The Meaning of Jessica Ennis, the Face of the London Games

Five-Ring Circus
A Blog About the Olympic Games
Aug. 6 2012 7:00 AM

The Meaning of Jessica Ennis, the Face of the London Games

Jessica Ennis
Team GB's Jessica Ennis shows off her gold medal.

Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images for adidas.

For all the excitement of Mo Farah’s Saturday night 10,000-meter triumph, and as impressive as it was to watch Bradley Wiggins grab a gold medal in the time trial only 10 days after he won the Tour de France … even, by the ghost of Fred Perry, as amazing as it is to see a Scotsman winning at the All-England Club, Britain’s magnificent 2012 Olympics have been dominated by female faces.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

First there is Joanna Rowsell, one-third of the winning women’s team pursuit squad, who bared her bald head with pride in the medal ceremony. Rowsell, who has had alopecia areata since she was 10, told Britain’s Telegraph that she sometimes dons a wig for the podium, saying, “I think all girls like to look nice and feel pretty, especially when you're going to get your photo taken and the cameras are on you.” But yesterday, she didn’t, and the commemorative stamp that the Royal Mail will issue this week will show Rowsell, with just one small tuft of hair on her head, looking deliriously happy sandwiched between her two amply coiffed teammates, Dani King and Laura Trott.

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British field hockey captain Kate Walsh, who broke her jaw when she took a stick to the face in the team’s first-round match, returned to the field six days later, having had a titanium plate inserted into her mouth. The Daily Mail reported that Walsh “led the squad out wearing some protective strapping under her chin and slotted in like she had never been away. She made a couple of low tackles without even flinching and her distribution was as crisp and precise as ever.”

But it’s Jessica Ennis’ visage—not to mention her amazing abs—that have dominated the host nation. As the New York Times reported, “It is difficult to roam the streets of London without being greeted by her smile or her name on the tube, or in a taxi, or in a shop.” The Times rounded up two men in the pub to assess the heptathlon gold medalist’s performance as a role model. “She’s a good spokesperson,” said one. “It helps that she’s pretty, too,” the other added.

Ennis’ attractiveness surely helped secure all those sponsorships, but she’s much more than a pretty face. The demanding nature of her multi-discipline event and the dramatic way she won on Saturday night—fighting past two other runners to break the tape in the final event, the 800 meters, even though she was already assured of the gold medal—was striking, as is her down-to-earth demeanor. In a country riven by a North-South divide, Ennis is a proud Northerner who still lives in her hometown of Sheffield (known for steel, snooker, and The Full Monty). She’s engaged to a construction worker who was her high-school sweetheart. Basically, she’s as wholesome as Yorkshire pudding. Indeed, the Observer found her ordinariness quite astonishing: “Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ennis is her sheer, overwhelming normality. She has none of the odd intensity or psychological hang-ups that afflict so many of the people in her field.”

Ennis, whose father is from Jamaica and whose mother’s roots are in the English Peak District, also represents a new pride in British multiculturalism. Britain, especially London, has been multicultural for decades, of course, and many biracial athletes—including Dame Kelly Holmes who won two golds in Athens—preceded Ennis to the podium. But the sporting world, like every other aspect of society, changes in stages. While sports like cricket experienced similar injections of new blood, the British Olympic universe was first transformed by athletes with roots in the Caribbean, and then from West Africa, and now an immigrant from Somalia and a mixed-race woman from the North.

It would be foolish to make sweeping statements about a society based on one glorious night of sporting triumph, but lots of people are doing it anyway. Writing in the Guardian, political analyst Jackie Ashley observed, “The US, France, Brazil, and Britain have perhaps the most multi-ethnic teams, and do richly well from their relative openness. Mo Farah, who came here from Mogadishu aged eight, is a British hero. Jessica Ennis [is] a very British heroine. Team GB embraces minor royalty, public schoolboys, kids from the rougher parts of town and new immigrants. For once, in an uncomplicated way, let's just feel good about that.”

Ashley knows something about torchbearers: Her father, Jack Ashley, was a working-class lad who left school at 14 but later found himself studying at Cambridge. A year after he was elected an MP, he became profoundly deaf but went on to serve in Parliament for 26 years, during which time he campaigned for the rights of the disabled. Jack Ashley’s life represented opportunity, dedication, and service. For many Britons, Farah and Ennis will be equally powerful symbols. On Saturday night, both of these athletes made their country feel good about where it was today and how it has transformed since the London Games of 1948.

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