DESPITE the odd torrential (and yes inevitable) downpour, Manchester was unwilling to let anything rain on its Olympic and Paralympic Heroes’ Parade last night.
...it's only days like today that you realise the sheer amount of support we've had back home
An estimated 150,000 turned out to line the streets of the city centre on Monday night, armed with an impressive array of impedimenta: from the utilitarian umbrellas and ponchos to the hawker-bought flags, wigs and whistles, and the bin bags full of complimentary gold-speckled hats and foam Lotto fingers. The clouds may have hung low over Deansgate as the fourteen athlete-laden parade floats set off from the MSIM at 4.30pm, but spirits were as high as a Jade Jones head kick.
“Why do they call you Headhunter?” asked presenter Mark Chapman of the two-time gold medal-winning star of taekwondo, who lives and trains in Manchester, as she took to the stage in a packed-out Albert Square alongside 350 of her compatriots. “Because I love to kick people in the head.”
Cue worried parental expressions amongst an otherwise chirpy and mutually appreciative affair, which saw a good many medal-winners express genuine surprise at the extent of support back home.
“You’re in your own little bubble out there in Brazil,” said double gold medal-winning gymnast Max Whitlock, “it's only days like today that you realise the sheer amount of support we’ve had back home – it’s amazing!”
Though clearly not all were as comfortable with the waves of admiration that greeted them around every corner, from Deansgate past Victoria and up through Exchange Square to Manchester Town Hall; with the perennially-awkward Brownlee brothers, gold and silver-winning triathletes Alistair and Jonathan, looking about as comfortable in the limelight as they had last month in the searing-heat of Mexico.
“I’d have preferred it if we’d carried on back up the M62, back home to Yorskhire,” said a cheeky Alistair to the crowd, “at least then we might have had some sun.”
And so it was that it fell to another group of Yorkshire lads, indie-poppers Kaiser Chiefs, to bring a little sunshine back to the square, shrugging off yet another downpour with rousing performances of crowd-favourite Ruby and new single Hole In My Soul.
Soon it was the turn of Team GB’s victorious Women’s Hockey Team - perhaps the most popular unveil of the evening - to stir the soggy crowd, bounding onto the stage with the same plucky determination and fearlessness that saw them overcome favourites Netherlands during a dramatic penalty shoot-out watched by some ten million Brits.
“We haven’t traditionally had much luck with penalty shoot-outs in the past,” said Chapman to the band of sisters.
“Well we have,” said the defiant and long-standing Manchester-born captain, Kate Richardson-Walsh.
And here came Britain’s most successful female Olympian Katherine Grainger, 40, and a beaming Jess Ennis-Hill to discuss her recently announced retirement at 30. And here the two Paralympic swimming heroes, 21-year-old Ellie Simmonds and 15-year-old Ellie Robinson, who both picked up golds in the Rio pool, and ‘golden-oldie’ Nick Skelton, who took show jumping gold at the ripe old age of 58.
There were a whole range of ages on parade in Manchester on Monday night, but also of race and creed, of height and weight, of ability and disability, of background and breeding - all united under the flag, beneath an unusually warm blanket of nationalism. As songstress Rebecca Ferguson took to the stage to belt out the David Bowie classic, they were all heroes, and not just for today.
The crowds gather...