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Feminine Spitfires within the Land of the Rising Solar

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For the first time ever three British women will line up in the Olympic 800m final but can they match the great feats of predecessors like Seb Coe and Ann Packer?

If Seb Coe, Steve Cram and Tom McKean were memorably described as resembling ‘Spitfires out of the sun’ when they rounded the final bend at the 1986 European Championships en route to sweeping the medals in the 800m then what should we call Keely Hodgkinson, Jemma Reekie and Alexandra Bell when they line up for the Olympic women’s 800m final on Tuesday night in the Land of the Rising Sun?

Forget aircraft analogies. One of the British trio will have classic cars on her mind instead.

Hodgkinson has a mild obsession with driving a James Bond-style Aston Martin and the wealthy athletics fan who has supported her financially on the road to Tokyo, Barrie Wells, promised her a while ago that he would hire her one to drive for the day if she made the Olympic final.

Wells has an amazing eye for athletics talent and has helped athletes such as Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Jessica Ennis-Hill in the past. Until recently he had toned down his athletics philanthropy in order to focus on his superb Box4Kids scheme, but when he noticed Hodgkinson was short of funding he felt it was a travesty and stepped in to help.

Keely Hodgkinson and Barrie Wells

Hodgkinson qualified for Tuesday’s Olympic final with a tactically astute and patient display of middle-distance running that belies her age. She does not turn 20 until next year and runs in fearless style whether she is leading or, as she showed when she won the British title in June, out-kicking her rivals from behind.

READ MORE: Barrie Wells interview

“Three out of three, definitely history being made here right now,” said Hodgkinson after she made the Olympic final with fellow Brits Reekie and Bell.

“I don’t think about expectations – we’re just here representing our country and to have fun and do ourselves proud out there. I just wanted to secure my place on the biggest stage in the world and it’s going to be the biggest race of all three of our careers and we really want to do our families proud and people that support us back home proud.”

Britain has a fine tradition in the women’s 800m but this will be the first time three athletes have made the Olympic final. Kelly Holmes won the title, of course, during her Olympic double in Athens in 2004 but you have to go back to 1964 and 1968 to find Olympic women’s 800m finals that featured more than one Briton.

In Tokyo in 1964 Ann Packer took gold, with Anne Smith also making the final in eighth, whereas in Mexico in 1968 Sheila Taylor was fourth and Pat Lowe sixth.

Ann Packer wins in Tokyo (Mark Shearman)

It is hard to tell which Briton has the best chance in Tuesday’s final. Hodgkinson beat Reekie to the British title in June but the Scottish athlete, who trains with Laura Muir, looked strong and confident in her semi-final, finishing just behind Natoya Goule of Jamaica.

“British middle-distance running is just amazing right now and I’m so excited looking ahead for all the races ahead of us and I definitely think the British girls can go out and do well in that final,” Reekie said.

“I’ve definitely got big dreams. I stand on the start line every day to try and win it and I’ll go out and do the same again and if I come away with a medal I’ll be really happy.”

As for Bell, she faced a rollercoaster route to the Games. Fifth in the British trials, she was overlooked for selection and only invited to join the squad when Muir dropped out of the 800m to focus on the 1500m.

The 28-year-old ran a PB of 1:58.34 last month, though, and battled into the Olympic final after finishing third in a semi-final won by the gold medal favourite, Athing Mu of the United States.

Athing Mu leads Alex Bell in the 800m semi (Getty)

On the three Brits in the final, Bell said: “When was the last time that happened? Honestly I knew the girls would do it and I can honestly say we’re going to give them all hell in the final. It’s going to be unbelievable. Clean slate now, rest and recoup and anything can happen.”

She added: “A week prior to flying out I can’t tell you the lows I was facing and feeling, my world flipped round with one phone call and I was happy to grab the opportunity with both hands and just enjoy it.

“I cried on the phone to the team leader – he said it was the best phone call he ever had. The world was turned upside down, but I refocused!”

But can any of the Brits actually win? Betting firm William Hill have Reekie at 16/1, Hodgkinson 25/1 and Bell 50/1 with Mu the odds-on favourite at 2/7.

No one thought Packer would triumph in 1964, though. She was the slowest on paper, but took gold in a world record of 2:01.1 with an inspired surge past Frenchwoman Maryvonne Dupureur in the home straight.

Packer’s main event at those Tokyo ’64 Games was the 400m. She was such a novice at the 800m that he was unsure where to break from her lane once the race was underway. Her triumphant final was also only the eighth 800m race of her life and proved to be the last as she promptly retired after the Games aged 22.

If any of the Brits win this 2021 final it is unlikely they will hang up their spikes straight away. As for Hodgkinson, she is already guaranteed a ride in an Aston Martin and, if she wins gold, she will probably be able to buy one for herself.

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