Athletics’ most exclusive club? Meet the holders of the Grand Slam.
The Grand Slam
In what is proving a golden age, for GB Athletics, a rare opportunity exists for another to enter a very exclusive club.
The unofficial grand slam for UK athletes involves the winning of every major championship available to them. The Olympic Games, The World Championships, The Commonwealth Games and The European Championships. For those wishing to add ever more levels of differentiation, to hold all 4 simultaneously and add the world record in your event is the cherry on the cake, the super slam. Greg Rutherford has proved to be a true championship performer and now holds Olympic, Commonwealth and European titles in the long jump. In 2015 he will compete in the, now biannual, World Championship, giving him a chance to complete the slam and hold all four at the same time. Should he triumph, he will join a highly exclusive club of truly iconic GB athletes.
Some of those not in the club may give some idea of the difficulty of gaining admission: Lord Coe, Jess Ennis,Steve Cram, Dame Kelly Holmes, Steve Ovett, Paula Radcliffe, Colin Jackson, Denise Lewis, Tessa Sanderson, Steve Backley, Liz McColgan, Tanni Grey-Thompson and , to date, Mo Farah, all fail the criteria on at least one count.
The club to which Rutherford may be admitted features an incredible quintet of phenomenal talent, but of a greater mix of character and personality than might perhaps be expected.
In a time of both famous exploits, and infamous figures, Christie’s collection of all major titles involved single-mindedness and unshakable belief in his ability to take on and defeat the might of North American sprinting when unsupported by fellow team mates, UK athletics and initially the watching public. It is even more remarkable as for the early part of his career he seemed to be destined for the plucky Englishman, who always did well but never won, role. His 1986 win in the European Championships, followed with two more, seemed as high as it would get for Europe’s fastest man. Yet a commonwealth games triumph in 1990 and a changing of the sprint guard gave him a shot at stepping up on the world stage. Linford is not the type of man to need asking twice. Barcelona in 1992 would see more than one groundbreaking moment for team GB, first up though was the first European 100m champion for a dozen years, Christie’s defeat of the likes of Fredericks and Burrell broke the psychological stranglehold of the North Americans. That Christie the following year repeated the feat by imposing his will on sprint royalty that included Carl Lewis Dennis Mitchel, Fredericks again and Andre Cason in winning the world title, was summed up when he chatted about joining ‘the club’ with its founding member! (more of whom later). Thus that post victory interview with the man who defined and inaugurated the club, could be said to be its founding moment.
As the first , and so far only, female athlete in the club Gunnell’s place in GB athletics royalty should be assured. Yet in the time of former athlete commentators and coaches Gunnell seems a somewhat marginalised figure. This does not do justice to her phenomenal record in a highly technical and physically demanding event, known on the other side of the gender divide, as “The Mankiller”.
The sensational completion of “The Clubs’ entry requirements was begun at the 1990 Commonwealth Games, Gunnell had moved up, from a moderately successful career as a sprint hurdler, in distance less than 3 years previously. This had included a previous win at “the friendly games” in 1986. However there was a lurking suspicion that the move would result in a career defined by podium efforts rather than the gold rush it soon became. Sandra Farmer Patrick, The Russian, Ledowskya and another American in Vickers continued what seemed a turn and turn about dominance between the USA and Eastern Europe. Following a silver medal in the World Championships in Tokyo however, things began to look a little different. Sally was a superb technician, due to the sprint hurdle background, whose other main asset was strength of mind the final piece of the puzzle was her ability to execute a plan with almost ruthless efficiency. All of her main rivals seemed to fall into the opposite style of athlete, namely those with remarkable flat speed but possible stamina and technique flaws, could she create enough pressure on those athletes to expose their weakness? The answer was to come in a two-year spell scarcely witnessed before or since.
The second of GB’s iconic performances in Barcelona at the 1992 Olympic games was produced by Gunnell and in emphatic style.. In a field with no absentees from the best in the world list, the GB ladies captain simply executed the perfect race, attacked her rival at their weak points, and crossed the line in a blaze of glory. In 1993 she went further, the world championship final in Stuttgart provided a re run, except farmer Patrick had definitely improved, Kim Batton was fast approaching her best, Buford Bailey completed the USA trio and the Russian had found Ponomaryova to continue their strong tradition. Gunnell’s performance here eclipsed everything seen in women’s hurdles till that point, looking back at the run she seems to start slowly almost nonchalantly, this is enormously misleading, she was actually into the smooth flowing style almost immediately off the gun. The energy saved here is used to devastating effect in the home stretch, even Farmers Patrick’s improvement was not enough to stop Sally simply producing the perfect race, attacking the last hurdle and edging away from the American to win the world title. In addition, and to no ones surprise, Gunnell also smashed the world record by two tenths of a second. A minor footnote here is that Sally remains to this day the only female athlete to have won the 400m at Worlds, Olympics and broken the world record. A glance at her demeanor after the race is very revealing, the satisfied champion, is not over elated, surprised and apparently exhausted. Instead a totally in control athlete looks around her and drinks in the surroundings. The ambitions had been set and were close to being met.
Due to the timing of her accent to the top echelon of her event she almost appears to have won the grand slam backwards, with the exception of the Commonwealths, Gunnell officially joined the Grand Slam club by winning the European Championship in 1994. At this point Gunnell was reigning Olympic, World ,Commonwealth and European Champion and well as holding the world record. A feat not since repeated by any female athlete. The first super slam member since the club’s founder!
Perhaps the most unassuming and unprepossessing of this elite club members is the triple jumping phenomenon from the North East of England. If Gunnell’s qualification for the super slam was achieved in a somewhat unusual order, and mainly in a 2 year period, Edwards easily claims the most unusual order with what will almost certainly be the longest lead up to eventual membership.
First up for Jonathan was one of the most memorable performances from any athlete in any event ever seen. With no senior major title to his name he arrived in Gothenburg under a great deal of pressure to put an immediate end to that situation. This was mostly generated by Edwards taking The great Willie Bank’s world record a month earlier and having an enormous 18.43m jump ruled out for high wind assistance the same season. Seldom has any athlete responded to this pressure as Edwards did that day. His first jump that day smashed his own world record by 18 centimetres and the quietly spoken Englishman became the first to jump over 18 metres. Not yet finished but with no hint of arrogance he again produced near perfection in his second jump, this time he became the first to clear the 60 feet distance and again smashed his world record with 18.29. Thus with Edwards first global title came two historic firsts and a world record that stands, and looks in no danger, at the time of writing almost 20 years later.
The complications that had seemed to come to the other club members prior to their greatest moments, raised their head for Jonathan in the years that followed. With injuries, together with loss of form and rhythm , an occupational hazard in triple jumping, he would dominate the event without cleaning up the expected titles and further records some thought inevitable. His first attempt at the Olympic games in Athens was rewarded with a silver medal, Edwards later accepted that pressure and assumption of him winning had proven more difficult to manage than he had imagined. Kenny Harrison, Quasada of Cuba then Olson of Sweden and later Edowu from GB emerged on the heels of Edwards to ensure a bumper crop of great rivals during a his long career at the top of his event. each of these athletes denied Edwards global or continental titles between 1995 and 2002. Even against these odds it was unlikely that one single day would define a career of this most talented and intelligent of athletes. Fully three years after his world title the next major came Edwards way. With Kapustin of Russia threatening to join the cast of pantomime villains depriving him, he again produced the exact performance required, flirting again with 18 metres and winning by over half a metre. The following year saw his attempt to retain the world title result in a disappointing bronze medal. By now many were assuming that Edwards day of being fit enough and motivated enough to dominate on the global stage were behind him. Yet in a glorious swan song lasting three major championships, and almost two years, the world record holder put together another gold laden chapter in an almost peerless career.
On a much remembered night, for GB athletes, in Sydney 2000 Edwards, now 34 years of age, leapt 17.71 to win an Olympic title that had seemed destined to allude him. Although no one begrudged him his Olympic title, most thought it mainly due to the absence of Olson, due to injury, and that it would be his last hurrah. Yet the following summer Edwards re claimed the world title with a fully fit Olson the runner-up, his 17.92 was the best of 1993 and as always perfectly timed. The chance to complete the set and become the reigning champion at all four championships was to be available to Edwards for a very short window in the summer of 2002. The chance to complete this set at a home games, Manchester for the Commonwealths, could surely not be missed. However home competition was nearly as fierce, as that from elsewhere, with Phillips Adowu about to justify his potential and take up the mantel. As throughout his later career, Edwards found the level needed with 17.86 and kept the young pretender from the throne. This fairytale end to a mighty career ensured that a first Commonwealth title was collected at the age of 36.
Thus Jonathan Edwards broke the world record, for his event, before winning any of the grand slam titles, took over seven years to complete the full set and still holds the world record, set during his first global win, to this day. A deserved club member and the only super slam member to still hold their record.
David Weir :
The newest club member and one who, in his own way, resembles the founder member closest. The achievements of “The Weir Wolf” stand alone in Para Sport and are comparable with any able-bodied club member.
Weir’s membership of the club was gained at the commonwealth games in Glasgow 2014, a full decade after his first Olympic medal in Athens. Although a slight stretch is that Weir has not one the grand slam at anyone distance. This however is not always possible in para sport as not all races and disability groups are competed in at all championships. Weir has won six olympic gold medals, six world championship titles and his European title from Helsinki in 2005. In addition he has held the world record for 100m, 200m in his classification. These titles and records include also 400m, 800m, 1500m, 5000m and perhaps most prominently the marathon.
Weir’s return from huge disappointment at the Athens games to triumph in Beijing and, under huge pressure at his local games, in London 2012 places him in the highest ranks of GB athletes both from an achievement, advancement of his events and public admiration standpoint. His relentless attitude,dominance, almost ruthless desire and passion in winning have elevated him above his event and into a place frequented by few in sport.
Arguably the greatest athlete of his generation, Thompson is the founder of feast. Part of a golden generation of individual UK athletes who pushed the sport to new heights from the late seventies through the eighties and on to the current crop of world and Olympic champions. His peers included Coe, Ovett, Cram, Wells, Sanderson and Whitbread. Despite this elite group’s phenomenal records and dominant personalities, it is Thompson alone who achieved all that was available to him. His first major title came at the Commonwealth games of 1978. However a stinging defeat in the European Championships only a few weeks later would delay an unheralded period of dominance by another year. Undefeated in 1979 and beginning to show the professionalism of total focus on perfect preparation for his beloved event the plans were unyieldingly laid for the Olympics of 1980. The only unplanned result of this perfectly executed strategy was the breaking of the world record in Gotzis a few months before the games in Moscow. Despite feeling he had to complete the record, once realising it was on, this left Daley with an anticlimactic feeling he struggled to shake. This was compounded by the record being taken back by Guido Kratchmer barely a month later. Thompson’s indomitable spirit returned prior to the games and a masterfully controlled performance ensured a first Olympic title and the achievement of his aim. The level of attention and fame now attached to Thompson was unheralded in UK athletics. It was Thompson who as the supreme all round athlete, began to attract sponsors, produce adverts for soft drinks and multiply the earning power, of previously amateur athletes, beyond all measure. Indeed special arrangements had to put into place to enable Thompson to benefit from this commercial attention, whilst nominally being still considered an amateur.
Now with three undefeated years behind him the 1982 season would provide a true test and deliver even more spectacular results. Beginning with the retaking of the world record in the annual multi events meeting in Gotzis, proceeding to the retaining of the Commonwealth Games title in Brisbane and concluding with the capturing of the event most wanted, after the deep blow of 1978, The European Championships in Athens. To complete this incredible summer Thompson again took the world record from the giant German Jurgen Hingsen, who had claimed it in August, as well as defeating him head to head.
1983 in Helsinki sore the first world athletics championships and Thompson would have the first opportunity to hold every major title and become the first athlete from any nation, and in any event, to hold Olympic, world, Commonwealth and a continental (European title). In doing so he again defeated the might of Germany, in the persons of Hingsen and Wentz, despite the fact the Hingsen had again recaptured the world record that summer.
Thompson was not finished yet with “the beast” as the decathlon is known. It is by its very nature a untameable animal, that was not going to stop the Briton from trying. 1984 featured Thompson’s greatest test yet. He would attempt to retain the Olympic title. Only Bob Mathias of the USA had achieved this feat and to do it in the modern era was thought to be verging on folly. As if to highlight the enormity of the task, Hingsen again extended the world record in May, only three months before the games of Los Angeles. Here however Thompson staged a virtuoso performance, despite the Germans’ incredible ability he had never defeated Daley head to head, Thompson built up relentless pressure with personal best performances or decathlon bests in almost every event. The final blow to the world record holder came when Thompson actually appeared to wobble, after two throws in the discuss, it appeared that Daley’s superbly built lead would disappear. In a piece of sporting theatre, that rivals any, the champion stepped up for his third and final throw. The resultant effort both confirmed too Thompson everything he knew about himself and appeared to shatter Jurgen’s confidence. The shocked German suffered a dreadful pole vault and would not challenge again. The final image is of an exultant Thompson going on to claim the world record and remove all vestige of doubt over the title of best all round athlete. Most would be content with such an emphatic statement, Daley Thompson was not most……
After the usual non major year following an Olympics (no longer the case as World Championships are now biannual). Thompson returned to business in 1986. A third Commonwealth Games title in Edinburgh, with a games record, showed that his imperiousness remained. His next and final great challenge came later that summer in Stuttgart. The great German and eastern European tradition in this event, together with the remarkable talent pool, of East and West Germany, of that time, and a hugely partisan crowd would see Daley pitted against all his nearest rivals in their own backyard. Those remarkable two days serve as testament to the winning career of the greatest multi event athlete ever seen. Daley’s imposition of will started with a 100m in 10.26 seconds was his best ever in a decathlon. Another personal best was achieved at the start of day two in the 110m hurdles and the total of 8811 ranked in the top five ever recorded. In atrocious conditions, and for the last time, Daley Thompson stood above all those around him, the ultimate athletic gladiator. In many ways this could be counted as the ultimate of Super Slams. Due to the world championships being four years apart, at that time Daley had, in effect, won the slam over two complete cycles. Twice Olympic Champ, three Commonwealths,two European Championships, reigning World Champion and current (4 time) world record holder.
The Grand Slam Club begun by the titan that was Daley Thompson joined chronologically by Christie, Gunnell, Edwards and Weir does not hand out any invitations, each criteria must be amassed and the foes of injury, fortune, unfriendly timetabling and ever improving opposition must be defeated or outlasted in order for membership to be earned. I for one will be looking on to see if Greg Rutherford can earn his place.