Britain's most unsung Olympic team will be flying out of the country today to compete with the best of the world. The team includes a car mechanic, a florist, a cabinet-maker, a chef, a waitress and a landscape gardener.
There is no knowing whether they will come back laden with medals or empty-handed. But it is a racing certainty that, if their efforts are crowned with success, they will not be rewarded with fanfares or parades on the scale of cricket's 2005 Ashes' heroes or 2003's Rugby World Cup winners. Nor are any gold medal winners likely to become household names in the same way as Kelly Holmes or Steve Redgrave.
Welcome to the UK's 2007 World Skills Olympics team, who will be competing for gold in events as varied as bricklaying, carpentry, cabinet-making, beauty therapy and restaurant service. But they are setting out with no less passionate a will to succeed, and, as with any other modern glory-seeking team, each of the 22 competitors will be accompanied by their own training managers and will adhere to rigorous fitness schedules to prepare them.
They fly to Japan from Heathrow with an endorsement from the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who hosted a reception for the team while he was still at the Treasury – ringing in their ears.
Success at the games – where 48 nations will be competing against each other in more than 40 different categories – is seen by ministers as an essential step in helping the UK to develop a world-class workforce and promote a desire among youngsters to opt to train as apprentices in a variety of industries. David Lammy, minister for Skills at the Department of Innovation, Universitiesand Skills, who saw them off at a reception last night, said: "The competition will not only benefit their own personal development but raise awareness of the importance of skills across the UK and internationally."
No one in the team has more to live up to than Simon Noble, who will be representing his country in the autobody repair (car repairs to you and me) section. His predecessor in this event, Andrew Blair, was a gold medal winner in the 2005 games.
"I am a fanatic when it comes to cars," said Noble. "I enjoy both driving them and working on them. Andrew demonstrated that the UK's pedigree in autobody repair is of world-class standard. I will be using him as an inspiration to achieve a similar success at WorldSkills 2007."
The language of the Skills Olympics is much the same as that of major sporting events. Just substitute the word "rowing", say, for "hairdressing" in this interview with Donna Leach about her involvement in the hairdressing competition, and her words take on a familiar ring.
"I am very privileged to represent the UK in hairdressing," she said. "I am excited about experiencing a different culture and discovering other countries' outlooks on cutting hair, but most importantly I am looking forward to performing at the best of my ability." Or take the following statement from Christopher Blake, our candidate for gold in the painting and decorating section: "I am taking regular exercise and eating healthily. I am also getting myself mentally prepared to ensure that I am in the right frame of mind. I know from my experience of skills competitions it is very easy to lose concentration due to anxiety."
To the 22 competitors this is just as important as the Olympic Games; and, as with the Olympics, a future career can hinge on a performance. John Lambert's gold medal as a cabinet-maker may have only been in the UK heats but it has helped secure him his present job with Silver Lining, where he is helping design furniture for a £1.1m super-yacht.
At a time when Mr Brown is desperate to persuade more young people to stay in full-time education or training after the age of 16 to learn a skill (he wants to see a 60 per cent increase in apprenticeships), a good performance in this year's games would be key to boosting the image of the sector.
Failing that, though, the Prime Minister can always look forward to the 2011 WorldSkills Olympics. The UK has already won the competition for the right to stage them, a year ahead of some other Olympic event over here that you might well have heard about.
If this prospect fails to excite, it is worth pointing out that, on the evidence of past Skills Olympics, events of this nature can be as enthralling as any other competitive demonstration of physical dexterity. Competitors have to display their expertise individually in front of judges, in the style of Olympic gymnastic hopefuls. Some succeed in giving of their very best; others seize up under the pressure. And for everyone there is the satisfaction, irrespective of medals, of seeing skills practised at the very highest level.
Sad news for the Poles, though, and for their many admirers. Their country, considered by many to have an outstanding chance of a gold in the plumbing event, is not submitting a team this year.
Advice to them from UK Skills is unequivocal. If you have emigrated to the UK, keep training, so that you can be part of our team for the next WorldSkills Olympics in 2009.
Britain's skills team
The 22 competitors the UK will be sending to Japan are:
Simon Noble, autobody repair
Dan Glover, automobile technology
Jonathan Lloyd, car painting
Mike Westlake, mechanical engineering
Phil Jackson, milling
Stuart Greer, welding
Andrew Critchlow, IT PC and network support
Harry Smith, graphic design
Graham Squire, cooking
Will Torrent, confectionery/pastry chef
Julie Doig, restaurant service
Jonathan Bourne, bricklaying
George Plant, stonemasonry
Chris Blake, painting and decorating
Gary Tuddenham, cabinet-making
Ben Insergent, joinery
Matthew Lander, refrigeration
Keith Chapman and Timothy Lancaster, landscape gardening
Hair and beauty
Donna Leach, hairdressing
Jade Kidd, beauty therapy
Natalie Stanyer, floristryReuse content