Will British athletes feel right at home?
Being the host nation should mean more medals for Team GB at London Games, but history tells us that some stars will be unable to cope with the great expectations
Monday 19 December 2011
If come next July Sir Chris Hoy has his quarters on the northern side of the Olympic village, his room will look out on the velodrome; likewise if Jessica Ennis, Becky Adlington and Tom Daley find themselves rooming on the west side, the equally distinctive shapes of the Olympic Stadium and the Aquatics Centre will loom outside their windows. No modern Games has accommodated the athletes so close to the venues and for the home hopes these sparkling new sporting monuments will be a constant reminder of what is expected, even demanded, of them.
Home advantage is the known unknown of the Olympic Games. It has an effect on those athletes who wear the host nation's colours. Some who are currently known only within the confines of their own sports will become nationally acclaimed, others for whom golden futures are predicted will be swept off course. UK Sport, the body that funds elite Olympic sport, has studied the home effect in previous Games and there is evidence that it brings more medals, and it certainly increases the chances of picking up gongs in subjective events, such as gymnastics and diving. But it also brings with it immense expectation.
The pressure on the likes of Hoy, Mark Cavendish (who has the chance to bring Britain its first gold on day one of its Games) and Ennis will be absolute, and it will be no less intense for medal hopes from lesser sports. "It does creep into your mind," admitted Ennis (right) earlier this year. "All British athletes will feel some pressure because it's a home Olympics."
It is a factor that the British Olympic Association, with its cultish mantra of "no stone unturned", is determined to do everything it can to address. Stellar names who have successfully shouldered the hosts' burden have been brought in to talk to potential British Olympians, 70 per cent of whom will be competing in their first Games. Ed Moses, Michael Johnson and Ian Thorpe have shared their experiences of competing in front of a home crowd – and winning gold at Los Angeles 1984, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 respectively. Hoy has already sought advice from Sir Steve Redgrave.
Next summer, when Team GB gather at the holding camp in Loughborough, there will be further briefings, some in the flesh, some recorded. The BOA is also assembling a mock-up of a room in the Olympic Village as part of the familiarisation process, attempting to ensure when the athletes arrive in east London that they can deliver on the aim of more medals than were won in Beijing. Every recent summer Games host has seen a notable rise in the number of home gold medals, while at last year's Winter Olympics Canada won a record number of golds for a home nation as a result of their controversial Own the Podium programme.
The Canadians went through a rocky start though, with several of their main hopes admitting to being overwhelmed by the initial hype. Melissa Hollingsworth, the favourite to win the skeleton gold that instead went to Britain's Amy Williams, was reduced to tears as she felt compelled to make a public apology to the country after finishing fifth.
Susie O'Neill, the Australian swimmer, is another who has been called in to address prospective Olympians. Fran Halsall, a strong British gold medal contender, was in the audience. "She gave us an insight into what she felt like being in that situation," said Halsall. "She said even in the village there are athletes who are sports fans and she got stopped 50 times just walking to her room by people wanting to talk or have their picture taken with her."
O'Neill's experience is particularly instructive. Madame Butterfly, as she was known Down Under, was beaten by 0.7sec in her main event but managed to win a freestyle gold. Her advice to Halsall and Co was "don't let it get on top of you" but also a warning to be aware of the levels of expectation.
An awareness of what you are going into at Games time is vital, according to Katharine Merry. Merry won 400m bronze in Sydney in 2000 in the wake of Cathy Freeman, the athlete upon whom perhaps the heaviest weight of a nation's expectation has ever rested. The two have known each other since their mid-teens and Merry saw at close quarters what the iconic triumph did to Freeman.
"Cathy sat down on the track afterwards physically and mentally exhausted and she never came back after that," said Merry. "There was nowhere for her to go."
That extraordinary evening in the Sydney suburbs took Merry by surprise and caused her to reassess her approach to the race in its immediate build-up. She had been instructed by many, including her coach Linford Christie, to treat it as any other race. Then she walked towards the stadium and heard the fevered noise of 112,000 people. "It got louder and louder and I thought 'No, this is not any other race'," said Merry.
Along with Steve Parry, who won an Olympic bronze in the Athens pool in 2004, and the multi-decorated Tanni Grey-Thompson, Merry is now part of the support network for Team 2012, sponsored by Visa.
Last week they guided a group of possible British Olympians and Paralympians around the venues – familiarity, the hope is, will breed contentment. "It's a wonderful opportunity," said Merry, speaking over the sound of hammering in the velodrome as the floor in the middle of the circuit was laid. "I would have liked to have had that [before competing in the Games]." Parry agrees: "Because they get to see the venues, get to compete in the venues – that's going to make a difference."
Through the window behind Parry the BMX course is visible, the black plastic covering some of the jumps flapping in the wind. Liam Phillips, Britain's leading male rider, is one of the party. "Any small advantage will help give us the edge," said Phillips, who competed in Beijing as a 19-year-old. "The margins are so fine."
Seeing and experiencing the venues is not for everyone. Ennis is determined to stay clear until next summer. Ellie Simmonds, the star of the Paralympic team in Beijing, will take part in the trials in the Aquatics Centre in March but would rather have saved a first glimpse until Games time.
For some being at home is all good – one athlete told me it makes him happy because it means he can get hold of his favourite sweets – but for others, and in particular the ones who will stare from posters, TV screens and billboards up and down the land in the coming months, it is going to be an experience beyond anything they have had to deal with on the track or in the pool. "You can expect people to be cheering your name who don't really know who you are," says Merry. "Minor sports will have crowds that they haven't envisaged before and they will get a lot of support because they are wearing a British vest, so it's a case of thinking carefully about what is going to happen rather than just thinking 'Wow it's going to be big'."
It broke Lia Xiang, the Chinese hurdler in Beijing, and the Greek duo Kostas Kenteris and Ekaterini Thanou spectacularly self-destructed on the eve of the Athens Games. But then Freeman, Moses and Johnson rose gloriously to the occasion. "It's going to be crazy," said Parry. "All the extra pressures, all the extra interest – that is what they are going to have to deal with."
Familiarity breeds contentment?
Atlanta 1996: Michael Johnson
If anybody was going to handle the pressure of carrying a nation's hopes it was Johnson. The coolest man in sport pulled on a pair of gold running shoes and won the 400m, finishing a second ahead of second-placed Roger Black. Two days later he became the first man to do the 400m/200m double and broke the world record for good measure.
Athens 2004: Kostas Kenteris & Ekaterini Thanou
The two sprinters, Kenteris in the 200m, Thanou in the 100m, were the Greeks' big hopes ahead of the Olympics returning to its spiritual home. They spectacularly failed to make the start line, crumbling under the pressure – a staged motorbike accident on the eve of the opening ceremony was used to offer a reason for missing a dope test and they were withdrawn from the Games. A strange affair took another turn this summer when a Greek court found them guilty of perjury over the accident.
Sydney 2000: Cathy Freeman
The century opened with what is likely to still be Australia's iconic sporting moment come its close. Freeman was the best 400m runner in the world, and Australia was desperate for a track gold to light up its Games. After cruising through the heats, Freeman donned her famous hooded all-in-one suit for the final and lived up to the hype, coming from behind to take the gold medal. Her advice to those who have to try and emulate her? "Be true to who you are."
2008 Beijing: Liu Xiang
Xiang got it right in Athens with gold in the 110m hurdles and when the Games came to Beijing four years later he was the face of a nation. He was China's first male Olympic track champion and was strong favourite to repeat the feat on home soil but he did not even make it to the first hurdle. He pulled out of the first heat after a false start and blamed an Achilles tendon injury that his coach said had troubled him for six years. Chinese fans, many of them in tears, were not convinced.
Host nations' Olympic medals
USA: 1992 to 1996 Atlanta
Gold +18 per cent
Overall -6 per cent
Australia: 1996 to 2000 Sydney
Gold +78 per cent
Overall +41 per cent
Greece: 2000 to 2004 Athens
Gold + 50 per cent
Overall + 23 per cent
China: 2004 to 2008 Beijing
Gold + 37 per cent
Overall + 59 per cent
Gold 19 Silver 13 Bronze 15 Total 47
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