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Fumbling in the dark? Athletes learn to draw the line

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Ollie Williams | 10:45 UK time, Tuesday, 7 June 2011

When Britain's athletes were told London 2012 would hand them a global television audience, Dating in the Dark was not what most had in mind.

Sprint canoeist Andrew Daniels thought differently. He successfully applied to take part in the Sky Living show, which lobs six singletons - three men and three women - into a house on the condition that the two genders may only meet in a darkened room.

"They're trying to find out whether looks matter through the hilarity of dating in a pitch-black room," is how Daniels sells the concept to me. The episode featuring him, filmed last autumn, is due to air some time in June.

It sounds unmissable. "I had one date [in the dark room] with a girl where I took my kayak paddle in there with me," says Daniels.

"We went through a bit of kayaking technique together, but then I accidentally jabbed her with it. I'm not sure where. It went downhill from there."

There is a serious side to a passionate paddler's furtive fumble for the viewing public, and it's one BBC Radio 5 live will explore in this week's London Calling programme: how do Olympic sports and their athletes choose to present themselves in the face of unprecedented media attention?

Andrew Daniels

Canoeist Andrew Daniels: 'I turned down Peter Andre'

Gold body-paint and judiciously placed union jacks are the staples of many a newspaper spread ahead of an Olympic Games, but the voracious media appetite for Olympians in the lead-up to London - whether matched by the wider public or not - is generating an ever-broader range of opportunities.

Off the top of my head I can recall track cyclists versus rugby players, gymnasts leaping over luxury cars, balloon rides over the Olympic Park and "extreme table tennis" in London's St Pancras station.

Last month we featured fencer Laurence Halsted, who made his acting debut in a music video for his favourite band. Halsted, while happy to take part, admitted feeling uncomfortable on the set.

"I couldn't stand it," he said at the time. "Every time, the director would say 'let's do it again'. It was just embarrassing. I have no reference point for how my acting was. I didn't really know what I was doing."

Halsted understands that London 2012 offers British athletes, particularly in smaller sports such as his, the most exposure they will ever have. But he also knows that could come at a price.

"It's exactly the kind of thing a home Games does," he said. "It brings athletes opportunities they wouldn't get at any other time and it's really nice to have these unique, strange opportunities to take advantage of.

"But you have to be careful of just how many people are interested in using and abusing you. You could get drawn into all sorts of silly things.

"It's a toss-up between publicity for your sport, yourself and the Olympics, and looking like a fool for doing anything they ask. There could be a fine line: 'Is this good publicity or a noose to hang myself with?' I'm confident I'm going to be able to tell the dross from the rest."

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Laurence Halsted's acting debut in band Two Spot Gobi's video

Perhaps Halsted wouldn't have signed on Dating in the Dark's dotted line quite so hastily. Daniels, however, insists his reasoning for going on the show is sound.

"It's really hard to meet genuine girls when you're training so much, so I thought the show would be an ideal opportunity," says the 22-year-old.

"I've been asked to do other things and couldn't, either because of training commitments or because they weren't ideal for promoting my sport. I thought Dating in the Dark would be a great way to have a laugh and promote canoeing - and maybe I'd get a girlfriend as well.

"I did have to tick a few boxes and speak to people before I went along. We get asked to do a lot of stuff and I've had to turn down shows that are a bit more risky. I was asked to do a Peter Andre show and didn't do that."

Never mind that a chat with Peter Andre seems far tamer than jabbing a girl with an oar in the dark; Daniels has a line, and Andre crossed it.

British handball player Ciaran Williams believes that's the most important thing: drawing the line correctly and sticking to it. Williams recently appeared on Cricket AM, the leather-and-wood equivalent of the successful soccer magazine show, in cricket's answer to the latter's Crossbar Challenge.

"They wanted me to do a distance throw, to see if they could get anyone from any sport to break the world record," says Williams. "They got in touch with our media guy and asked about getting an athlete down, so we went and filmed it.

"There will be one a week - after me there will be baseball players, American footballers and so on, with a weekly leaderboard. We'll see where I rank at the end of that.

"It's aimed at a cricket audience and that's good exposure for us to an untapped audience, but I know there would be a line. If it's TV or magazines aimed at a certain audience, maybe we'd steer clear of it."

Daniels is preparing to sit down with the rest of the British canoeing squad - "I'm sure the guys will enjoy it" - and watch his dating fortunes unfold. Look away now if you don't want to know if he scores.

"There were really good girls in there and I speak to some of them now, but I'm still looking," he says.

"I met a guy there who was a topless waiter and a lot more muscular and buff than me. That was a shock. I wanted to go in and be the jock dude, so that depressed me a bit. I wasn't the funniest or the best-looking either."

With the heartstring-tugging well under way, has he got a message for any women out there prepared to put up with the Olympic canoeing lifestyle?

"I need a good message now." There is a pause. "Something really witty and clever. How about: there are really nice people like me out there who do sport, so... yeah. Get involved."

Update 1205 BST: I'm told Andrew Daniels appears on Dating in the Dark in the 21 June episode.

Daniels and Halsted will appear on BBC Radio 5 live's London Calling from 2130 BST on Tuesday, 7 June, discussing their approaches to the opportunities created by a home Olympic Games.



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