Keely Hodgkinson remembers vividly the first time she watched athletics on television, sitting open-mouthed as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah surged to gold and glory over 44 extraordinary minutes at the London 2012 Olympics. So inspiring was Ennis-Hill’s performance that a 10-year-old Hodgkinson decided to start running again, having taken a few months off to focus on swimming. And almost a decade to the day later, the brilliant 800m star is primed to lead a fresh medal rush this weekend.
At the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, they are already taking up the possibility of a new Super Saturday, with Hodgkinson and Laura Muir in the women’s 800m, Jake Wightman and Josh Kerr in the men’s 1500m, and Zharnel Hughes in the men’s 200m all with their eyes on gold.
Meanwhile, Commonwealth Games organisers have structured Sundaytomorrow’s programme in such a way that it puts the focus on women’s team sport a week after the Lionesses’ stunning European Championship victory – with the women’s hockey, netball and cricket finals all being given pride of place.
Inevitably they are dubbing the day Super Sunday too. But, as they also point out, it is part of a wider trend to push women’s sport. This year the Games will become the first major multisport event to award more medals to women than men – with 136 medal events for women and 134 for men.
Many of them will be handed out over a weekend soaked in anticipation, expectation and high-class rivalries. Along the way England will also hope to narrow the gap to Australia at the top of the medal table to set up a thrilling denouement to the Games, which ends on Monday.
And at the vanguard of the gold medal charge will be Hodgkinson, the fearless 20-year-old from Wigan, who recently added a brilliant world 800m silver to her Olympic silver in Tokyo.
Last weekend, like millions of others, she watched her schoolfriend Ella Toone score the first goal in England’s 2-1 European Championship win over Germany last week. But now she wants to put her name deeper into the mainstream too. “It’s about seizing the opportunity,” she says – and that is something she has already done better than most in her burgeoning career.
However, she says it may have taken a different path if it was not for London 2012. “I used to swim a lot at the time,” she says. “I also did athletics for a bit, and then I actually quit. But then I came back after seeing Jess being the female star of the London Olympics. I thought she was absolutely amazing. Competing at a home Olympics definitely put a lot of pressure on her, and she managed to deliver something spectacular.” Hodgkinson has not met Ennis-Hill, but last year the pair exchanged messages in which she told her what an influence she had been. Like Ennis-Hill, she possesses a fearlessness that is nearly as breathtaking as her ascent to the top of her sport. Yet she admits it was not always the case.
She remembers racing in the Greater Manchester championships when she was 12 or 13 and being so nervous she wanted to pull out. “I was like ‘Dad, I am not running,’” she says. “And he had to actually bribe me with a pair of shoes. But I ended up winning. That is where my athletics career was made. Now I feel I can handle any situation.
“My dad has always been a big influence on me. And he always used to say, ‘If you believe something, you can go and do it’. So that’s always just been my thinking. I just give everything, back myself, and hope I come out on top.”
The weekend excitement begins at 11am on Saturday when England’s women cricketers take on India in the T20 semi-finals at Edgbaston. They are heavy favourites after winning their group ahead of New Zealand, with victory likely to see them facing Australia in Sundaytomorrow’s finals.
The action skips to the track at 1.10pm as the world 1500m champion Wightman takes on a high-class field which includes Kenya’s Timothy Cheruyiot and his Scottish teammate Josh Kerr, the silver and bronze medallists at last year’s Olympics.
Just over an hour later all eyes will be on the NEC Arena as England’s netballers take on Australia in a rematch of the 2018 final on the Gold Coast. It is likely to be close and dramatic but the England defender Jade Clarke believes a capacity home crowd could make the difference. “The lights are off, they’ve all got their torches on,” she says. “I just feel like they’re part of the team and it just gives us a boost every time we have a dip in play or the momentum goes against us.”
England’s men will also face Australia in the hockey at 8.15pm, although they will be underdogs against a side looking for their seventh straight title. Then the action switches back to the track, where Hodgkinson and Hughes are favourites to a second and third track gold of the day for England.
Do not be surprised if the Hodgkinson’s 800m is one of the races of the championships given that the field not only includes the world 800m bronze medallist Mary Moraa of Kenya but Muir, who won world 1500m bronze in Eugene and the Jamaican Natoya Goule, who has run 1:57.90 this year and looked sensational in her heat.
Inevitably the overall quality of these Games has been mixed, to put it mildly. But across the athletics track and cricket field, netball court and hockey pitch, there should be battle royales aplenty this weekend. Time to buckle up and enjoy the ride.