Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Field of dreams...

In the aftermath of the Olympics, it was inevitable that the coverage would be both retrospective and forward-looking, with the commentators reflecting on some of the great moments of the games, but also considering whether British sport can reproduce, or even improve upon, this record medal tally, in four year’s time.

These games have exceeded expectations, not only in our place on the medal table, but also in terms of the response of the nation.  There has been little trace of the cynicism and disenchantment that clouded the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics.  Instead, there has been a great outpouring of goodwill and enthusiasm for the efforts and the successes of the British team.

As the Olympics drew to a close, Matthew Pinsent and Steve Cram turned their minds to the future, with a short BBC1 documentary about the issue of funding in British sport.  Liz Nichol, Chief Executive of UK Sport spoke about the need to attract young athletes into a wide range of sports, and about the way forward for those sports which have underperformed at these games.  She also commented about the “no compromise approach” that is needed, adding that “it is not funding for everyone – it is funding for the best.”

Eighteen years ago I sat in a rowing boat for the first time.  I was coxing the Edinburgh University novice women’s eight which included another brand new rower.  Her name was Katherine Grainger.

Two weeks ago I sat in the stands at Dorney Lake and watched her win an Olympic gold medal.  Two days earlier I sat in the same place and saw Phelan Hill, a fellow member of London Rowing Club, take the bronze in the men’s eights.

The rowing world is a small one and there were no doubt many others in that noisy, buoyant crowd who were in the same position, realising, as I was realising, that there is something very bitter-sweet about watching others do what you once dared to dream of doing.

Because if we are honest, really deep-down, no-holds-barred honest, there are probably very few of us who have not, at some time, imagined ourselves crossing that greatest of finish lines, perhaps lengths in the lead with the commentators sanguine.

Of course there was only ever one real contender in this race….

Perhaps by a foot after a late, unforeseen charge.

It’s gone right to the line.  Did they get it?  Did they….it’s Great Britain for the gold!

For some of those watching in the stands, those dreams were never more than a pleasant distraction, something to toy with while lying in the bath, eyes closed, mind drifting.  I’ve been known to play the Chariots of Fire theme while running, and imagine myself miraculously transformed into a world-beating endurance runner, out-pacing the Ethiopians in the final 100m of the London Marathon, to the incredulous, ecstatic cheers of a home crowd.

I am reasonably sure that this is not going to happen.

But for others in that crowd, those dreams were a little more substantial.  For those who had competed at the top end of the domestic circuit, or who had made it to the fringes of the national teams, the dreams had slipped just a little further along the line between “fantasy” and “hope”.  Not quite as solid as hope, and yet no longer as flimsy as a fantasy.

They played Chariots of Fire at the medal ceremony.  This was apt, since I am fairly sure that some of that crowd were mentally striking the “Harold Abrahams watches Eric Liddle winning” pose.  You know the one, the transfixed gaze, silent awe with just a hint of envy, the noise of the crowd fading away behind.  As Phelan raced, I was sitting in a row of several other members of London Rowing Club, all of us doing the Harold Abrahams.  Of course Abrahams had his gold medal by the time he watched Liddle win his, whereas if you had picked the lot of us up, turned us upside down and subjected us to a vigorous shaking, you would have wound up with a couple of national championships silvers, a handful of Home International medals, a slightly random Commonwealth Regatta mixed 8s trophy and an awful lot of battered and bent domestic sprint race tankards.

In short, a little pile of not-quite-fulfilled dreams.

It is bitter-sweet to see someone else fulfil those dreams, no matter how far-fetched they were.  That feeling is even more acute when it is someone you know.  There is that unshakeable sense of “so near and yet so far”, the sense that you must have just put a foot wrong, somewhere, all those years ago.

Or perhaps it is something else.  Perhaps it is simply that when you have known someone who goes on to achieve greatness, it is difficult to lose yourself convincingly in the fantasy that you could have been a contender.  You are confronted, unavoidably, with the reasons why it is them and not you. 

There are so many qualities that make an Olympic champion.  You might not have recognised them at the time.  It would be disingenuous to claim that those of us who spent our first year of rowing in a boat with Katherine Grainger had any inkling that she had taken the first step on the road to London 2012.  I do not think that any of us had the perspective needed to make that assessment.  But she had something undeniably special, even if only with the benefit of good, old-fashioned hindsight.

When you watch your remote and distant idols, your dreams are safe.  When you can flesh out those two-dimensional media images with your memories of the real, flesh and blood people who you once trained and competed alongside, you have to face the truth.

But you know what?  That truth isn’t so bad. 

Sitting there, at Dorney, it really hit me for the first time just how important all of us nearlys are to the sport, to any sport.

Every Olympic champion trod a long path to that medal podium, and they did not walk it alone.  They trained with dozens of sportsmen and women who fell by the wayside, who waved them onwards and wished them well.  They competed against hundreds of others who would stay with them for a little while before slipping behind.

Olympic champions are not created in a vacuum.  They do not spring, fully-formed, from the brows of their sport’s governing bodies.  There is a cast of thousands lining the road to gold, a cast of nearlys and not-quites and never-could-have-beens. 

The organisers of the 2012 Olympics hope to “inspire a generation”.  I have no doubt that they will succeed.  But it is not just about inspiring the next generation of medallists.  It is about inspiring the hopeless dreamers, the steady sloggers, the nearlys and the not-too-bads who will be the stepping stones for our future champions on their road to a podium that has yet to be built.

You can’t fund “the best” without funding the second-bests and the third-bests and the absolute-worsts.  I hope that the legacy of these games is more funding for the entry-level of sport.  For local clubs and schools as well as national talent-identification programmes.

For me, the London games brought it home that you can dream of an Olympic finish line, or a record-breaking marathon, or a win at Henley regatta, but not regret a single minute of the time spent not getting there, because someone else did get there.

Besides, I have plans.  

Two sons + Friends with two sons = Coxless 4.

Olympics 2032 here we come.  I wonder if there is any chance of it being held in the Maldives…..

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