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Why Olympians shine under the spotlight

July 24,2016 17:13

If they find it an ordeal, they hide it well; most are delighted to find themselves under the spotlight when they're more used to going about their business without such welcome distractions as public interest or occasional acclaim. We are not talking ...


When you’re more used to the business of soliciting snatched pre- or post-match banalities from young multimillionaire footballers who often display a commendable lack of interest in speaking to you, the job of getting Olympians to shut up can make for a pleasant and heartwarming change. As Team GB prepare to compete in their quadrennial jamboree, almost all of them will at some point be obliged to convene in assorted locations and face a barrage of questions from the press. If they find it an ordeal, they hide it well; most are delighted to find themselves under the spotlight when they’re more used to going about their business without such welcome distractions as public interest or occasional acclaim.
We are not talking about Mo or Jess or Greg here. Or Froomey, Brad and Cav. Used to life in the public eye due to their regular success, they are all interesting talkers and invariably attend to their duties with the ease and expertise that come from years of experience facing interrogatory projectiles. However, it is their considerably lesser-spotted and less-successful team-mates who often provide the most revealing insight into just how tough the business of being the best you can be, can be. Many of these athletes will travel to Rio safe in the knowledge they have as much chance of winning medals as the johnny-come-lately journalists finally taking an interest in them.
In the buildup to London 2012, such was the number of thinly veiled come-and-meet-us pleas from assorted national sporting bodies that bombarded the Guardian sports desk, it was decided to accept as many as possible and make a series of videos that would be posted on our website. Accompanied by a cameraman whose patience would be tested beyond the limits of human endurance, muggins here would be sent along to various training centres to meet assorted British Olympians, get to know a little bit about them and learn more about their particular disciplines.
As someone born with a face for radio and for whom that patronising old saw about the taking part in sport being more important than winning may well have been coined, it was not a task I tackled with anything approaching relish. But by the time I’d finished, I ranked many of these encounters among my personal and career highlights.
I received a lesson on the heavy bag from Luke Campbell, the quiet young boxer from Hull who appeared genuinely impressed with my left hand until I pointed out I was actually left-handed, prompting him to politely refrain from passing comment on the weakness of my right. We discussed his lack of a pugilistic nickname and I proposed he take inspiration from Cool Hand Luke, the Paul Newman movie with which he was unfamiliar. Since winning gold at the ExCel Centre, Campbell has enjoyed considerable success in the professional ranks where it has not gone unnoticed that he trades his punches under the sobriquet “Cool Hand”. Well, it hasn’t gone unnoticed by me.
I played table-tennis with Joanna Drinkhall (then Parker), the British women’s No1 and won a point, which only made her angry. At some point during our subsequent chat I innocently asked if she wished she was really good at the more lucrative sport of “proper tennis”, which made her more angry. It took a while for my toes to uncurl. Despite managing not to irritate the Team GB women’s hockey team, they still dressed me up to look like a cross between the Michelin man and Jason from Friday The 13th and took potshots at me. Though cavorting almost naked in a Manchester swimming pool with their fit, athletic and perfectly toned counterparts from the water polo team might sound like fun, it was anything but. Theirs is a brutal sport and I crawled from the water exhausted, bruised, coughing up chlorinated water and blessed with a new appreciation for a sport I had considered to be “a bit girly”.
Far less painful was a jaunt around the Bay of Cadiz with the ladies of Team GB match-racing, whose boat went at a hell of a lick despite my presence taking us a good 15 stone over the legally permitted crew weight for competition. I was schooled in taekwondo by Sarah Stevenson and Lutalo Muhammad, while the boys and girls in one discipline confirmed that, yes, everything we’re told about the bedroom shenanigans of thousands of like-minded young athletes eager to blow off post-competition steam in the Olympic village is true.
I rowed the Olympic course with Zac Purchase, but didn’t get to ride the Olympic mountain bike track wearing a GoPro camera, because a superior at work reluctantly decided the Guardian had “a duty of care” to prevent such an inevitable death dash.
Notwithstanding their enviable athleticism and glowing good health, these athletes who so generously gave of their time displayed a resilience and quiet determination to succeed. Some were hell-bent on winning, others on taking part, but all were fiercely competitive and determined to be the best they could be. The best they could be in the ring, on the mat, in the water, at the table, on the pitch or in bed with some Estonian hammer thrower who’d taken their fancy when their eyes met across a bustling Olympic Village canteen.

Olympics,Sport,Team GB,Hockey,Boxing,Sailing,Athletics

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