It comes as a mild shock to realise that the Olympic Games will take place in Rio, and will do so very soon. What’s the matter? Wasn’t London 2012 good enough for you, then? London was such a national high point that it seems almost impertinent to bother with the Olympic Games ever again — and quite absurd even to try another Olympics only four years after the greatest knees-up in the history of the planet.
Nothing will ever be quite as good again — at least for the home nation. But the rest of the planet is having other ideas while we Brits come to terms with the notion that history isn’t something that stops.
This time Britain will have to accept a minor role. It’s unlikely that we will ever again finish third in the Olympic medal table. It will all feel like a bit of a comedown — but in truth it’s nothing of the kind. British athletes will be seeking higher standards and greater achievements, because that’s what athletes do. And so will the athletes from the rest of the world.
I suspect that once they start, the Rio Games will take us by surprise. There will be a sudden leap in interest as we grasp the joys of ultra-intense competition in 42 different forms, because that’s the number of sports at these Games. So many ways of seeking glory; so many ways of seeking levels of excellence that the world has never seen before.
More than 200 nations and more than 10,000 athletes will wage war on pessimism, and especially against the world-weariness and self-absorption of the hosts of 2012. At the Olympic Games, the only losers are the cynics.
Tom Mitchell, 26 Rugby Sevens
Seven-a-side rugby is an Olympic sport for the first time in Rio, and there will be a team representing Britain. Rugby also has a considerable presence outside the Olympic Games and Britain has three international rugby teams: England, Wales and Scotland. So (a) Britain will have a scratch side and (b) it’s complicated.
But it’s more complicated than you think, because in this country rugby is mainly a 15-man game and the big clubs are reluctant to release players in good time to prepare for the Olympics. It’ll take some seriously good leadership to make all this work — and that’s the likely job of Tom Mitchell, aged 26, the current captain of the England sevens team.
The British Olympic squad got together in late May for the first time, playing a series of tournaments to find the best 12-man squad for Rio. Mitchell is a sevens specialist in what is becoming (in the manner of cricket) an increasingly divided game. ‘I love the freedom of expression in sevens,’ he says. ‘I enjoy the space, the opportunity to run with the ball, to manipulate defences. It’s a very raw sport.’
Mitchell became captain of the England team a couple of years ago as well as playmaker and kicker. ‘I came into the job without a history of captaincy, but I’ve grown into it,’ he says. ‘As result, I’ve grown in confidence as a leader and as a player. And of course I’m always working to try and improve on both counts.’
Sevens is notoriously unpredictable. Britain goes in with the obvious disadvantage of having its best rugby players spread across three nations, but it can still win with the right leadership and a concerted team effort.
Amber Hill, 18 Skeet Shooting
Amber Hill is a prodigy. At the age of ten she picked up a shotgun for the first time because her grandad thought it might amuse her. More or less from the first shot, she started hitting the target: a soaring clay disc that shatters gratifyingly on impact. How did this come about? ‘I’m unsure myself,’ she says. ‘I could do it just as soon as I took hold of the gun.’
She was in the Great Britain senior team for skeet at 12, won her first World Cup series at 15 and won gold in the European Games in Baku last year. Now she’s 18 and heading for her first Olympics. She trains four days a week and is in the gym five days a week. ‘That’s mostly so you can deal with the recoil — you’ve got a minimum of 75 shots in a competition,’ she says. To make the final you’d better hit a good 72 or so of those targets. It’s about seeking perfection; it’s about eliminating human error.
‘It’s about keeping everything the same,’ she says. The same movement, the same balance of involvement and detachment, and she likes the people around her to stay the same too. That sounds like a sports physiologist’s mantra, but it’s all her own, a reflection of her immersion in shooting from such a young age. Hill is a prodigy in both the physical and mental sides of her sport.
Rebeka ‘Rebii’ Simon, 19 Kayak Four
The transition from junior to senior level is seldom smooth. It’s only partly a physical thing: it’s about feeling that you belong, that you have a right to be at the grown-ups table. Many go under. Some struggle before adjusting. And a few find it dismayingly straightforward.
Rebeka Simon, a member of the British kayak four (K4 in canoe-speak), was of the last kind. After winning medals as a junior she joined the seniors and at once set a personal best and finished fifth in the world championships. K4 is a technically complex event which requires a high level of high-speed coordination. ‘Mostly, you need an amazing person in the front of the boat,’ she says. ‘We have Jess Walker and she’s brilliant.’
Rebeka is of Hungarian extraction and her father Miklos is her coach. ‘In training he talks to me the same as he talks to everyone else,’ she says. ‘I still call him Dad, it’s easier — but I asked the other girls if they were OK with that first… I was four when I first sat in a kayak and I’d watch Dad coach long before I was racing. So it became my ambition to be coached by him — and it works well. And in Rio we’ll see how good we are.’
Liam Pitchford, 22 Table Tennis
There are moments in the life of every successful athlete when the world of possibility is altered forever. It’s a kind of gear-change and it comes for different athletes at different stages in a career — but it most often takes the form of a grudging welcome into the ranks of real contenders.
Liam Pitchford represented Britain at table tennis in the London Games, qualifying as part of a home nation’s right to be represented rather than because he was one of the very best table-tennis players in the world. It’s not the same as the real thing. ‘Even back then, I wanted to qualify for Rio in the proper way and to feel that I deserved to be there. I’ve done that this time — and it really feels like my first Olympics.’
He was a member of the British team that won bronze at the World Championships earlier this year, the first British table-tennis medal for 33 years. ‘We never dreamed we’d manage it,’ he says. ‘We just wanted to turn up and do our best.’ It was a personal as well as a corporate triumph when Britain beat France in the quarter-finals; Pitchford won his two matches, both against higher-ranked players. ‘I liked the pressure,’ he says. ‘It helped me to play the best two matches of my life.’
There speaks an athlete, there speaks an Olympian. If the stresses of competition make you better rather than worse, you know you’re the real thing. Though it helps if you have an edge. Pitchford, unlike most, favours the backhand. This can be an advantage, like being a lefty against a right-hander. It’s a strategy that carries more risk, but brings rewards when it all comes off. ‘A lot of wrist, a lot of changes of direction,’ he says. ‘And it doesn’t feel like a risk to me.’
Tonia Couch, 27 Diving
Diving is a form of flight, as in Woody’s description of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story: ‘That wasn’t flying — that was falling with style.’ The sport is about perfect control of a body in space and time, from the leap off the board to the perfectly vertical ripped entry.
Tonia Couch is now 27 and this will be her third Olympic Games. ‘I’ve been preparing for Rio since I was ten,’ she says. There are indications that she’s approaching her peak: she got individual silver in the recent world series event in London. She was leading until the final dive, when a Chinese diver took her out. The Chinese have a powerful and enduring tradition in the sport and the rest of the world is forever trying to catch up.
Perhaps Tonia’s preparation for Rio began a little earlier than she says, for she was a gymnast before she was ten. From there diving was a pretty natural next step: much of the training takes place on dry land in the gym. Tonia switched after breaking and dislocating her left shoulder; gymnastics (like diving) is a dangerous sport.
That last dive in a competition is what separates champions from the rest. The fact is, diving is one of those on-the-day events, when an almost-there diver can suddenly excel or a favourite can slip up. The diving events in Rio will be in an outdoor pool and are certain to be spectacular. ‘You just don’t know what to expect,’ says Tonia. ‘This is a lovely sport and unpredictability is one of its beauties.’
Elinor Barker, 21 Cycling
There are some sports in which it is necessary to sacrifice some of your individuality and become part of a team. There are others in which it’s necessary to lose still more individuality and become part of a machine.
One such sport is cycling’s team pursuit, which takes place on the indoor track. Elinor Baker is hoping to be part of the British team in Rio. This is the event in which four cyclists turn themselves into a kind of train, the bikes almost but not quite touching. They take turns to ride at the front and fight the air-pressure while the rest ride in the slipstream.
But it’s a machine that needs heart. “We’re all very close, and we’re getting to know each other better every time we train,” says Elinor. “So we can read subtle things in each other’s body language, stuff nobody else could pick up – who’s tiring, who’s feeling strong.”
The ballet of the bikes is tightly choreographed so that riders know who will lead at each exact stage of a race. “But you’re also aware that things change during a race, and you have to adapt – all while you’re going at 60kph a centimetre from the bike in front,” she says.
British cycling is currently in a strange state, with the head coach Shaun Sutton having been suspended while an investigation into allegations of bullying takes place. “I deal with this by concentrating on business as usual,” she says. “The team around our team hasn’t changed and we’re working together well – working towards the peak we’re aiming at in Rio.”
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