27th July, 2012
London 2012 began on Wednesday afternoon; not with a Danny Boyle-curated pageant of costumed Morris dancers, but with the first competitive sport of these Games.
The gaze of the world may be trained on the Olympic Stadium in London for Friday night’s opening ceremony, but 150 miles to the west, the party has begun two days early.
Six group stage fixtures in the women’s football competition were scheduled for Wednesday evening; in Cardiff, Coventry and Glasgow.
In the first of them, Team GB embarked on their inaugural Olympic campaign with a match against New Zealand at the Millennium Stadium, which they won 1-0. For most of the squad, it was their first taste of Olympic competition. Most, but not all.
Though men’s teams have competed for Great Britain in the past, women’s football only joined the Olympic programme at Atlanta 1996. Working at those Games as a ball girl was a 16 year-old from Burnley called Rachel Brown, who had just finished her GCSEs.
“It was pretty random, really,” Brown remembers. “There was a goalkeeping coach called Mick Payne who ran football camps every summer in Alabama. I stayed out there with a host family. One of the sons was a ball boy at the stadium, and they somehow managed to get me involved.”
It was a quarter-final at Legion Field in Birmingham between Mexico and Nigeria, who went on to win the gold medal, and there was one player in particular that this fanatical Everton fan wanted to see. “I just wanted a picture of Daniel Amokachi,” she says, “and he gave me his shirt after the game.”
Sixteen years on, Brown plays in goal for Great Britain. The prospect of competing in an Olympic Games was something she could never have foreseen as she stood on the sidelines on that Birmingham afternoon.
“The Olympics was totally separate from my football career at the time,” she says. “I loved the Olympics for what I saw it as — the athletics, the swimming — but not really football, as I understood it. At 16, I didn’t think it was something I would ever be part of. Being a participant wasn’t a reality until less than a year ago, really. It’s pretty cool that it’s happened.”
This will almost certainly be Brown’s first and last Olympics — she will be 36 by Rio 2016 — and she is determined to make this one count. She has given up her full-time job as a PE teacher in Merseyside in order to focus on the Games.
“You always know there have been previous World Cups and that there will be future World Cups. The Olympics is something we may never experience again. That elevates it to another level. I’m on the crest of a wave with excitement.”