When your Olympic dream dies, you face the nightmare alone
Dame Kelly Holmes criticises the lack of support for the hopefuls who face last-minute rejection
Emily Dugan is social affairs correspondent for The Independent, i and Independent on Sunday. She was previously a news reporter for The Independent on Sunday. Her investigations into human trafficking have twice been awarded Best Investigative Article at the Anti-Slavery Day Media Awards and her human rights journalism was shortlisted for the Gaby Rado Memorial prize at the 2012 Amnesty Media Awards.
Sunday 10 June 2012
An Olympic team announcement is not always a moment for celebration, as Aaron Cook is discovering. The tae kwon do No 1 found out on Friday that the British Olympic Association has upheld a decision to leave him out of the national team, and he is now considering legal action. Exclusion from Team GB is devastating for the men and women who have dedicated their lives to their sport, yet, as their career falls off a cliff, they are simply left to cope.
A final flurry of Olympic selection begins on Wednesday when the British cycling team is announced, as the last sports choose their athletes for the Games. Behind each of these announcements are the dashed hopes of competitors, discovering that after years of sacrifice they will be spending the first two weeks of August watching the Games from their sofas.
The double Olympic champion Dame Kelly Holmes believes athletes do not receive enough help once they become surplus to requirements. "Many sports performers just don't know what to do next and there hasn't been a lot of support for them, as most of the funding is focused on helping the current athletes," she said.
For full-time athletes, the Games are the reward for up to a decade or more of self-sacrifice. Careers, social life, financial security and lie-ins are all set aside for the ultimate goal. So what happens if it turns out that it has all been in vain?
Whether it is an untimely injury, a poor performance at the crucial moment, or the crushing realisation that you're simply never going to be good enough, years of work can be rendered pointless in an instant.
"For those who don't make the podium or even selection for a team place it can be utterly devastating, especially if that means the end of your competitive career", Dame Kelly said. "Many people I have spoken to get quite depressed and disillusioned, as they feel have lost their sense of direction, focus and their identity."
It only took a couple of lacklustre lengths of the pool in Sheffield to stop the breaststroke swimmer Adam Whitehead going to Athens in 2004. Two years earlier he had won at the Commonwealth Games, but his qualifying race time put him in third place and shut down his Olympic dream. "I always believed that I had an Olympic medal in me, but I knew then it wasn't going to happen. I was crying my eyes out into my goggles, swimming up and down in the warm-down pool because it was all over.
"I had to take anti-depressants. The next two years I had glandular fever and got chronic fatigue. It was a mixture of being very down about that performance and me pushing my body too hard and it breaking down, physically and mentally. Once I retired, I didn't get any support from the Swimming Association and, because I'd been off funding, there was no careers advice. There was no, 'This is what you could do now', not even a thank you. It was just, 'Off you go'."
Mr Whitehead now works with young people for the DKH Legacy Trust, a charity set up by Dame Kelly to create a support network for retiring athletes and help them use their skills to inspire teenagers who are not in employment or training. His life has moved on now, but for competitors such as Commonwealth judo champion Tom Davis, the rejection is still very fresh.
The judo team will not be officially announced for another week but the 29-year-old already knows he has only made the reserve spot. "It was massively disappointing to miss out on a life-long ambition," he said. After a knee operation in 2008 he was cut off from the funded programme, which meant that there were no sport psychologists or counsellors on hand to pick up the pieces. "There have been times where I've felt messed over, but you look to yourself as well."
A spokeswoman for UK Sport acknowledged that this is a tricky time for some. "Olympic selection, particularly for a home Games, is always a tough time for those who miss out. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of each sport's national governing body in which we invest to support athletes on their programme through this difficult time."
Mike Peart, 35, found out six weeks ago that he had not made it on to Britain's archery team for the second Games in a row after training full-time with the squad since 2005. "I'm a mechanical engineer but I gave it up for archery. Everything I decided was not what's best for my career but what's best for sport. You put a hell of a lot into this. It's always there. Christmas Day you are popping out to the garage to train. You are always missing family occasions, social occasions. For the past 20 years, archery always came first.
"I can't comprehend leaving the archery world. I'm going to decide at the end of the year if I'll carry on as an athlete."
Amanda Coulson pioneered women's boxing in Britain and always dreamed of stepping into an Olympic ring. When it was recognised as an Olympic sport in 2009, she was in pole position to represent her country as a lightweight. But last month the 29-year-old was beaten to the place by her rival Natasha Jonas, 27. "It felt like my whole life had crashed in front of me. I never really thought that I wouldn't be going to the Olympics. It was a case of 'what on earth do I do now?'"
She is refocusing her efforts on the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and August will be a month to forget. "I'm going to have to sit and watch it instead. I didn't want to buy tickets because I believed that I was going to be there."
Franki Jus-Burke, 25, a rower, missed out on qualifying for the 2008 and 2012 Olympics after she suffered injuries at precisely the wrong moments. First a back problem scuppered her hopes of getting to Beijing, then, in 2010, she had an operation on her hip. She left her job to throw herself into training and was just returning to form last year when the hip injury returned.
Now she will have to watch her husband Bill Lucas compete at the Games in the men's double sculls. "Ninety-nine per cent of what I feel is pride and joy for him but then there's that one per cent", she said. "The other day we went past the Olympic stadium on the train and my eyes started watering. I've poured everything into getting to the Olympics and now it's not going to happen."
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