The British expedition to Sochi departs next week with its contingent of 50 skiers, skaters, sliders and curlers matched one-for-one by support staff.
A platoon of officials, coaches, physios, technicians, medicos and sports scientists will accompany a squad hopeful of returning from Russia with much more than love-all. The achievable target is three to seven medals, GB’s biggest Winter Olympics haul since 1936. Yet there is no mention of a psychologist; odd that, as most sports units seem to view a shrink as a necessity these days. Team leader Mike Hay tells us: “We feel most of the sports will have completed this sort of preparation before they leave.” Perhaps the British Olympic Association had in mind the experience of the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, when GB’s four-man bob were sensationally in pole position overnight. Yet officials declined all requests for interviews as the team psychologist insisted they were locked “in the zone” with him to mentally attune for the next day’s final run. They finished sixth. It was then that I lost faith in sports psychology.
Sporting giants of the past, from Jesse Owens to Muhammad Ali via Pele and Jack Nicklaus, would have scoffed at the idea of a brain-washing session with a shrink to help improve their performance. I fear that sport has become too reliant on mind games which don’t always work (ask the all-psyched-up England cricket team) and the over-appliance of science. However, Liz Nichol, the chief executive of UK Sport, gently chides me for being such a dinosaur. “Elite sport these days is an arms race,” she says. “It is not like the old days.” Which is why Team GB’s £14 million of Lottery funding means they can depart armed to the teeth and with the aspiration of maintaining the Olympic and Paralympic momentum of 2012. Hopes are reassuringly high, with Lizzy Yarnold and world champion Shelley Rudman ranked one and three in the women’s skeleton, while speed skater Elise Christie, the men’s and women’s curlers, snowboarders James Woods and Jenny Jones, and cross-country skier Andrew Musgrave are all genuine podium contenders. Not bad for a non-Alpine nation. Just hope it’s not all in the mind.
Exit Don Jose
“Well, he was certainly a colourful character,” says Frank Warren of Jose Sulaiman, the long-time czar of the World Boxing Council (WBC) who died last week aged 82. Respected, feared and despised in equal measure, the Mexican-born Lebanese was not a man to mess with. He is likely to be succeeded by his son Mauricio at the WBC, who liked to call him “the father of boxing”. More like the Godfather. But at least he introduced safety measures which have helped reduce fatalities and serious injury, and for that the sport should be thankful.