The Olympics Issue:
No one said it would be easy: when hacks get athletic
We expected bruised egos when we challenged five Independent on Sunday writers to try their hands at an Olympic sport. But could our have-a-go heroes really take on Britain's top athletes at their own games?
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at King's College, London, and at Queen Mary University of London. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Sunday 08 July 2012
Archery by John Rentoul
It is the stillness that is most surprising. The archery of the imagination is always moving. In my case, Orlando Bloom shooting two arrows at a time into the neck of an oliphaunt on which he was riding until it collapsed under him and he slid down its trunk. Or Margaret Wise Brown's Little Indian: "Ping! Arrows whizzed from their bows as silently, like a big shadow flitting from tree to tree, the big Indian chased the woodcutters away."
Real archery is not like that. Modern archers stand very, very still, and take their time. In the Olympics, they get 40 seconds. Not like at Agincourt, where the English longbowmen could briefly achieve a firing rate of one every five seconds. The technology of warfare has moved on, too, even if actual warfare is now drones and high explosive. The modern bow is all carbon fibre and aluminium. I am being allowed to try the latest model, which will be used at the Olympics, at Lord's cricket ground, k which will be the archery stadium. When my coach, Andrea Gales, a British international, takes it out of the bag and starts to assemble it, it is like that moment when Harry Potter gets his first Firebolt.
It has a sight, through which you are supposed to line up the target, which does away with the romantic idea that archery is all about instinct and eye. No, it is about lining up the target correctly, being strong enough to pull back and keeping still. The traditionalists who shoot longbows are allowed only a rubber band on the bow as a mark for their eyeline, says Andrea. They didn't have rubber bands in 1415, I reply, but I get the idea.
Because keeping still is so important, modern bows have attachments that make them look like those robots in Star Wars Episode 1, which roll into position and then unfold, with bits of metalwork sticking out in all directions. Olympic archers shoot with weights on the end of aluminium poles attached to the bow. One long one sticking out forwards, and two shorter ones like backward-sloping wings at the sides. They help to prevent the bow from twisting or recoiling as the arrow is released.
Even with all that, and after I have been told to point the thing the other way, into the stands and not at the groundsmen, I can't hold it steady and pull the string back to full stretch. For real shooting, Andrea gives me a practice bow, made out of actual wood. No weights on poles, but it has a sight. And we move the target on its trolley from 70m away (the Olympic distance) to, er, 10m. This thing is only about half as powerful as an Olympic bow, but the power of the arrow is still scary when I let go. There is no "ping", but the thunk of the arrow into the polystyrene foam target is as good as any buckle-swashing sound effect. I hit the target most of the time, and I think I score one 10: the gold circle around the bullseye. The bullseye itself is used only as a tie-breaker, apparently. I think they need to revise their scoring system. At the highest level, all that matters, says Andrea, is how many points you drop from perfect 10s.
So then comes the Robin Hood moment, when Andrea shows how it is done. She shoots only three arrows, and all three hit the bullseye. She doesn't do that thing where one arrow splits an earlier one – I don't think aluminium and carbon fibre arrows would split – but two of them are touching. But what is suddenly noticeable is how completely still she was when she was shooting. As if she were not even breathing.
For more on how to get involved: archerygb.org
Handball by Emily Dugan
An alarming thud sounds out around the sports hall as yet another girl is given a two-handed shove and catapulted backwards on to a hardwood floor. It is the sort of manoeuvre that in football would see the defender red-carded and his opponent carried off whimpering on a stretcher. But the referee and the fallen girl haven't even blinked and, within seconds, the play has moved on to the other end of the pitch.
This is handball, where shoving, far from being a foul, seems encouraged. I have arrived early to my training session with the GB women's team to watch their "friendly" against Hungary. But there is nothing friendly happening here. Every five minutes or so another player limps off.
In a cross between basketball and rugby, players shoot by hurling the ball into the opponents' goal, usually via a spectacular leap. Unlike rugby, however, there is no soft turf to land on. "You do get a lot of injuries," admits Paul Goodwin, chief executive at British Handball. "That's a classic one," he adds, pointing to a girl clutching ice to her knee.
GB player Louise Jukes was poached from hockey, where she had already learnt how to be tough. But handball is even more physical. "We're always covered in bruises and scratches, because girls have nails," she says, rolling up her sleeves to reveal enormous fresh bruises on her biceps.
As I pull my trainers on with declining enthusiasm and make my way on to the court, a final warning from the tough Scottish captain, Lynn McCafferty, is no longer necessary: "Be ready to get physical," she says, grinning menacingly.
The first drill sounds simple enough: throw the ball back and forth with a partner standing a few yards away. But I manage to make a meal of even this. The ball is caked in sticky resin designed to make it easier to catch, so after I swish my arm forward in what I think will be a dramatic throw, I look down and realise it is still stuck to my hand.
The next drills get more technical, as we attempt shooting and blocking. Despite the balls being covered in glue, I seem to drop almost every catch, and I'm still confused about what I'm supposed to be doing with my feet.
Rather too quickly for my liking the team decide to let the amateurs attempt a game. A few minutes in and I have already had to sprint the length of the pitch 10 times over. At this point the British team would not have broken a sweat, but I'm tomato-red and my lungs are heaving for air.
I am relieved as the final whistle blows, but realise I still haven't experienced the hardest part of the game: the other amateurs were too polite to tackle properly. So three of the squad, Britt Goodwin, Zoe Van Der Weel and Jukes, line up, promising to go easy on me while I try to force my way between them. Steeling myself, I charge forward, only to bounce off their hands and tumble to the floor. It's like running into a brick wall. If this was them "going easy", I'm intrigued to see what they do to their opponents.
For more on how to get involved: britishhandball.com
Fencing by Matthew Bell
According to Wikipedia, Nick Bell is a British fencer who competed at the Olympics in Montreal in 1976 and Los Angeles in 1984. There are clips of his fights on YouTube, and messageboards dedicated to discussing his idiosyncratic technique. As it happens, he is also my father.
I had never Googled him before, though I suppose I always knew he was a minor sporting celebrity. Once, when I mentioned his name to a stranger, they shot back, "Not the Nick Bell?" Then there was the time he was the answer to a Times crossword clue. And every couple of years, he pops up on telly, fencing behind Madonna in a James Bond film.
Chunks of my childhood were spent in sweaty gyms in Cardiff and Birmingham, as he lunged and shouted his way to victory or, occasionally, not (this would mean slightly more shouting). At one time, there was a plan to name me after Vladimir Smirnov, the great Russian fencer who was killed by a foil through the eye at the 1982 World Championships in Rome days before I was born (the plan, for whatever reason, changed).
Despite all that, or probably because of it, I had never picked up a foil until now. So here I am, head-to-toe in whites, in the bowels of the Lansdowne Club, off Berkeley Square in central London, having a lesson with the British men's foil coach, Ziemek Wojciechowski.
The first thing I learn is that fencing is a noble sport. I had always associated it with sweat. In fact, it's all about grace and style. Just standing in my white plastron (jacket) and breeches, I feel like an 18th-century dandy, poised to have it out with a love rival at dawn. At next month's games, the fencers will perform a salute with their blades at the start and finish of every fight.
The next thing you quickly find out is how physically demanding fencing is. It may have a reputation for being effete, a sport played indoors by spindly public-school geeks. My dad always says he took it up to get out of playing rugby. But just standing en guarde, the elegant position in which you prepare to fight, is tough on the knees – bouncing up and down, you dart forwards and back, in a sprightly, crab-like, dance. You do need muscle, just not too much. As Wojciechowski explains, agility is key, and too much bulk will slow you down.
Fencing is also all about strategy; as in chess, you plan several moves ahead. There are subtle codes, signals and set moves, and it's as much about identifying weakness in your opponent as it is about honing your own skills. Elegant on appearance, it is vicious on execution, as the bruises in the changing-room later prove.
Though fencing started in Spain, it was honed by the French, who gave it terms such as "position sixte". That's the classic starting position, sword out in front, other arm curved up behind you. Wojciechowski patiently teaches me how to parry, riposte and lunge – a satisfying move, which would prove fatal if we were using actual swords.
The strange thing is how natural it all feels. After years of not paying attention, those crab-like movements come easily. But I now know that fencing is a skilful, dashing, and demanding sport, which you can play in any weather, with only one other person. And in no time at all, you work up an appetite and a burning thirst. Cold beer has never tasted so good. And did I fence my father? No, but maybe one day. For now, I'll stick to watching him on YouTube.
British Fencing is supported by specialist insurer Beazley and UK Sport. For more, see beazleybritishfencing.com
Sailing by Mike Higgins
We are an island nation, defined by our maritime exploits. Drake. Nelson. Flintoff. But apart from our triple Olympic gold-medallist Ben Ainslie, how many of you can name another Team GB sailor? Hmm, thought so. As spectator sports go, competitive sailing is up there with small-bore rifle shooting. Imagine the 5,000m running race conducted on a barely distinguishable course, the length and shape of which largely depends on the weather. Over at least 10 heats. About half a mile away. Bring it on!
You may have guessed by now that I'm what the sailing community call a "dry bob". But on the day that I manage to sail with some of our Olympic hopefuls for London 2012, at a press day for Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week, the fringe benefits of the sport hove into view: it is sunny, we are lunching at the Royal Yacht Squadron club in Cowes and the chablis is very noble. Then we get in the dinghies...
The idea is a three-heat race between several dinghies, an Olympic sailor skippering a dinghy each, with a couple of nervous journalists trying not to fall overboard. Team GB's male and female pairings for the 470 class have turned up to take the helms: Saskia Clark and Hannah Mills, Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell, all so tanned and young they'd make a Boden catalogue model look like a hungover junkie.
My skipper is Bithell, a tall, friendly 25-year-old from Rochdale. In the Olympics, he will partner Patience on the dinky 14ft-long 470 yachts. We board a not-dissimilar Laser and head out into the Solent as Bithell explains how he and Patience operate: as the big lad, he throws his weight from side to side to counterbalance the effect of the breeze, and judges the race tactically, while the smaller Patience takes the helm and looks after the finer, more technical aspects. You know, ropes and sails and stuff.
As we race a single lap around a short triangular course, there is nothing particularly athletic about what we do – point tiller, hang over side, avoid boom when tacking and gibing. Rather, Bithell gives us a glimpse of the astounding sea-dog nous that has brought him and Patience a World Championship 470 class silver medal: feathering the sails with minute adjustments and, like a meerkat in a lifejacket, constantly straining to see all around us, checking the currents, wind strength and direction and position of our opponents. The other hack and I alternate duties on the tiller and the gib sheet (that's the rope controlling the sail at the front) and marvel at the boundless competitive instinct of elite athletes – this may be a press fun day, but make no mistake, Bithell wants to win: "C'mon, let's roll 'em over!" he exhorts us, baiting his team-mates via walkie-talkie.
We do roll 'em over, finishing first once, and then, well, let's say we narrowly fail to medal. Not a set of results Bithell will be keen to repeat in a few weeks' time off Weymouth.
Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week runs from 11 to 18 August, immediately following the London 2012 Olympic Games (aamcowesweek.co.uk)
Water polo by Robert Epstein
"I've hurt my shoulder in the past, but it's just knocks," a 6ft 9in walking mountain leans down to tell me. OK, bad shoulders – who doesn't get those? "You get a kick to the face every now and then." Hmm. "Sometimes you get kicked straight in the nads." Kicked in the wha... "Some of the lads have had broken noses." Right, I didn't sign up for this. "Sometimes it's an accident." Well, that's a relief. Hang on, sometimes? "But sometimes you do get a punch. In a sense it's what I love about the game – the physicality."
Well, why wouldn't you?
The mountain is 21-year-old Joe O'Regan, and he, like most of the GB men's water-polo squad, set to compete in its first Olympics since 1956, started playing the game before he was 10, learning basics such as how to tread water. I thought I'd learnt this skill when I was four; I was wrong.
Treading water is the basis of the game, as it is against the rules ever to touch the base of the pool with your feet. And you really need to keep your arms out of the water, to block, catch, throw, or, in my case – as I join the squad at Manchester Aquatics Centre for a quick how-to session – to flail. So, treading water is all about a (very wide) breaststroke-style kick with the legs, one at a time, as if you're an egg-beater. It is surprisingly difficult, and I find myself sinking. The others do not. Even when I press my full body weight down on one of their shoulders, he doesn't move a centimetre.
That's staying upright, then. Easy. Ahem. On to passing. As the others rotate like javelin-throwers and pitch inch-perfect Howitzers to each other, I manage only to gently lob the ball in the general direction of my Adonis-like team-mates. As for catching, it's best to allow the ball to settle into the hand then arc the arm back all the way to the water along the ball's projected parabola. Got that? Sure you did. And you're not trying to learn how to do it while egg-beating.
Shooting is no easier than passing and I continue with my lobbing strategy, only to crick my neck as I attempt to swivel and shoot in one "smooth" motion; and later pull a calf muscle as I launch myself a heroic 30cm out of the water. And no one's even trying to block me. (From what I see, the rest of the lads heave themselves about a metre out of the water – and then stay there for five seconds or so while they decide where to shoot, through a combination of outrageously strong stomach muscles, extraordinary egg-beating and, I'm fairly certain, a deal with the Devil.)
I am then asked if I'd like a go in goal to see what it's like trying to save 100km/h shots. Impossible, I'd say. I barely even see the balls as they whizz past into the net.
Water polo has been part of the Olympics since 1900, but as captain Craig Figes explains to me, we are a fairly young nation in water-polo terms. According to the team's Romanian head coach, Cristian Lordache, however, we have been making strong headway in his four years in charge, and he expects us to be competing with the big boys – Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Italy and Hungary (winners of the past three Games) – within a few years.
The sport is great fun – like a cross between basketball (especially in attack, when the six outfield players move the ball around a perimeter arc until they find a gap to shoot), rugby (rarely does a moment go by when someone doesn't grab your trunks and try to drown you), and football (though, ironically, with less diving). It is exceptionally tough on the shoulders, knees and lungs. But it's a hell of a way to get fit. And you never know, you might get a punch in the face. Which, if you're anything like Joe, will sort you right out.
For more on how to get involved: britishswimming.org
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