Olympic hopefuls learn how to take the media hurdles in race for fame

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The Independent Online

You're a young British athlete and you're a contender for a medal at the Olympic Games. Instead of being left alone to train and then going home to your fiancée, however, you're being pursued by the media, who are only interested inone thing. Is it true that you have been caught in flagrante with an American beach volleyball star?

That was the scenario faced yesterday by Dean Macey, the 22-year-old decathlete who won a silver medal at last year's World Championships, and who goes to Sydney in September carrying the weight of a nation's expectations on his amply proportioned shoulders.

Macey, to his credit, shrugged off the questions about his alleged dalliance and said only that he was on his way to meet his fiancée. "Well done," said one of Macey's advisers as he eluded the last of the press pack, who harangued him until he reached the safety of a nearby building. "You didn't give anything away."

Which was, ultimately, the point. There never was an American beach volleyball star, and the scenario had been set up to test the athlete's resilience to the harsh glare of the media spotlight. Welcome to the life of a 21st century sportsman.

Scenes such as yesterday's are becoming more common for rising sports stars, who are increasingly turning to specialists for advice on how to handle publicity, good and bad. "The idea is to make the athletes comfortable and confident in front of the media, and avoid situations which can end up with their image and reputation being damaged," said Mark Gonnella of Media First, the consultancy company which arranged yesterday's training day. "Over time, it's amazing to see how their confidence grows, and I think that links to success on the track. With some of them, when we started it was like pulling teeth, but now they're telling stories, opening up and giving a more assured account of themselves."

Media First has been training 100 young sportsmen and women since 1996 as part of a sponsorship deal with a credit-card company, which also provides grants of £2,500 a year to each athlete, plus kit. Real situations will be the acid test of whether the media training has worked, but the signs yesterday - one of the final training sessions before the Olympics - were encouraging.

Aside from the door-stepping scenario, Macey and three others - Arvind Parmar, the 21-year-old tennis player; Dwain Chambers, the 22-year-old sprinter who will be looking for a 100-metres medal in Sydney; and Louis Attrill, 25, a rower also on course for Olympic success - were put through interview drills for television, radio and newspapers.

They were also warned about the troubles they may face in Sydney and the lengths the Fourth Estate will go to to get copy. "Journalists are going to do the most extreme things," one trainer told the four athletes. "They'll go to your families and ask all about you, they'll infiltrate your training camp, they'll pay money to get information." The trainer added that anything to do with drugs, romance or terrorism could be turned into stories. "The journalists will be looking for you to say anything negative about the security or the conditions," the quartet were told. "You need to think about what you're going to say beforehand. It only takes one quote to make a story."

The quartet were also schooled in name-dropping, especially during interviews about their upbringing. "Is there anything you missed?" one trainer asked Attrill after one session. "Damn," the rower said, going on to admit that he had not made a reference to his credit card. "Perhaps you could drop it in casually somewhere, about who helped with your training," he was advised.

For some of the athletes, the attention they receive is hard to comprehend. Describing the unwanted media invasion that he and his fiancée experienced after last year's silver medal, Macey said: "I couldn't understand it, there were people banging on our doors, phoning, and leaving messages behind windscreen wipers. In the end I had to tell the photographers to leave us alone. I couldn't understand it, because we are hardly David Beckham and Posh Spice."

If he wins gold in Sydney and does have a dalliance with a beach volleyball star, he might find out that he's not far off.