, with your laptop strapped to your back, it ought not to take longer than 10 minutes. Broadbent turned back after 45 minutes having failed to get to his destination. But as his colleague Kevin Eason notes: “This is not so much an Olympic venue as a vast prison camp.

“Wire fencing is everywhere, cordoning off huge areas; as journalists, walking appears to be out of the question as we are expected to take the official buses to every venue.”

Clearly, those security checks at official hotels before we get whisked into the Olympic areas are not just an optional convenience. On foot, Broadbent discovered he was not allowed past any security checkpoint, Olympic press pass around his neck or no.

â–¡ Smog Blog: Blue skies 1, Smog 7: a bit harsh, maybe, since the torrential rain (the result of all those rain-seeding missiles that have been fired into the sky?) has seen delays in all sorts of events. But it certainly has not been blue skies today.

â–¡ Paul Radford, sports editor at Reuters, is planning to return to Britain later this week to attend the funeral of our friend and colleague, Steve Parry, who sadly passed away last week. “I had to be there,” Paul says.

“It’s hit me pretty hard, but lots of people have sent messages and come to see me here in Beijing and that’s very comforting. I had a long chat with Di Parry yesterday. She is very fragile still but she and the children have been overwhelmed and cheered by the response to the news and the warmth and depth of the feelings expressed.”

Details of Steve Parry’s funeral arrangements are posted here.

â–¡ Seb Coe, too, is heading back to Britain after his father, Peter, died on Saturday. Peter Coe was 88 and had been in frail health for a little while.

Peter Coe, of course, coached his son to two Olympic 1,500 metres gold medals, after infamously declaring to Seb after he lost the 800m final in Moscow in 1980 to rival Steve Ovett that “You ran like an idiot.”

Peter Coe had the reputation of a bit of a martinet as a coach, but his father-son relationship with Seb was exceedingly strong, though in one interview Peter conceded that the 24/7 nature of his involvement in Seb’s development as one of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen may have put a strain on their family.

But, as an engineer by profession, Peter also saw the advantages in being able to observe and manage every minute last detail of his son’s training and lifestyle. “My job,” Peter said, “is not to maximise his talent, but to make sure that I don’t reduce his potential.”

Click here to read the Telegraph‘s obituary of Peter Coe, written by SJA member David Miller, a long-time confidante of the Coes.

We at the SJA send our deepest condolences to Lord Coe and his family.

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