Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Olympics 2012 - A view from the ground

So here I am on my way back from 5 days in London, going back home to Manchester having been in the capital for a weekend at the start of the 30th Olympiad, celebrating my running partners 40th birthday and working for the Olympics main media provider.

Last week I went to the first Team GB men's football match at Old Trafford against Senegal. It was a surreal experience, watching a newly formed team play their first competitive match in living memory. It was an odd atmosphere, and didn't feel like an olympic 'event' or a normal football match. Happening before the official start of the games, it felt, well, not quite right.

The next day I went to work at R & D in the BBC North's HQ before heading down to London for the official start and opening ceremony. Riley and I went to an old fashioned East End pub to watch Danny Boyle's spectacular. Normally I hate (nay loathe) opening ceremonies, but the scale and detail in the show did bowl this cynic over. OK, there were points I didn't like, or I thought dragged, or could have been ditched entirely. But with Frank Cotterill-Boyce writing the piece and Underworld's Rick Smith overseeing the music, I really was proud to be British - something as a more liberal leaning individual I don't often say.

What grabbed me most about these Olympics was what I experienced the following day. Not watching Team GB's valiant yet futile efforts in the cycling road race, or the early rowing rounds (one of Team GB's specialities) but just walking and being around Mile End in East London. I've been a temporary resident in the area over the past 20 years. My parents bought a flat nearby in 1996, I've lived in London in the borough of Hackney for 5 years and I've turned out for and coached at my beloved Victoria Park Harriers & Tower Hamlets AC since 2008. It was great seeing athletes wandering round the local neighbourhood, wearing their countries colours and experiencing the diversity the area has to offer. 

Enrique and I ran to our local track, which is the base for the US Olympic team. Expecting high end security to have cordened it all off, we were priveleged and pleasantly surprised to chat through the enclosure to the Olympic 10,000 metre runner Janet Cherobon-Bawcom about her experience at the opening ceremony the night before, her views on being in London at the Olympics and her hopes for the competition this Friday in the 10,000 metres final at the Olympic stadium. Coached by one of my favourite running inspirations and heroes, the brilliant Jack Daniels, it was great to get up close to a visiting medal hope and find out their view on the whole event.

So what that I missed out on track tickets? I chatted to a bonafide Olympian! who was enjoying the hospitality and being in the Olympic village! She was loving being in our country and fully appreciating the whole event.

Having spent the past 4 years of my life training to become a sport psychologist, having given up hours and days to coach and volunteer individuals of all abilities, being in London for this landmark event set my pulse racing. I truly believe 2012 has captured the public imagination. Everywhere I rode my bike round the city, North, West, East and South, I saw volunteers happily helping the public. In every shop, bar, restaurant and at work, all everyone was talking about was how the games were going. The exceptional performers, the nearly men and women, and the constant volume of noise from the shouting and the cheering for all the athletes (not just the British participants).

This being the modern age, the age of social media, with all of us having a broadcast opinion, should we want to air it, there is a huge amount of cyncism about the event - and rightly so. The amount of empty seats vs the amount of people who want to watch events (but how many turned out for the men and womens' road cycling?) is scandalous. The food and drinks on offer to audiences of poor nutritional quality is A JOKE. The branding police, the queues, the cost of tickets, the politicians pressing flesh and gladhanding, the olympic travel lanes, etc, are all things that wind me up as much as the next man. But seeing people, young and old  get excited, involved, engaged and inspired, as someone trying to make a difference to public health, is great. And I won't let the killjoys mute that. 

Thanks to the digital options to see competition, and the British love of sport, its fantastic that this island is getting the most from this games. We've got a terrible joke of a government. The economy is in as worse a state as I can recall and we've had as crap a summer weather wise in living memory.

BUT! Sport and athletics has the capacity to enthuse, create conversation, argument, joy, tears, and most of all, and what I love about this games, is the appreciation for the efforts those men and women have made and are putting in to make this exhibition of excellence. It is our job as coaches, sport psychologists, scientists and support staff, to be part of the 'inspired generation' in the future as much as the next Rebecca Adlington or Bradley Wiggins.

British athletes are scoring personal bests, posting times that are better than they did 4 years ago in Beijing, and still not achieving gold - Yet. Either because UK participation in the discipline is on the up (see gymnastics) or in part because the competition are going even further in their times and scores. It shows that sport doesn't stand still, but also provides humility and perspective. Rebecca Adlington's reaction to winning bronze in the 400m, or the gymnasts reaction to being demoted to bronze after the Japanese appeal shows that "winning at all costs" is not what sport is all about. Sometimes personal improvement and effort are more important than medals and the glow of the winning prestige (this is something we have to work at with athletes as sport psychologists and coaches). That said, I do truly believe that Team GB is not performing 'terribly' so far, the disciplines at which we excel haven't really begun in earnest. If over the next week British endeavour persists at the same levels as displayed so far (maybe with a few less lapses of error) I do believe the medals will come. At a lower level, I hope that recreational exercisers are inspired to run faster, jump higher and perform better. Take pride in your training and performance and the results will follow.

Tomorrow I will post about the breakthroughs in sporting and media technology, the interaction of large data on performance and how I'm aiming to use findings from this media in my work. This Olympics has done one thing for definite. Inspired me to write more! :-)

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