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Olympic obsession

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Annabel Vernon | 15:37 UK time, Tuesday, 4 August 2009

One of the comments on my last blog came from nick2012. I think what he is asking is, why do we have to judge ourselves on Olympic medals? Are the Olympics over-hyped?

I tried to write a reply, but it turned into such a long post I thought it'd be easier to simply include it in a new entry.

So what do the Olympics mean to us? It's hard to know where to begin.

Vernon, Flood, Houghton and Grainger were distrought at missing out on gold in Beijing

Our sport is totally organised into four-year cycles. Training principles, rowing technique, funding, organisation, coaches, priority boats, training camps, equipment and so many day-to-day necessities are reassessed and sorted out after the Olympics for the next cycle.

Athletes also define their lives by four-yearly cycles, and you know that everyone peaks at the Olympics. In other years, people are at different stages in their development but for the Olympics, for that fortnight every four years, every single elite athlete irrespective of sport is aiming to be at their best.

Everything that happens in the four years between Games is a stepping stones but after the Games there are no more steps to take: that particular journey will be over and a new one will begin.

There is no "next year"; after each Games, the slate is wiped clean. Steve Redgrave often said that he would gladly exchange all his World Championships medals for the Olympic one at the end of every four years, and this is what it boils down to - the Olympics is everything. Nothing else comes close.

So as nick2012 asks, why are the Olympics such a big deal compared to the World Championships?

In the rowing world, the World Championships is an annual regatta. Winning it (as I have done, in 2007) means you're the best in the world on that day, and that can call yourself a world champion.

It gives you a deep pride that you're the best in the world at what you do. The Olympics, however, go beyond sport, and therefore mean more.

Whereas the World Championships is a regatta; the Olympic Games are an epoch-defining event that touches the lives of everyone who competes, whether they come first, second or last.

I think it's because the Olympics are such a strange event - a bizarre cocktail of imperialism, politics, commercialism, culture, people and cities, with sport as its excuse.

So no, I don't think that the Olympics are over-hyped; which brings me on to the question of whether the achievement pales as the hype wears off.

I think we should be clear on one point: the Olympics is, in sporting terms, the most prestigious event to win, and athletes want to win the best events, not because of how the public views it but because they want to be the best.

Athletes aren't doing a job, or seeing out time, or making a career choice. We are here with the single purpose and driving need to win Olympic gold.

That is it: the single reason for the entire structure of British rowing to exist, and the single reason for me to get out of bed every day and get in my sculling boat.

We're not doing this because it's going to look good on our CVs, or because there are good pension rights, or there are opportunities for flexi-time (there aren't).

We're here because every one of us has decided at some point in our lives that we have a burning desire to see how good we can be at our sport. If you want a bunch of balanced, normal, stable people, then don't try the British Olympic team.

It's important to remember that other people view our careers, our achievements, our medals and our results very differently to how we do. Even the people closest to me, my friends and family, still don't quite appreciate how I relate to what happened to me in Beijing.

Of course, when I went to the Olympics I felt like I had the hopes of the country on my shoulders. There was an incredible feeling of will - so many people at home willing us to do well out in China.

But the reason I wanted to win that race was nothing to do with the mass public in Britain, or the rowing supporters in the grandstands, or even my friends and family, coaches and support staff.

I desperately wanted to win that race for myself. And I'd desperately wanted to win that race for myself for years and years before I had even been selected for the Olympic team, and probably long before I ever took up rowing.

Yes, there is a great degree of popular interest in the great sporting events that occur every few years, but the athletes at the coal face will be utterly selfish, arrogant and driven in their motives.

Once the "hype" has died down, will there be a feeling of emptiness? No. There will remain a deep, deep satisfaction that you reached the summit of sport.

And as for the Olympics being the defining moment of our lives, perhaps I phrased that wrongly. To the outside world, the Games are the reckoning of us as athletes.

Our success is judged by the number of Olympic medals we've won, and quite rightly so. But to us as people, of course there's more to life than sport. Anyone who knows me knows that rowing comes far down my list of priorities, behind family and friends, health and happiness.

Of course in 20 years time, when I look back at my rowing career, my Olympic regatta will be just one of many memories that I have.

If I'm asked to name the most memorable times in my sport, or the achievements of which I'm most proud, or the best times, or the worst times, the Olympic regatta will just rank as one fortnight amongst many that I've been a full-time professional athlete.

As people we don't pin our entire self-worth on the result of that fortnight; but as athletes we are here to perform and it's how we do at the Olympics which decides how successful we are.

I hope that's answered some questions. It's a tricky subject, because you'll find that every athlete is motivated slightly differently and reacts differently to success and failure.

Another member of the team would, I'm sure, give a different response to your post than what I've said. I can only give my point of view. Of course there's much more to life than an Olympic gold, but it's one of many paths to take through life and once you're on that path, the quest becomes all-consuming.

Annabel and her crew-mate this year, Anna Bebington, are next in action at the World Championships in Poznan, Poland from 23-30 August. Watch the finals live on BBC TV.


  • Comment number 1.

    Good post - many thanks Annabel and good luck in Poland.

  • Comment number 2.

    Best of luck for the future and in London.

  • Comment number 3.

    A quick couple of questions.

    I have wondered if you athletes in the so called "minority sport" group feel when you see all this mass coverage for events such as rowing/sailing in the Olympics but for the years befoe and after you get very little?

    Is it a case of knowing in Britian what the main most popular sports are and we just need to produce results year after year as you do to get more coverage and suffers because of the "posh/middle class image".

    How big is rowing generally in the rest of Europe in terms of crowd support?

    Hope this question are ok to answer and as I said good luck (at least come 2012 we'll be assured of sporting success for Great Britian with you guys and girls!)

  • Comment number 4.

    A great blog and an interesting and different read to the usual football/cricket etc. blogs.

    #3 Picking up on the comments by kingwfc4ever and the 'posh/middle class image' of rowing, is this something you agree with and if so would you consider there to be a lot of untapped potential in the UK for those who do not fall into this 'posh/middle class' (for want of a better word) category?

    Good luck in Poland.

  • Comment number 5.

    Very well written.

    Great to hear what truly motivates an athlete rather than the party line that all sportsmen/women are prone to trot out nowadays: "I'm not thinking beyond tomorrow's game", "We're not considering the Grand Slam", "All I can expect to do is my best".

  • Comment number 6.

    I'm a junior rower, and we're scheduled to start training again for the new season. I've enjoyed the past 2 weeks off and I wasn't really bothered about training today. But I got up this morning and read your blog. Every now and then I find something small just to keep my dream alive, just to keep me focused, and today, your blog was that inspiration. I know it's such a long road to go down to get anywhere near the Olympics, there's still the World Junior Champs, U23 level, but somewhere further down that route is my dream of the Olympics. You've really hit the nail on the head in that last blog. Good luck for Poland

  • Comment number 7.

    That is a fantastic response.

  • Comment number 8.

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Some brief answers (well as brief as I can be... brevity isn't my forte). As for rowing being a middle class sport, there’s not much answer I can make to that except to point out that rowing is a sport which you can’t do everywhere. It’s more than a football and jumpers for goalposts. You need a decent river or lake, and boathouse with equipment(not cheap). Most people take up rowing at university, or at public school. I took up rowing because there happened to be a club near my house in Cornwall, and I ended up at a university which had a very strong rowing tradition. I would say an accident of geography rather than a specific set of socio-economic circumstances is responsible for people getting into rowing.

    I am certainly not upper class and neither are the majority of the rowing team. But as I've explained above, to start rowing in the first place you need access to a rowing club, and the chances are such facilities will be found at your school or university, unless (like myself) there happens to be a rowing club in your local town.

    As for rowing not being a very popular sport in the public eye, I think here we need to think about why people follow sport with such passion. And realistically, rowing isn’t the most interesting sport to watch. But surely this is horses for courses ... personally, I can never understand why people watch football with such passion. It’s so dull! Short, skinny men running around a pitch and falling over every few minutes? But of course, my perception of football is based on the fact that I know very litle about the game, and I can't appreciate the difference between good and bad football. Similarly, rowing is a sport where to appreciate what are the truly classic races or the best technical individuals or crews requires in-depth knowledge of the sport, which as it's not a mass participation sport, is limited by the general public.

    Hope that's answered some queries.

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi Annabel - thank you very much for your post.

    I know I said I wouldn’t say anything more on the subject, but given that you’ve been kind enough to write a detailed response, I would like to respond.

    You write that ‘the Olympics is, in sporting terms, the most prestigious event to win, and athletes want to win the best events, not because of how the public views it but because they want to be the best’. I believe there is a difference between the ‘most prestigious’ and the ‘best’.

    As you say, the Olympics has an aura about which most people (myself included) find wonderful. It is full of colour, passion, excitement, nobility and history. It gives us spectators huge opportunity to be patriotic. As you say, it is about more than just the sporting event itself.

    The Olympics is undoubtedly the most prestigious event in most Olympic sports’ calendars (I don’t think this is true for, say, tennis). But prestige means ‘having a high reputation; having the power to impress’ (I’ve had the dictionary out!)

    You say that you’re there because you have ‘decided at some point in [y]our li[fe] that [you] have a burning desire to see how good [you] can be at your sport.’

    Why, if the motive is to be the best at your sport, should it be so important to win an event that - as you say - means more than just sport – one that has so much history, politics, culture etc thrown? If the desire is purely to see how good you can be at the sport, why would it not be enough to, say, break a world record in a technically exceptional and powerful performance to win a gold at a World Championships?

    It would be one thing if you wanted to win Olympic gold because you know that others esteem the Olympics so highly. However, you write that ‘athletes want to win the best events [referring to the Olympics, in your case] not because of how the public views it, but because they want to be the best’. If you don’t care how the public views it, why does it matter if you prove you’re the best at the sport to yourself in some other way?

    Athletes sometimes win Olympic golds without being the ‘best’ in their sports and athletes can lose them yet be the best – these things can happen for many reasons: injury, error, drug-taking, the decision of a judge or even politics (eg boycotts).

    I think the fact that it’s so prestigious and different as well as the fact that it might prove you’re the best, is what drives many athletes to pursue Olympic gold. Being an Olympic champion puts people in a different category (a prestigious and different one) – it doesn’t necessarily prove that somebody’s the ‘best’ at their sport. It does mean that somebody has gone through a certain type of experience (including all that passion, excitement, culture etc) and through that experience has become part of a certain type of club – and that is enough to make other people say ‘wow’.

    I am impressed when you say that you solely want Olympic gold for yourself – I don’t think I would be anything like as humble in your shoes (ie if I were somebody who has a real chance to be an Olympic champion). I would want it precisely (and regretfully) because I would feel that it raised me higher than and impressed others, and that I would feel like I had achieved something of great importance. If I invested a lot in becoming a member of ‘the Olympic champion’ club, without another ambition beyond and above that, I am sure I would, in the long run, be disappointed by the return, win or lose.

    Even if I solely wanted to be the best (either in the world, or that I could be), I'm sure I’d be happier if I didn’t mind how I proved it (I don't think I would be capable of being like that - I just think I'd be happier that way!)

    Very best wishes for your training and for Poland. Nick

  • Comment number 10.

    Thanks for the answers to my questions!

    I guess as you say its a case of people needing to understand the sport more which will come through more coverage in the media and not the unfair image sports like rowing get.

    Football used to be a working class game played by millions but I am sure many fans now whilst still supporting their team will say its a game runined by footballers often overpaid and the influence on money meaning winning is so important to many no matter how.

    Good luck for the future!

    BTW You do feel sports like golf and rugby being introduced into the Olympis undermines the true value of the games as an event when winning gold or any medal is the highlight of a career than that just another "major win"?


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