Being the face of an Olympic Games can bring about the chance to be a national hero. It can generate widespread media coverage, not to mention lucrative sponsorship opportunities. But it can also, of course, bring about unbridled pressure for the chosen individual.
So, with less than 500 days to go until the Rio Olympics, The PHA Group’s Sport & Leisure department thought it timely to look back at the mixed fortunes of the ‘chosen ones’ over the last 20 years.
1996 – Michael Johnson
The first truly global athletics superstar, Johnson shifted the goalposts for his sport both on and off the track. A double world record holder, marketability and the ability to take athletics to the mainstream, Johnson’s skill set positioned him perfectly to become the face of the Games in Atlanta 1996. He was the clear favourite for both the 200m and 400m and wasn’t just expected to claim gold in both, but he was tipped to do it with a swagger(!)
Competing in his home country, the pressure was heavily on Johnson’s shoulders. But never did that burden appear on the face of the Dallas born athlete. In typically brazen gold Nike running spikes, Johnson did not disappoint. He blitzed the field in both events, sauntering to golds and also broke the Olympic record in both disciplines, breaking new ground by doing so.
2000 – Cathy Freeman
The Sydney Olympics in 2000 is still regarded as one of the best the world has seen. And in the build-up, you could not escape the image of Cathy Freeman. She kicked off the games by lighting the torch and was the heavy favourite to claim 400m gold.
Being of aboriginal heritage, Freeman was a symbol of far more than her athletic ability. Not before or since has a single athlete been under so much pressure to deliver and Freeman’s face encapsulated this when she crossed the line first; it was the picture of sheer relief, rather than joy. Her poignant act of carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags during her lap of honour is an image which is long to be remembered in Olympic history.
2004 – Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou
Being the face of the Olympics doesn’t always have a galvanising effect, however; it can lead some to relative insanity. Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou were the darlings of Greek athletics having both surprisingly claimed medals at the 2000 Olympics – Kenteris 200m gold, Thanou 100m silver.
These individuals put Greek athletics on the map and the Games in Athens were seen as their homecoming. It ended in utter controversy, though, as the pair staged a motorcycle accident in order to miss a drugs test as well as encouraging medical staff to issue false certificates on their alleged injuries from the accident. The pair were eventually found guilty of perjury in 2011. Not the kind of ‘face’ any region would like for their Olympic Games.
2008 – Liu Xiang
Liu Xiang also felt the pressure of a nation, ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and was ultimately a victim of his own success. He had won gold in the 110m hurdles in Athens, which was China’s first in a men’s track and field event. This led to him being an absolute cultural icon in the country and resulted in him carrying the nation’s hope on his shoulders once again, four years later.
Xiang was the favourite to win gold in the 110-metre hurdles at the Beijing Olympics, but had endured an injury-hit season. The lure of performing in front of his home fans though pushed him to the starting blocks but he withdrew in the heats with injury, all of which had not been revealed to the Chinese public and media. A real blow to all concerned.
2012 – Jessica Ennis-Hill
Ennis-Hill (then Ennis) became the face of the London 2012 Olympics and with it the nation’s sweetheart thanks to the strong possibility or her claiming heptathlon gold, not to mention her looks and warm personality.
She was under severe pressure to produce the goods in the lead up to the Games. But the British athlete was largely faultless during her two days of events and she gave the British public exactly what they wanted. Ennis was one-third of ‘Super Saturday’ along with Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford but her marketability has meant she has remained in the nation’s thoughts as she bids for success in Rio. Ennis is just the kind of role model any nation would surely be thankful for, and someone we hope to see continue to be used in such a positive way, moving forward.