“I just want to be remembered as one of the great athletes.” And with that, Jessica Ennis, the poster girl of the glorious London 2012 Olympic Games, retired from athletics at the very young age of 30. Of course, a gold medal at Rio 2016 would have been the perfect way for Ennis-Hill to leave the heptathlon, but by that point it seemed she had already achieved, both on the track and off of it, everything she possibly could have hoped.
That Ennis-Hill finished ever so close to a gold, picking up a silver behind Belgian youngster Nafissatou Thiam, yet retained the smile and positivity that made the nation fall in love with her is a testament to why she will be remembered as not just a great sportswoman, but a great personality. The zenith of her career, of course, was victory in the Olympic stadium on Super Saturday. To say that the image of Ennis-Hill crossing the line in the 800m, the final event of the heptathlon, represented the most iconic image of those London Games would not be hyperbolic. She had won three of the seven events and smashed the British record for heptathlon points with a total of 6,955.
Yet that is not the achievement which should solely define her career. Without a doubt, it was a special achievement, but does that make her a legend? Probably not. To gain that status, one has to do something extraordinary. It is necessary to achieve something which many doubted, something for which precedents generally do not exist: in short, something beyond the realms of genuine human expectation. Ennis-Hill achieved that status during the 2015 World Championships in Beijing. A year after giving birth to her son Reggie, she did not just valiantly compete with a field that is more competitive than the Olympic, she beat them. Winning that gold was certainly a victory for which it is hard to do justice.
The weight of Ennis-Hill’s accomplishment does not come simply from the fact that she had been out of training for a year compared to her rivals (a disadvantage that in itself would make the gold medal highly worthwhile). She also had built herself up to peak form for the London Games and, as the reigning Olympic champion, was the one everyone else wanted to beat.
Ennis-Hill didn’t have a chance to move her way tactfully through the field. She was a marked woman and still came out on top. Without winning any of the events outright, she demonstrated the level of consistency you would only come to expect of someone regularly on the athletics circuit, like silver medallist Brianne Theisen-Eaton. Ennis-Hill had been back just mere months. This is the achievement that bears witness to the legendary nature of her career.
There will be those who disagree and seek comparisons with athletic greats such as Mo Farah and Usain Bolt. They, according to some, have repeated their feats over an extended period of time and therefore have proven themselves beyond comparison with their contemporaries. Bolt’s nine Olympic golds and Farah’s long-distance double-double (2x 5,000 and 10,000 m golds) will stand the test of time more so than Ennis-Hill’s solitary Olympic gold. In fifty years time, she will most likely not be mentioned in the same breath as those athletes who have a place in the pantheon of running gods. Yet that misses the point. Bolt and Farah are extraordinary athletes and will rightly be compared to sporting greats such as Pele, Gary Sobers, and Arnold Palmer.
However, Ennis-Hill has achieved a far less tangible status. She has demonstrated to everyone, including pregnant women, what it is possible to achieve. She has shown that being a sore loser is not a prerequisite of being a good winner. She has not fallen into the trap of objectifying her body in order to make more money. She isn’t littered across the front of gossip magazines, incorporated into a far-fetched tacky story. She hasn’t tried to enhance her reputation. She’s merely done what she does best: compete. Ennis-Hill has also demonstrated great humility in walking away from the sport when she can do it on her terms. This is the mark of a great athlete with a good head on her shoulders. Awards have come and gone for the Sheffield-born athlete, but she has never sought out media attention or further praise than that which she already receives. Sport Relief named Ennis-Hill Britain’s favourite sporting hero in January of this year, and she was nominated by Laureus for its comeback sportsperson award in both 2015 and 2016.
And that is why, despite what she said, she shouldn’t be remembered as one of the great athletes. She should be remembered for what she is: a legend.