My best friend nudged me. “You’re being called up.”
It was summer 1989 and the End of Year Assembly. I was twelve (and a half) years old and had won the School Sports Award. My first taste of proper, full-on, heart-thumping pride. Especially as I’d beaten all the boys. Everyone knew it was the best award to win; they even saved it ‘til last, to keep the suspense.
Even better, Ian Taylor, the Great Britain hockey goalkeeper had presented me with the award. Meeting an international athlete is one thing, but Ian Taylor was an Olympic gold medallist. He’d brought his medal with him, a gleaming golden disc, with red, blue and orange ribbon, nestled in a beautiful box.
We’d been instructed that we could look, but not touch. Collecting my award, I’d lingered as I tried to commit it to memory.
An. Olympic. Gold. Medal. Just there on the table. On the stage. In the school hall.
The Seoul Olympics had taken place the previous summer and I’d been glued to the television with my dad; jumping up and down, screaming and cheering as the full time whistle was blown and the men in red shirts, wielding sticks and massive grins became Olympic champions.
I’d watched the Union Jack raised as ‘God Save the Queen’ was belted out around the South Korean stadium and at that moment, miles away in a living room in the midlands, I understood the inexplicable power of sport.
It was the year that Florence Griffith Joyner (Flo Jo) and Ben Johnson demolished their sprint opposition and the world had – temporarily at least* – marvelled at their power, speed and dominance. Magic moments that I wanted a piece of.
“We have another small presentation to make. Joanne, will you come up to the stage please.”
I unhooked my legs from underneath me, and stood up, shaking. I had pins and needles in my left foot. Teachers and parents flanked the walls – there was Standing Room Only at the back of the hall. I could feel the eyes of the school watching me. What if I tripped? God, please don’t trip.
As I made it to the front, the headmaster, Mr Harradine, ushered me up the steps. He was the best headteacher. Ever. Even the naughty kids loved him. He was short and a little bit round, with bright white hair and an endless smile. We called him Dungeon Master after the wizard with the gentle voice in the cult cartoon, Dungeons and Dragons. An honour indeed.
My heart was pounding so hard I could swear the whole school could hear. My palms were sticky and my mouth was dry.
By now the gold medal was no longer secured safely in the presentation box, but shone in the sunlight, as it swung heavily from its rainbow ribbon in my Olympic hero’s hands.
And then, as I reached the centre of the stage, he leant forward and put his pot of gold around my neck. Oh. My. God. An Olympic Gold Medal. The medal that nobody was allowed to touch, but I, unbelievably, was allowed to wear.
And then – it gets better – he leant down, so only I could hear, and whispered that one day I could win one too.
I never did win an Olympic gold medal. I never got to compete at an Olympic Games, but I had fun trying and that small gesture by one of my first sporting heroes sparked something in me that shaped my whole life.
Through athletics, I got to wear a GB vest and experienced the privilege of singing the National Anthem from the top of a championship podium. I experienced extremes of emotion – true elation and agonising heartbreak. I learnt that there’s always more you can give, both physically and emotionally. Even when you think you can give no more.
I learnt the values of team work, hard work, discipline and determination, as well as how to win and, most importantly, how to lose. Life skills that cannot be taught, but can only be understood through experience.
Small deeds can have massive consequences. Thank you Mr Taylor. Here’s hoping the heroes from this year’s Games will be equally inspirational.
- BBC Sport – Barry Davies’ Olympic Moment’s: Britain’s hockey gold in 1998 – complete with wonderful commentary excerpts
- GB Men win Gold – Review via YouTube
- The Guardian – 50 stunning Olympic moments No46: GB win hockey gold at Seoul 1988
- Public reaction to 1988 Olympic gold medal win stunned GB hockey team
- The Independent – David Faulkner: ‘When Sherwani scored… I knew I had my Olympic gold’
- Children to meet sports heroes through project promoting Olympic values
- SkillsActive appoints Olympic Gold Medallist as new Chief Executive
* Days after his victory, Ben Johnson was found guilty of using the anabolic steroid Stanozol and was sent home from the Games in disgrace. Whilst rumours around Flo-Jo’s performances and use of steroids were rife, she never tested positive. She died at the age of 38.