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London Olympians should embrace home 'pressure'

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Annabel Vernon | 22:58 UK time, Wednesday, 7 April 2010

A lot has been written about the handover of the Olympic baton from Vancouver to London, and the performances of Team Canada at their home Games.

Although Canada topped the medal table and won the coveted men's ice hockey gold, much has been made of the 'Own the Podium' programme, and whether or not this put too much pressure on the Canadian athletes. Did they underperform? Was home expectation too much for them?

I think I'm right to say that every athlete dreams of competing at home. Success on home soil, in front of all your family and friends, would be the ultimate achievement. But at the same time, competing at home brings its own set of pressures and expectations as the clichés about the hopes of a nation get rolled out.

So I thought I'd weigh in with my tuppence-worth of opinion on the subject. Competing at home: hindrance or help?

Rowing at Dorney Lake, near Windsor CastleDorney Lake, near Windsor, will play host to Olympic rowing in 2012 - photo: Getty Images

For most British athletes, home competition is hardly a rarity. Britain is the regular host of many international sporting events as well as our 'traditional' events such as Wimbledon and the London Marathon, and therefore we all have a reasonable idea of what to expect.

Since I've been rowing internationally, I've raced on home water (on Dorney Lake, near Eton) twice: a World Cup in 2005 and the World Championships the following year.

In other sports, off the top of my head I can think of the Commonwealth Games in 2002, the track cycling World Championships in 2008, regular top athletics meets in Birmingham and Gateshead and the recent swimming Duel in the Pool as examples of home competition.

Most of those people involved in 2012 will have experience of competing at home, and I don't just mean athletes. This includes spectators, organizers and volunteers and all those whose lives will be affected by the Games.

We know what it will be like: similar to selling a house, when you have strangers wandering all over it making critical comments.

In 2012 we'll be waiting for planeloads and planeloads of competitors to arrive at Heathrow, and despite the fact we want them to love London like we love London, imperfections and all, we also want them to remember that it's our city.

I remember when the announcement was made in July 2005 about the awarding of the Games to London. We were competing in Switzerland and the whole rowing team crowded around the television in our hotel.

The roar of triumph that erupted when Jacques Rogge said "London" shook the hotel to the ground. We won the bid. We beat the French. We will welcome the world to our country. Come to our rowing lake ... but remember that it's our rowing lake.

The thing to remember is that 2012 is not a surprise. We wanted the Games to come to London, that's why we bid for them, and we've been preparing ever since.

Our coach, Paul Thompson, was in charge of the Australian team in 2000 in Sydney and his experience will be invaluable in ensuring we maximise our home Games.

Seeing how the Chinese responded to home pressure in 2008 when their most hotly tipped rowing crew for gold, the women's double, failed to even make the podium and their second-ranked crew, the quad, beat us to take gold, will stand me in good stead in 2012.

The basic lesson to learn is that some crews will thrive, and some will be throttled: how can I make sure I am the one who steps up?

Remember that no athlete gets involved in elite sport for an easy life. We want the pressure, we thrive on it, it's our job. Steve Redgrave used to constantly remind us in the quad in 2008 that we should want to be the favourites, because the favourites usually win.

Yes, being the underdog might be easier to cope with mentally; but if you are serious about winning, you should want to be in the crosshairs of everyone else.

Of course, there are some who will choke on the pressure of a home Games. That's humans: we're fantastically unpredictable and prone to making mistakes. However, there will be many others who produce a performance out of their skins.

Annabel and her partner last year, Anna Watkins, train in Varese, Italy, ahead of this weekend's selection trials
Annabel and her partner last year, Anna Watkins, train in Varese, Italy, ahead of this weekend's selection trials

Why did Tim Henman always get his best results by far at Wimbledon? Because he loved being the home favourite, he thrived on the pressure; it made him play better tennis than anywhere else in the world.

Conversely, another tennis player, Amelie Mauresmo, performed worse at the French Open, her home tournament, than at any other Grand Slam. Some are choked by home pressure, others thrive.

So let's not dwell on the anxiety of a home Games. Let's not talk about the potential for buckling under the weight of expectation.

British athletes are among the best prepared and best supported in the world, and we want a home Games.

I'll finish with a quote from one of the Polish double scull, who beat us to gold at the World Championships in Poland last year.

When asked about having the crowd behind her in the final, Julia Michalska, the stroke, replied: "It was really amazing. During the last 300m it felt as if we had a third person rowing in our boat. It was exactly as our coach had told us before the race: 'You only need to row 1700m. For the last bit, the crowd will carry you to the finish line."

In 2012 that extra person in the boat will be British.


  • Comment number 1.

    Another great blog Annabel. I know that rowing on my home water for regattas always helps me in competition at a much lower level so I can hardly imagine how much the support coming from tens of thousands of roaring spectators would make me want to perform to, or even past, my highest expectations.

  • Comment number 2.

    Great sportsmen and sportswomen are all competitors. Pressure should help them.
    If you have a a look at past events in the world, there has been a clear advantage for athletes & teams playing on home turf. England, Argentina, France won their first WC at home; French athletes did remarkably well at the World Championship in Paris, etc. There are exceptions too: no Englishman has won Wimbledon in the Open era (how many years of waiting?); only one Frenchman and one Frenchwoman have won Roland Garros (Noah 1983; Pierce 2000).

    On average, it's still an advantage to compete at home; a huge one.

    British teams did extremely well at the past Olympics; ways above expectations. It's the best preparation for Olympics on home soil.

    PS. If there is an extra person in your boat, let's hope that they pull their weight!

  • Comment number 3.

    Great blog.

    Good to see someone talking sense on this. I have started to become slightly irritated in recent Months with people banging on about the 'pressure' of competing at a home olympics. Yes there will be some who are overwhelmed by the pressure but for every 1 of those athletes there will be another bunch who will perform out of their skins inspired by the home crowds.

  • Comment number 4.

    We tend to find racing at our own Horr up north is jinxed and that we get our best results away from home. I would certainly agree though (from rugby playing days) that, when needed, a home crowd can often spurn a team on to up their game. Then again hearing the oposing supporters at an away game can often fire you up even more as an athlete, surely the mark of great athletes is performing every time at a consistantly high level.

    When will they be looking for people to work at the Olympics? Can't think of a better way to improve my game than at Dorney Lake watching the olympians.

  • Comment number 5.

    Maybe its my age but I don't seem to remember many spectators at my regattas. One of the great things about rowing!

  • Comment number 6.

    Interestingly, there are a number of private hire car services available between these two major airports. The reason being, that it takes a little more than an hour for this trip under normal traffic conditions and also because the drivers await passengers in the arrival hall which makes it very convinient for those who do not know the airport very well. The passport control and luggage collection at Heathrow and Gatwick Airports can be time consuming and that is why you should reserve a minimum of 3 hours for the journey from Heathrow to Gatwick or other way around.
    Taxi To Heathrow Airport


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