Everyone is clearly finding it difficult to process the fortnight of sheer brilliance Team GB have just compiled in Rio. Mark Chapman had to interview so many medallists he ran out of questions, asking champion number 25 Liam Heath whether his success was due to it being socially acceptable to go to the gym nowadays. The Daily Mail set its editorial policy to one side in celebrating the singular talent of Mo Farah. Politicians fell over themselves trying to sell Olympic glory as a clincher in arguments about Brexit.
In the Internet age there is only one way to provide order amidst such tumult: a list. But Chappers and the DM and the Brexiteers had easy access to a simple list of medal winners. So a further step is required: a ranked list. This list will take as its premise the old Orwellism that all golds are equal, but some golds are more equal than others (and assumes that if the Internet has an appetite for 6000 words on NBA logos, it has an appetite for 5000 words on Olympic golds (thanks for everything Grantland)).
Ranking sporting feats is a contentious business. Nobody will agree with this list, but that’s why this is fun. The method here will combine the three factors I think inform a gold’s relative greatness: legacy, dominance and drama. Each gold gets scored on a scale of 1 to 5 in each category and ranked according to its total score. (Ties will be broken by countback according to a scheme which goes legacy > dominance > drama. Ties after that will be broken by fiat.)
- Legacy: how and for how long will this moment be remembered? Elements which score highly here include trail blazing (think Fiji) and legend status (every Bolt gold would score 5).
- Dominance: how far behind were the competition? Credit given for distance on the day (standard bearer Ledecky) and prolonged pre-eminence (Phelps). World and Olympic records are also rewarded as a measure of historical achievement.
- Drama: how high was the nation’s heart rate? These points are also known as Neymar points: I didn’t watch a single minute of football before the final, and I have no strong feelings for the man, but I was on my feet for that penalty. Olympic drama is high quality drama.
Two things to remember as you are reading and your blood begins to boil. The 1-to-5 scale is restricted to Olympic champions, so you’re already getting muchos respect from me with a 1. And this is not a search for Britain’s Olympic MVP. Each medal is counted individually, so Jason Kenny features three times and is graded separately for each of his golds. Whether Kenny’s triple entry is a superior collective effort compared to the pairs of Mo Farah and Max Whitlock is a debate for another day.
27. Justin Rose, Golf – 3 (Legacy 1, Dominance 1, Drama 1)
An easy one to open up with. Golf categorically should not be an Olympic sport, so Justin gets the lowest possible score. It’s as simple as that. In fact, Justin winning and providing a benchmark against which to rank the other 26 golds might be the best justification for golf’s inclusion to date. (Note that three is significantly greater than zero, which is how many Olympic gold medal ranking points Rory McIlroy has, so Justin is still ahead of the game for as long as he doesn’t start showing Zika symptoms.)
26. Joe Clarke, K1 Slalom – 4 (Legacy 1, Dominance 1, Drama 2)
25. Nick Skelton, Showjumping – 5 (Legacy 1, Dominance 1, Drama 3)
This pair score 1s for legacy on the grounds that they compete in sports where we expect Brits to do well while remaining unlikely to be picked out of a line-up of kayakers/showjumpers even in the afterglow of their greatest moment. Their narrow, surprise triumphs keep the dominance score low while bumping up the drama: both went early in their respective finals and watched on as others fell short, classics of the Olympic scoreboard suspense genre. Skelton gets the higher score because we went through the suspense twice over after his final went to a jumpoff.
24. Liam Heath, K1 200m – 5 (Legacy 1, Dominance 2, Drama 2)
Here we have an athlete who was expected to win and who won in a sport which is exciting to watch (although to the untrained eye it is more frenetic than dramatic). In the 90s a gold such as this would have made Heath a national hero; today it is difficult to imagine him featuring in any montages beyond the kayak sprint regatta in 2020.
23. Hannah Mills & Saskia Clarke, Sailing 470 – 5 (Legacy 1, Dominance 3, Drama 1)
22. Men’s Eight, Rowing – 6 (Legacy 2, Dominance 2, Drama 2)
21. Giles Scott, Sailing Finn – 6 (Legacy 2, Dominance 3, Drama 1)
At this point you’re thinking, this guy must hate sailing, maybe it was his dad’s game and he could never meet his expectations especially when he was put in a dinghy on some lake in Wales on a wet yet strangely windless day and got stuck in the reeds and it was miserable and he never forgave the sport.
Now most of that is accurate. But that’s not why both sailing golds fail to crack the top 20. Sailing is an entirely legitimate Olympic sport, but it is an entirely rubbish spectator sport, way out at sea on courses which are difficult to visualise and make the high speeds involved look distinctly pedestrian. If you’re not Ben Ainslie, it’s difficult to capture the public’s imagination. On top of this both British crews were dominant enough that they wrapped up gold with a race to spare (good for their ranking), denying us the do-or-die medal races which could have pushed up pulse rates (bad for their ranking). Scott scores a bonus legacy point for being the fifth successive Brit to win the Finn class – following Iain Percy and Sir Ben (three times, the third of which Scott felt should have been his) – which is an outstanding record by any measure.
Sandwiched in between the sailing boats is a rowing boat. On the one hand the Men’s Eight feels under-rated here, having won the first British gold in this flagship event since Sydney and never really being challenged in the final despite lots of German noise in the build-up. But on the other hand we have become so accustomed to rowing success across so many boats that no one really buys the underdog story, especially when no face from the eight stands out enough to tell the story of the struggle. As a one-time rower of eights I enjoyed this race immensely, but can find no good reason to bump them above a two in any category.
20. Jade Jones, -57kg Taekwondo – 8 (Legacy 3, Dominance 3, Drama 2)
Jade Jones’ wide-eyed wonder at her own brilliance is a joy to watch. She is a double Olympic champion, which is an even greater achievement when you consider that her victory in London was Britain’s first ever in Taekwondo (which was when she did her best legacy work). Jade’s problem is that now Lutalo Muhammad has taught us what a really dramatic Taekwondo fight looks like, her calculated deconstruction of opponents (she won the final 16-7) feels tepid by comparison.
19. Andy Murray, Tennis – 9 (Legacy 2, Dominance 3, Drama 4)
18. Men’s Team Sprint, Cycling – 9 (Legacy 3, Dominance 3, Drama 3)
17. Charlotte Dujardin, Dressage – 9 (Legacy 3, Dominance 4, Drama 2)
This is the point on the list where we run into legends. And there are still 16 golds to go. That’s how good Rio was.
Andy Murray might be the greatest British sportsperson who ever lived. (If this hasn’t occurred to you before take a second to think about it now. It’s in play.) His established greatness counts against him here though, because the difference between “three time Grand Slam champion, breaker of the Wimbledon curse and Olympic gold medallist” and “three time Grand Slam champion, breaker of the Wimbledon curse and double Olympic gold medallist” is not actually very large when it comes down to it. The Olympics are just not where his bread is buttered: what it means to be Andy Murray, Undisputed All-Timer, did not change very much in Rio, even if he did carry the flag and his battle with Argentine Juan-Martin del Potro in front of a partisan crowd was a barn burner. In a world where Novak Djokovic exists, non-Novak tennis players can only get dominance ratings so high, even when their gold medal comes in the middle of a 22-match winning streak.
The team sprint is the symbol of Team GB’s takeover of track cycling, having won it in Beijing, London and Rio with icons Hoy and Kenny leading the charge. The London trio featuring them both has a strong claim to being the greatest British sports team ever assembled, and yet Iteration 3.0 arrived in Rio unfancied having finished eighth in the 2015 World Championships. But then Philip Hindes rode the fastest first lap ever, Kenny did Kenny things, and Callum Skinner announced himself as the heir to the throne in closing it out in an Olympic record time. Routine: number four for Kenny.
There will be some who consider bracketing rider of dancing horses Charlotte Dujardin with these legends a heresy. But I have played tennis and ridden bikes and can at least comprehend what Messrs Murray and Kenny are up to. The Olympic sport which is furthest beyond my comprehension and thereby induces the greatest wonderment – as someone who has never done a cartwheel and has struggled for years with the forward roll – is gymnastics, but dressage is a close second, which puts Dujardin in the same conversation as Simone Biles whether you like it or not. Dujardin, in concert with the magisterial Valegro, has been a class apart for years and annihilated the competition here, becoming the second British woman to win three golds [SPOILER ALERT] days after Laura Trott became the first, and doing so in one of the few mixed events. Legend status secured.
16. Jack Laugher & Chris Mears, Synchronised Diving – 9 (Legacy 4, Dominance 2, Drama 3)
If an alien with confidence in her ability to read the press but no prior knowledge of Team GB’s Olympic successes and/or failures had touched down in Plymouth in mid-July and been asked a few days later to guesstimate how many British diving golds there have ever been, she would have thought about all the full-page adverts starring Tom Daley and said “at least four or five, maybe more”. The alien would have been wrong, because despite Daley driving diving into the public consciousness, Team GB had never won an Olympic diving gold.
Laugher and Mears are the first of our true trail blazers, setting foot where no Briton had ever been before: atop the diving podium. That’s an automatic four for legacy right there: they will be the first forever. Their victory was unexpected, but their final was thrilling, going dive for dive with the mighty Chinese and holding their nerve superbly in the final round. Five years ago Chris Mears contracted a rare virus and was given a five percent chance of survival. Now he’s 100% an Olympic champion.
15. Men’s Four, Rowing – 10 (Legacy 3, Dominance 4, Drama 3)
14. Women’s Pair, Rowing – 10 (Legacy 3, Dominance 5, Drama 2)
At number 14 we have our first perfect score. Helen Glover and Heather Stanning did not just dominate their races in Rio, they have dominated every race they have entered since 2011. They have not been beaten for more than an Olympiad. Their legacy was secure when they won the first British gold in London and the first ever by our female rowers. Their Rio ranking suffers slightly for being nailed on favourites who suck any remaining hope and joy from their opponents in the first 500m of every race, but they are still amongst elite company with a double figure rating.
The men’s four have the same score but lose out on countback: five straight golds in this event – all the way back to Redgrave reaching immortality in Sydney – is remarkable, but their final was still alive in the second half so no perfect score. Australia’s desperate chase earns them an extra point for drama.
13. Nicola Adams, Flyweight Boxing – 11 (Legacy 4, Dominance 4, Drama 3)
Plenty people think boxing should not be allowed at all, let alone in the Olympics. Even amongst fight fans, a sizable constituency think women’s boxing is a step too far. To those people, Nicola Adams says go jump in a lake.
It may be that if boxing, a sport where the aim is to do damage to your opponent’s brain, were invented today it would struggle to gain popular or political favour. But it is no longer the sport of the sixties and seventies – 15 rounds of brutal punishment with referees reluctant to step in – in which Muhammad Ali and many others took out physical loans their future bodies would never be able to repay. The greatest asset of the greatest boxer (if not the greatest ambassador) of this century, Floyd Mayweather, is his anticipation and agility in defence, a skill so exceptional it has allowed him to win countless championship rounds while barely throwing a punch. The sport has always been about speed and skill as much as strength and bravery, but the courage required to facilitate demonstrations of skill in boxing has, in the past at least, elevated boxing champions above other athletes in the public’s imagination.
For many reasons, the deplorable behaviour of champions such as Mayweather among them, boxers are no longer revered. Adams, however, is a worthy successor to Ali and the great Olympic boxing champions who have gone before.
12. Adam Peaty, 100m Breaststroke – 11 (Legacy 4, Dominance 5, Drama 2)
11. Women’s Team Pursuit, Cycling – 11 (Legacy 4, Dominance 5, Drama 2)
The first dead heat on the list comes courtesy of multiple devastating world record breaking performances. A flashing “WR” is inherently dramatic because it is so exceptional (Wayde van Niekerk would certainly have a 5 for his stunning WR-from-lane-8 if he were a Brit) – except when you break the same record over and over again. Let’s look at their respective cases.
Peaty: “There’s oceans of clear blue water between Adam Peaty and the rest of the world.” So went the commentary as he powered away from the field in the final and smashed his own world record set in the heats, which had in turn smashed his own world record set last year. Peaty’s 57.13 beat Cam van der Burgh by 1.56 seconds, or 2.7%; Bolt beat Gatlin by 0.8% in their 100m race. Britain’s first gold of the Games, first for a male swimmer in an incredible 28 years, and first for any swimmer since 2008 after being the most disappointing sport in London, this was a brilliant moment.
Pursuiters: 2012 title defended, check. World record, check. First British woman ever to win three Olympic gold medals, check. This is a lot of boxes to tick and still not be making the Top 10. Trott, Rowsell-Shand, Barker and Archibald are so much better than their rivals that they have taken the pursuit out of the Team Pursuit and turned it into a time trial, them against their own most recent ludicrous world record.
Verdict: Trott’s third gold just pips Peaty breaking the men’s swimming drought.
10. Women’s Hockey – 12 (Legacy 4, Dominance 3, Drama 5)
You can tell things are getting serious now as we enter the Top 10. Golds 27 through 11 generated only one score above three in the drama category. The women’s hockey team gave us palpitations sufficient to earn at least a four before their penalty shootout even started. Sir Steve Redgrave may have had one caipirinha too many when he declared Maddie Hinch’s miraculous one-handed penalty save in the first half of the final as the single greatest moment of the Games, but it was the catalyst for what would follow.
Three points for dominance is a compromise between being undefeated through the tournament but distinctly second best in the final. Make no mistake about it, Netherlands, two time defending champions, battered GB. Without Hinch, they might have conceded seven. But team sports, with all their vagaries and randomness, don’t conform to the harder, faster, stronger rubric. GB came from a goal down twice against the run of play to earn a shootout.
We know from so many painful experiences just how hard it can be to focus and execute a relatively simple skill in the harsh glare of the shootout spotlight. In football it only takes a second to take a penalty (unless you’re Zaza); the hockey format (infinitely better: imagine Messi, Suarez and Brazilian Jesus Neymar taking it in turns to try to beat Manuel Neuer one-on-one from the edge of the centre circle in a Champions League final) requires a full eight seconds of not letting your legs turn to jelly. For Hinch it could have been eight minutes and she still wouldn’t have let them score. Her fortitude earned Holly Webb the chance to clinch gold. Despite the nation – who, a whole eight penalties into our hockey shootout lives, were convinced we had seen enough to know the best way to score – imploring her not to turn her back to goal, turn her back she did, feinting once, feinting again, getting the keeper on the deck and lifting the ball into the net. Our first ever women’s hockey gold.
9. Max Whitlock, Pommel – 12 (Legacy 4, Dominance 4, Drama 4)
8. Mo Farah, 10,000m – 12 (Legacy 4, Dominance 4, Drama 4)
The mens’ pommel final was the single greatest event in British gymnastics history apart from the floor final two hours before. While Max’s trail blazing was already done, there can be no doubt that his second gold is worthy of a place in the Top 10. First, there was the head-to-head battle between Max and his predecessor as British gymnastic trail blazer Louis Smith. An easy four for drama. Second, the freakish, Phelps-esque repertoire of skills and stamina required to win two gold medals in two different disciplines in two hours. An easy four for dominance. Third, the fact that these 120 minutes will be spoken about for decades as one of the most remarkable athletic achievements by any Briton in any sport ever. An easy four for legacy.
Max’s second gold is tied with Mo’s third on the scoreboard. For guidance I turned to Steve Cram, who might be biased but with many of the great Olympic commentary gems on his resume I felt he could be trusted. Cram’s words, shouted as Mo charged for the line at top speed on lap 40 of a leg-sapping race which had seen him tripped to the ground but rebound to defend his 10,000m title: “Succumb to the inevitable. Bow to his superiority.” That is what I shall do. Mo has the breaker.
The discovery that there were seven golds better than these required a thorough audit of the ranking system. The conclusion was eventually reached that no errors had been made. Onwards we go.
7. Jason Kenny, Sprint – 12 (Legacy 4, Dominance 5, Drama 3)
6. Alistair Brownlee, Triathlon – 12 (Legacy 4, Dominance 5, Drama 3)
Back to back ties tells you that we are getting to the business end. It is now virtually impossible to separate these heroic acts. Here we have two men each with a legitimate claim to being the greatest ever in their respective events.
Brownlee is the first man ever to retain the triathlon title; Kenny is now 2-2 in the sprint with Sir Chris Hoy, who until a fortnight ago was the consensus pick for GOAT. Brownlee makes triathlon, the most gruelling of all events up to and including the marathon, look easy; Kenny matches up against the fastest men on two wheels and breezes by them like they’re not there.
They’re both unassuming and humble while being utterly ruthless. Squint when you watch the Kenny video as he swallows Callum Skinner’s dreams with a turbo-powered overtake on the back straight and you can see Brownlee stomping on his brother’s dreams with a brutal acceleration midway through the 10km run.
There is no good way to pick a winner here so I will have to reach beyond them to the pair of Brits they beat into second. Jonny being alongside Ali on the podium will still be remembered when Skinner’s silver is forgotten, so the triathlete gets it.
5. Max Whitlock, Floor – 12 (Legacy 5, Dominance 3, Drama 4)
From the re-birth of the Olympics in 1896 until 2016, Great Britain failed to win a gold medal in gymnastics. For 80 years between 1928 and 2008, Great Britain failed to win a single medal of any colour in gymnastics. Louis Smith’s Beijing bronze was followed by four more medals in London, setting the stage for Max.
The floor final was supposed to be a warm up with the pommel – his favoured apparatus – to come later in the same session. After the all-around competition five days earlier (bronze for Max) his floor routine was described as “polished if unspectacular”. In the final, going third of eight gymnasts, he nailed it. To the lay observer whose only window into gymnastic error is the crooked landing it was faultless, but the weight of history prevented our minds from thinking gold was on the cards. Then one by one those who followed fell short. And suddenly there he was standing staring up at a screen, and there we were leaning forward staring at our screens, willing the final number which popped up to be lower than his 15.633.
In the moment that followed a new chapter was written into the history books forever: after a more than a century of trying Max was the man who got us a gold, and that record can never be taken from him.
4. Men’s Team Pursuit, Cycling – 13 (Legacy 5, Dominance 3, Drama 5)
At this point we step into the stratosphere. Unlike any of those above, the Final Four each have two perfect scores. All of them score top marks for legacy. These are the moments we will be seeing in whatever the 2050-virtual-reality-world version of a montage is. It will come as a surprise to no one that this rarefied air is breathed by several cyclists. It’s testament to the sheer volume of British success that there is any list anywhere about anything on which Sir Bradley Wiggins is not the highest ranked cyclist.
After putting together the single greatest British sporting summer ever in 2012, on top of an already stellar career, nobody could quite understand why Sir Brad would put himself through another four years of the same unforgiving routine. Even if his own certainty that it would all be worth it had never wavered before, it might have when the British quartet were seven tenths of a second – a track cycling chasm – behind half way through the gold medal race. Instead he and Clancy (the silent three-peat-er) and Doull and Burke set about reeling in Australia tenth by tenth, both teams moving at record pace with the tension turned up to max. As GB took a tiny lead with three laps to go and still had four riders to the Aussies’ three, we breathed for the first time in an age only for GB to go down to three and with a gap between the clinching third wheel and his team mates, plunging us back into the terror zone. From somewhere deep inside the will power storage space us mere mortals do not have they summoned a last lap for the ages, beating Australia’s effort by half a second. Breaking the world record was an afterthought.
Sir Brad’s submission to the GOAT judging panel now includes eight Olympic medals of which five are gold to go with his Tour de France title. Monumental.
3. Jason Kenny, Keirin – 13 (Legacy 5, Dominance 3, Drama 5)
There was a brief moment when I considered giving Kenny a unique six for legacy after he tied Sir Chris Hoy’s all-time all-sports record of six gold medals with this victory, but the rules have to mean something in this ranking even if they mean absolutely nothing in the Keirin so he stays on five but wins the breaker with the Pursuiters.
This was the event Kenny might trip over, designed to be a high-octane lottery for Japanese gamblers and his debut racing it at the Olympics. The agonisingly drawn out process by which it was decided whether he was being disqualified for overtaking the now infamous derny bike too soon was unbearable. We learnt that a) there is no definitive rule about when the derny bike should leave the track and/or when it can be overtaken and b) there was no camera aligned with the line which may or may not have been assumed to be the overtaking point in the absence of such a rule. The official tasked with making sense of it all decided it was best (sensibly said the Brits, scandalously said everyone else) to pretend it never happened and start the race again. Things approached farce status when exactly the same thing then happened again, this time with an American playing the role of Kenny but still with the same official who desperately wanted to keep his head down and get home in time for tea charged with making the decision. Sticking with his own minutes-old precedent, he ruled that throwing take two out with take one was the easiest way to make the problem go away.
Spooked by the threat of the beleaguered official losing his cool and chucking them all out, the field decided to end the hunt for an early advantage for take three and go back to the lottery format. Only it isn’t much of a lottery when Kenny’s in the race. He operates on a higher plane now, accessible only to those who have done so much winning they know precisely what will be required and when. He didn’t demolish them but he didn’t need to: he bided his time and then did just enough to get over the line first, which is all he cares about.
2. Laura Trott, Omnium – 13 (Legacy 5, Dominance 5, Drama 3)
Laura Trott’s fourth gold was her best yet. Her dominance across multiple events in the omnium is less visible than for athletes who compete in straight side by side races, but be sure that she is to cycling what Katie Ledecky is to swimming. In the first five events she finished second-first-first-second-first. By the final race, supposed to be a helter skelter battle for position and points, Trott’s victory was all but secured; she ruthlessly shut down her opponents’ attacks and picked up points whenever she wanted.
Trott is 24. Along with her all-time women’s record four Olympic golds she has seven World Championship golds, 10 European Championship golds, and 2 Commonwealth Games golds. 23 golds! At some point in the next few years her number of gold medals is going to exceed her age. That’s Phelps level.
Notorious TV troll Skip Bayless once made a ludicrous claim about below-average American footballer Tim Tebow, saying “He shattered the mould. All he does is win.” Once Tebow (almost immediately) stopped winning, the Internet made mincemeat out of Bayless. I have considered the risks but have no qualms about making this claim about Trott: she shattered the mould. All she does is win. And she will keep on winning for as long as that’s what she wants to do.
1. Mo Farah, 5000m – 14 (Legacy 5, Dominance 5, Drama 4)
I don’t know what everyone else who lasted all the way through did at the end of the Rio opening ceremony, but I went to bed…and watched highlights of London on my phone. Couldn’t resist. Watching Mo round the final bend and sprint ahead of the field on Super Saturday, my throat was tight and my eyes were watering, either because it was 5am or because basking in Mo’s glory is a magical experience which does magical things to my mind even when watching for the 100th time.
Mo has won every international race at 5000m (and 10,000m) since 2012, a staggering record which stands direct comparison with Usain Bolt. Malcolm Gladwell, expert on outliers and athletics aficionado, picked Mo as the greatest pound-for-pound athlete of the Games. And yet his tactic of leaving the job of winning until the final lap of every race rather than running away from the field means spending the duration hiding behind our hands with every finish a thriller. His fall in the 10,000m was a reminder that it might only take a split second for a lifetime’s work to be undone and that sharing track space with desperate rivals affords them the opportunity to resort to dirty tricks. Despite knowing this he seems to float above it all, lurking at the back of the pack early on, picking his way through the field at his own pace, and then striking with a deadly kick when the time is right, sprinting his opponents into submission and sending electric shocks up and down our spines.
This race was a classic of the Mo style, a grand master operating at the absolute peak of his powers. This was the moment of the Games, the moment when Mo became not just the greatest British athlete of all time, a mantle he assumed long ago, but the greatest distance runner the world has ever seen. His eyes are still always surprised when he crosses the line and several times after the race he told Phil, “I can’t believe it.” It’s barely fathomable, but it’s true. Mo is number 1.
|1||Mo Farah (5000m)||5||5||4||14|
|2||Laura Trott (Omnium)||5||5||3||13|
|3||Jason Kenny (Keirin)||5||3||5||13|
|4||Men’s Team Pursuit||5||3||5||13|
|5||Max Whitlock (Floor)||5||3||4||12|
|7||Jason Kenny (Sprint)||4||5||3||12|
|8||Mo Farah (10,000m)||4||4||4||12|
|9||Max Whitlock (Pommel)||4||4||4||12|
|11||Women’s Team Pursuit||4||5||2||11|
|16||Jack Laugher & Chris Mears||4||2||3||9|
|18||Men’s Team Sprint||3||3||3||9|
|23||Hannah Mills & Saskia Clarke||1||3||1||5|