Four years on from the golden delirium of Team GB at London 2012, an Olympic Games already adorned in British sports folklore, it is tempting to believe that this was the last time when the United Kingdom would boast of its place at the center of the world.
In the lead-up to the Rio 2016 Games, Great Britain has made an Olympic sport of political turmoil as the issues of Scottish independence and, more urgently, departure from the European Union.
Yet the next two-and-a-half weeks offer Britain’s fastest, strongest and most skilled athletes a chance to recapture those iconic moments and once again inspire the nation.
Team GB has selected its largest traveling delegation in 24 years with the target of making Rio 2016 its most successful overseas Olympics by winning 48 medals. As a fresh generation of ambitious athletes aim to emulate previous British achievements, along with 65 London 2012 medalists hoping to advance them, its great expectations are not unrealistic.
Track and field
Among the highlights for Team GB will be the return of heroes from the most breathtaking hour in British sports history. In the space of 44 mesmerizing minutes, the ecstasy of London 2012 reached a deafening crescendo at the Olympic Stadium as the heptathlon poster girl, Jessica Ennis-Hill, long jump underdog Greg Rutherford, and distance-running role model Mo Farah all struck gold in front of their home crowd to produce Britain’s best track and field session at the Olympic Games.
The stars of that memorable night, immortalized in the UK as ‘Super Saturday’, will reunite in Rio to defend their titles on August 13.
Now a two-time world champion and mother of Reggie, Ennis-Hill could become only the third sportswoman to retain her Olympic crown after giving birth. The master of British multi-eventing will face competition from her former apprentice, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, raising the prospect of two girls from Northern England making it onto the podium.
Rutherford, who also became a parent in 2014, stunned the nation with his technique and tenacity four years ago. He has since backed up his gold medal with world, European and Commonwealth triumphs, however, and this time around, he is a clear favorite.
Farah, an out-and-out frontrunner, will head the field in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters with the aim of holding onto his long-distance double. A third Olympic gold would cement his status as most decorated British track and field athlete, surpassing Lord Sebastian Coe and Daley Thompson; a fourth would be sensational.
Less known is that the success of ‘Super Saturday’ started on the rowing lake as Great Britain finished the London 2012 regatta with four gold medals. Olympic champions Alex Gregory and Katherine Copeland are back in their respective boats and both strongly expected to help Team GB’s rejuvenated crews defend the men’s coxless four and women’s lightweight double skulls titles gained that morning.
Helen Glover and Heather Stanning could not be closer to certain winners in their effort to remain women’s pair champions. Glover is the No. 1 ranked oarswoman in the world and will be back alongside her familiar partner, otherwise known as Major Stanning of the 32nd Regiment of the Royal Artillery, who had resumed her army career in Afghanistan.
Britain may reasonably repeat its gold medal haul from London if the men’s eight manage to convert three consecutive World Championships into victory on the greatest stage.
The summer of 2012 was especially glorious for Sir Bradley Wiggins after he became the first Briton to win the Tour de France and, ten days later, claimed the Olympic time trial on the streets where he learned to ride. The immaculate peddler is now back on the track after several years of personal conflict and hopes to say goodbye the Games in style by defeating a tough Australian quartet in the team pursuit. Already a seven-time medalist, another would make him Britain’s most decorated Olympian.
Chris Froome, the low-key successor to Wiggins, will seek to match his old teammate by fighting fatigue from the Tour de France, where he won his third yellow jersey in July, to compete in the road race. Should the Kenya-born rider fall to a formidable field, Lizzie Armitstead may win the first Team GB gold medal at Rio 2016 if she can overcome the cobbles, climbs and Copacabana beach, having narrowly escaped a ban from cycling due to three missed drugs tests within 12 months.
Cycling’s golden couple, Laura Trott and her fiancé Jason Kenny, are also strong contenders to bring home more golds in the women’s omnium and men’s sprint.
Great Britain harbors high hopes of continuing its time-honored sailing tradition under the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain. Fin-class favorite Giles Scott is determined to seize his chance after the four-time Olympic champion, Sir Ben Ainslie, sailed off into the sunset for the America’s Cup following his win in London.
Joining Scott in going for gold at his debut Games is the reigning Laser world champion, Nick Thomson, while windsurfer Bryony Shaw, who won a bronze medal at Beijing 2008, is aiming for an upgrade at her third Olympics.
Britain’s biggest improvement on 2012 could come in the pool, picking up only three low-grade medals in London. World champions Adam Peaty and James Guy headline a stronger swim team for Rio, together with Jazz Carlin and Siobhan-Marie O’Connor who will contest the freestyle and medley events respectively.
Remarkably, despite being the golden boy of British swimming and favorite for the 100 meters breaststroke, Peaty was once petrified of water and is still scared to bathe in the sea without shoes. Look out for Guy in a 200 meters freestyle battle with China’s Sun Yang.
The more obscure sports are what makes the Olympics so compelling and, thrillingly, Team GB is as diverse and inclusive as ever. Nicola Adams became the world’s first female Olympic boxing champion with flyweight victory at London 2012, as well as the first openly LGBT athlete to win gold in the ring, and she is back to defend her title. Meanwhile, Bianca Walden is only the second taekwondo world champion in British history and looks set to go all the way in the Olympic +67kg category.
Participating with a different sort of grace, Britain remains a world power in dressage, with Charlotte Dujardin leading the individual charge on her loyal partner, Valegro, while pommel horse specialists Max Whitlock and Louis Smith are will be in a straight shootout to win Team GB’s first gold in gymnastics.
Further British gold medal hopes lie with two sets of brothers: London Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee and bronze medalist Jonny Brownlee again intend to share the podium in the triathlon, and there could be a special triumph for Wimbledon winner Andy Murray as he teams up with his brother Jamie Murray in doubles tennis at Rio 2016.