Adam Peaty celebrates after triumphing in the men's 100m breaststroke final

Credit: REUTERS

Olympics20 – quick stats – article

First, there was ‘Project Rio’. Next came ‘Project 56’ and now, unfolding before our eyes, we have what is already being described as ‘Project Immortal’. 

Quite where that might take Adam Peaty among the pantheon of sporting legends remains to be seen but, after winning a second Olympic 100 metre breaststroke title on Monday morning, it took only about two hours for the conversation to leap forward. 

Great athletes do invariably move swiftly from triumph to next target and, while Peaty will fight that urge in favour of precious family time, his mind could not help but wander. “As soon as I stop having fun, I’ll stop – I’m still having fun,” he said. “We are targeting Paris. Anything after that is a bonus. It’s how young you keep your mind.” 

Peaty is now the only Briton to have won back-to-back Olympic swimming titles in the same event. He will also be well aware that no breaststroker from any nation has ever won Olympic gold three times in a row. 

He will be 29 in 2024 and, on the evidence here of how he demolished what Adrian Moorhouse called the “greatest 100m breaststroke field in history”, he is already a heavy favourite. 

Peaty had not lost in the event since 2014 and that sequence was never in any serious threat inside the Tokyo Aquatic Centre, with the 26-year-old unleashing what he calls the “Beast” to triumph by the sort of margin more familiar in school swimming galas than Olympic finals. 

The wider question is whether he is now moving into a phase in his career – which he knows will come – whereby the priority will be finding a way to keep winning rather than go faster. That might sound contradictory but, with so much distance still to his nearest rivals, there is a potentially crucial difference in prioritising longevity and greater recovery time over optimal short-term speed. 

Peaty had talked prior to the Olympics about the desire still to improve on his 56.88sec world record, but there was a sense on Monday that the opportunity may just have passed amid both the year-long postponement of the Olympics, and then the decision to stage morning finals in Tokyo for the benefit of American television. 

Peaty dons his gold medal atop the podium

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

His winning time of 57.37sec was still the fifth-fastest in history, but Peaty clearly felt that more would have been possible at night in front of 15,000 fans. As it was, relief at simply winning was the overriding emotion. “It’s like going for a promotion and trying to prove what you’re worth every five years in 56-57 seconds,” he said.

“My coach said coming into these Games that these moments are immortal. She said: ‘It’s not about the time here, it’s about the race, who wants it more in that last 20 metres?’ It made me think completely differently.

“Everyone is beatable. No one’s invincible. It’s about getting to that wall first but also taking in every single moment that I can from these Olympics and hopefully inspiring as many people as possible.” 

One person who has certainly been inspired is Arno Kamminga, the silver medalist, who was quite open in admitting that he would be driven during the three years to Paris by the desire to overhaul his idol. The next chance is unlikely to come this year in the International Swimming League, with Peaty intending to take an extended competitive rest ahead of the Commonwealth Games, as well as the European and World Championships in 2022. 

The opportunity of further Olympic gold in the two 4x100m medley relays will come first this week, but it will then be fascinating to see how Peaty’s priorities stack up. Fatherhood and the prioritisation of family time is clearly hugely important. 

So too is what he calls his “legacy” in swimming and trying to push the boundaries of his 100m world record some decades into the future. Then there is an extraordinary competitive spirit which, as the rivals eventually do get nearer and he feels genuine vulnerability, will surely grow even fiercer. 

Just sitting in a press conference next to Kamminga and the young Italian bronze medalist Nicolo Martinenghi appeared to have that effect. “That race was mine to lose,” declared Peaty. “I love to race. I am the biggest competitor you know. I believe that I’ve been given a gift.”  

It might all sound suspiciously like hyperbole but it is not. Immortality does indeed now beckon.