- 19 Aug 08, 11:21 PM
Laoshan Velodrome, Beijing
A few days ago I asked the slightly ridiculous question of who is the greatest Olympian of all time.
What prompted me to do so was having seen Usain Bolt's euphoric assault on physics in the 100m and the finale of Michael Phelps' accumulation of gold medallions in the pool.
But "GOATs" are a bit like London buses at the minute: none for ages and then three at once.
Now, I'm not going to suggest Chris Hoy is the greatest anything ever - I'll leave that to others.
I'm just going to tell you if there is a humbler, more inspirational, more personable Olympic sporting great out there, I would like to buy that person Beijing's finest steak supper and hear their story too.
Let me just recount some facts: three gold medals in these Games, another in Athens and a silver in Sydney. That makes Hoy the first British athlete to win three golds in a single Olympics since swimmer Henry Taylor in 1908. On top of all that, he has won nine golds, five silvers and four bronzes across 10 world championships. He is also a two-time Commonwealth champion.
The 32-year-old former BMX star finished his five-day shift in the Beijing velodrome as he started it: unbeaten, untouchable and unrivalled.
His 2-0 semi-final victory over Mickael Bourgain in the men's sprint suggests the Scot was a comfortable winner: trust me, that score flatters the Frenchman. Those races were the 15th and 16th wins for Hoy and he would not have to wait long for triumphs 17 and 18 (the same number of races Phelps swam on his way to eight golds...and he didn't win all of his).
The final pitted him against team-mate Jason Kenny - the second all-British final at Laoshan - and it is to Kenny's credit he actually stretched Hoy in their first race. The 20-year-old, who had teamed up with Hoy and Jamie Staff to get the British medal machine up-and-running in the team sprint on Friday, pulled off a sneak attack as they jockeyed for position on the bank.
Against anybody else, Kenny's move, which bought him a five-metre gap, would have worked. Hoy, however, simply muscled his way around the final lap in a time of 10.216 seconds (that's nearly 44mph) to beat the Englishman on the line.
The second race was more clear-cut and Hoy, who also led a British one-two in the men's keirin on Saturday, was able to sit up and celebrate as he crossed the line.
Those celebrations were a joy to behold. So focused and contained after his two previous gold-medal displays, Hoy was able to let it all out this time. There were big hugs for mum, dad, girlfriend and other friends and family, more hugs for coaches, team-mates and support staff, and hearty handshakes for just about everybody else.
After the medal ceremony was out of the way - the seventh of 10 at the velodrome to feature that upbeat ditty God Save the Queen and one or more Union Flags - Hoy embarked on a punishing round of interviews. They looked more tiring than some of his races but he never stopped answering the questions or agreeing to "one more over here please, Chris".
As is his wont, Hoy was quick to praise his beaten opponent.
"(Kenny) is going to be the best in the world," he said. "I'm just lucky to have met him now."
He then explained how much pressure had been released when he crossed the line for that third gold.
"It's an unbelievable feeling but everything just comes out," he said. "There was so much expectation, and it's been a really hard five days of racing, but then you cross the finish and it's all over and you've won. It makes everything worthwhile. All the sacrifices, all the hard work."
The expectations Hoy was labouring under were entirely self-inflicted. If you keep winning medals you're going to get a reputation.
British cycling's Olympic breakout has been one of those overnight miracles that have been a long time coming. Segments of the general public might be shocked by all this shameless success but cycling aficionados have been waiting for it - they're not surprised by what has happened, they're revelling in it.
"You can never expect a medal," Hoy said. "But we knew if we performed we'd be really hard to beat.
"I knew I could not have worked any harder. If somebody was going to beat me they were going to have to do something pretty special. And if they had I would have shaken their hand knowing I had given everything."
And that is British cycling's great "secret". They give it everything, be it in terms of training, equipment, preparation, you name it, no other team could match Team GB's efforts.
I spoke to Chris Boardman, the man who planted the seed of this week's mighty harvest with his individual pursuit gold back in 1992, and he summed it up like this: "The mission is clear - we're not involved in promoting cycling or anything like that. Our job is to win medals. We remember that all the time and everything we do is built around that objective.
"The attention to detail, the hard work, the great people we have, the hours we put in on the track or in the wind tunnel - everything starts from that clear mission."
There is no doubt British cycling has stolen a march on the rest of the world. The other teams could only look on enviously at the size and professionalism of Team GB's set-up (we were the only team to have a full-time sports psychologist here) and there is talk that many talented coaches from abroad want to join the winning team, not take it on.
Hoy was quick to praise the backroom effort - "our job is easy, we just ride our bikes, they look after everything else" - as have other members of the team all week.
But individuals matter too and it should not be forgotten British cycling is on top because it has remarkable talents like Hoy, Bradley Wiggins (who could also have won his third Olympic gold of the Games but ran out of steam in the Madison race) and Victoria Pendleton (Tuesday's other emphatic sprint champion).
In fact, Pendleton made it quite clear who her inspiration was: "Chris (Hoy) is a legend. He's my hero and he's even more of a legend now."
Hoy, the unofficial team captain (which is always the best way), is not the type to let that kind of talk go to his head - he'll be back training in a month and be back for more medals in London ("If I can get into the team," he said with genuine modesty), but his life will change now. He's made an undeniable bid for greatness, all that's left is how you define that.
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