World Cup heroine Rowsell: It would be great to have a women’s Team Sky

After watching Joanna Rowsell win two World Cup golds over the weekend at a frenzied Olympic velodrome, I had the chance to chat to her on Monday for an article on the West London sport website.

She talked quite a bit about how good the inclusion of the women’s team pursuit in the Olympic programme has been for women’s cycling in general, requiring each nation to focus on strength in depth as they need three riders of the highest standard.

And she said she would like to see a female version of Team Sky in future, giving the Great Britain women’s squad the sort of support many of their male equivalents receive.

Australia’s GreenEDGE team has been set up along the same lines of Team Sky, with a squad including many of the nation’s top track riders, aiming to improve Olympic chances. But it also has a women’s team, who have already had some success this season.

Meanwhile – as you may have read in this blog in December – Great Britain’s top women have to find their own trade teams, and deal with disruption and uncertainty as the women’s circuit is nothing like as secure as the men’s.

Rowsell had a chance to see close-up how Team Sky works when the GB women shared their training camp in Mallorca earlier this year, and got to share their facilities, including a chef who travels with the team.

“It’s great for the men that they’ve got that support but it would be nice to see in future a women’s team too,” she said. “Hopefully Sky will think about that in future.”

Alison Shanks, Joanna Rowsell and Amy Cure on the podium

Rowsell (centre) won Saturday's World Cup individual pursuit (Pic: British Cycling)

Although their focus this year will mainly be on the track, the pursuit team also train and race on the road racing to increase endurance. Rowsell and Dani King both compete for the Matrix Fitness – Prendas team, which provides equipment and expenses, not the sort of sizeable contract their male counterparts enjoy with Sky.

Rowsell named a list of British road riders who would benefit from being on such a team, including Olympic road race hopeful Lizzie Armitstead, Beijing time trial silver medallist Emma Pooley and youngsters Katie Colclough and Lucy Martin.

“It would be great to have a British team, then maybe the team pursuit riders could join them when the programme suits them,” she added.

There are suggestions the Halford’s Tour Series – a circuit of town-centre criterium events – will include four women’s races this year, which is likely to mean another chance to see Rowsell in action on home soil before she goes for gold in London.

In the meantime, you can find out more about her – and download a sponsorship proposal package – on her personal website.

Posted in cycling, olympics, sponsorship, women's sport | Leave a comment

Women’s Boat Race announcement – highlights and reaction

There were hints here and there over the last few days but for many, the news that the Women’s Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge will gain parity with the men’s event in 2015 came as a shock when Rachel Quarrell’s story was published in the Telegraph on Wednesday morning.

Women were admitted to membership of the MCC in 1999, while Wimbledon granted equal prize money to men and women in 2007. This is another major milestone for equality in sport.

A media conference at Somerset House provided an opportunity to get answers to some of the logistical questions. Much is still to be decided but in summary:

  • From 2015, the women’s race will be run on the same day over the same course, moving from its current place at Henley-on-Thames, usually the weekend before the men’s event.
  • New funding from asset management company BNY Mellon and its subsidiary Newton – under a five-year agreement – will bring equal funding to men and women from this year, without reducing the amount the men’s squads currently receive under the deal with Xchanging that expires this year.
  • The three-year delay is to allow for an improvement in infrastructure and performance levels for the women’s boat clubs and to iron out logistical issues such as who boats from where, who races when and how the media gets to watch both.
  • The men’s reserve race will remain as part of a triple bill but the women’s reserve race and the men’s and women’s lightweight events will remain in Henley.
  • The BBC has committed to covering the races equally, although a contract has not yet been sealed with the broadcaster past 2014.

There are more questions and answers in this Rowing Voice blog, written by Rachel and me and in this article on the West London Sport site.

Matthew Pinsent made clear the task ahead for organisers when he said of the women’s clubs: “To this day one of the big attributes of someone in the squad is that they have their own car.”

Sir Matt expanded on this, and named two women – Anna Watkins and Natalie Redgrave – who could have featured more heavily in the Women’s Boat Race had parity been achieved earlier, in my blog entry for Hear the Boat Sing.

Here is a pick of the reaction on Twitter. So far, no one has raised a single objection. The main sentiment seems to be that it is amazing the change did not happen sooner.

Posted in rowing, sponsorship, the boat race, women's sport | 5 Comments

Bonus tracks from Paralympic cycling stars

The para-cycling track World Championships get under way in Los Angeles on Thursday and more of the interviews the team gave me at their media day in Newport will be online this week as the 14-strong squad look to improve on the nine gold medals they won last year.

The interview with John-Allan Butterworth is running on both the Channel 4 Paralympics website and the British Cycling site. Olympic champion Ed Clancy tweeted after reading it: “I’ll never moan about a hard day training again!”

I’ve edited some of the audio recording from the interview too:

Butterworth lost his left arm in an attack on Basra Air Station (Photo: British Cycling)

Obviously, Butterworth’s is a frightening story but I found this interview intriguing more because of his matter-of-fact approach and attention to detail – two factors that his coach Chris Furber believes are a major factor in his success.

Furber said: “He’s highly analytical and that fits brilliantly with track cycling because it’s a highly analytical sport. It’s about numbers and drag and laps and splits and times. He thrives in that environment where I’m giving him constant factual number feedback.

“He’s also a little  bit of a dreamer who believes in himself and I think you need that as well because you need to be able to look at world bests and think: I can make that, I can beat that.

“He’s very hard on himself and sometimes needs a bit of pepping up but is a really good guy to have on the squad.”

My feature on the “wild world of tandem racing” is also on the Channel 4 site as is an interview with Jody Cundy on how he stays motivated despite having won so many world and Paralympic titles.

The official website for the 2012 Worlds has live video coverage each day, a schedule and a page for results. The British Cycling Twitter feed reports the latest news from LA and you can catch up with the latest by searching on Twitter for #ParaTrackWorlds.

Posted in cycling, paralympics | Leave a comment

GB Rowing media melee

Last Friday brought the first media day of the year for the Great Britain rowing team, exactly six months out from the start of London 2012. The buzz was reflected by the 106 journalists in attendance. As one regular attendee said, “Do you remember when it was three of us and a dog?” The answer is probably more recently than you think.

A packed day of interviews brought stories, features and even video content for a variety of destinations. I’ll include links here as they’re published but here are some of the pieces that are already up or in the pipeline:

  • Profile of Katherine Grainger for Rowing & Regatta magazine. In a 35-minute interview, filmed by the British Rowing website, Katherine talked about her route from reluctant rower to six-time world champion, and how she almost took up juggling instead of rowing. The magazine is out at the beginning of March.
  • Interview with Greg Searle for the first 2012 issue of Rowing Voice, which is due out in the second week of February. I also spoke to Garry Herbert – the BBC commentator who coxed Greg to gold in 1992 – for a column in Voice. Rachel Quarrell and I published a blog on Sunday rounding up the selection issues among the heavyweight men’s squad.
  • Perhaps the only hard news story of the day was Alan Campbell’s revelation, in an interview for West London Sport that he is taking part in trials for the double scull, and could move from the single if successful. Alan also talked about his “spiritual home”, Tideway Scullers School in Chiswick, for a piece that will help launch WLS’s video offering (and marked my first shoot-edit project).
Mark Hunter is rowing's Olympic athlete of the year

Mark Hunter is rowing's Olympic athlete of the year

  • Annabel Vernon, Olympic silver medallist and twice world champion in the quad, is the only member of the GB women’s squad with a Boat Race blue, compared to five in the men’s squad. The Women’s Boat Race currently takes place at Henley, far away from the hype and live TV of the men’s version. We spoke for a feature that will go out in Rowing & Regatta in April, the second in the series that begins with Grainger. Asked whether it was time for parity between the men’s and women’s races she said, “I mean, what century are we in?”
  • I also popped over to Reading Rowing Club, where Sir Matthew Pinsent was helping to launch the Nation on Trial scheme, encouraging members of the public to record their time for 2,000m on a rowing machine, and raise money for charity in a scheme that builds on the Siemens-sponsored Stroke for Stroke initiative of previous years.

A busy rowing weekend also included Saturday’s Quintin Head, which provided the race footage in the Campbell video, and that evening’s GB Rowing Team dinner at Twickenham, where Mark Hunter – world champion in the lightweight double scull – was named rowing’s Olympic athlete of the year, and earned a rather large trophy. Most other Olympic sports named their athlete of 2011 in December but rowing always waits until its annual shindig.

Posted in olympics, rowing, the boat race, women's sport | Leave a comment

Things I’ve learned about para-cycling

On Tuesday I had the chance to meet the Great Britain para-cycling team as they prepared at a training camp in Newport for the World Championships, taking place in Los Angeles next month.  By the time the Worlds begin, it will be less than six months until the start of the London 2012 Paralympics.

These are just a few of the things I discovered during the day, which will mean I’m keeping more of an eye on action and results both in LA and in London:

1. Newport is ideal preparation for London

The British team, who train full time and whose top athletes are fully funded, are normally based in Manchester with their able-bodied counterparts. With the Para Worlds and the London Track World Cup both looming, though, track time in Manchester is precious so the para team have decamped to the Wales National Velodrome in Newport.

Despite its rather drab industrial estate surroundings, Newport’s track is world class, designed by the same person who put together the track in London’s Olympic Park. GB’s Olympic and Paralympic riders will prepare here for their Games this summer.

Tandem rider Anthony Kappes said: “I’ve never ridden two tracks that are the same. The geometry is different. Although they’re all 250m the banking is different, the angles are different and the drop-offs between bankings and straights are different shapes.”

2. Paralympic tandems are among the fastest ever

Three years ago, Kappes was half of the duo that clocked the fastest time ever over 1km distance by a British pairing on a tandem – able-bodied or disabled – in 1 min 1.626 sec. Now Kappes, who is visually impaired and acts as “stoker” behind his able-bodied pilot, the Sydney Olympic silver medallist Craig Maclean, is aiming for the world mark, which is almost two seconds faster.

Tandems were dropped from the Olympic programme in the 1980s, and from the able-bodied World Championship programme in 1992 so para cycling showcases the fastest racing in the world, with the tandem sprint a display of force and speed that outshines Olympian Chris Hoy’s solo efforts.

There are problems with taking tandems faster than ever before: frames just are not built for the amount of power being put through them and the coaches have to deal with broken frames and fittings, and exploding tyres, in almost every session. During afternoon training behind a motorbike “derny” on Tuesday, Barney Storey, pilot for Neil Fachie in GB’s other tandem, suffered a broken seat while riding at 72km/h.

3. GB’s approach is a brutal “gold or nothing”

Great Britain’s team is packed with stars – they won nine golds in Motichiari, Italy last year and there are six Paralympic champions in the 14-strong squad heading to LA – but few of them are already certain of selection for the Olympics.

Results at the Worlds will dictate how large a squad GB is allowed to take to London 2012 but they could be in a position of having to leave a silver medal prospect – like one of the tandem pairings – at home because there is a better chance of gold elsewhere.

Lead coach Chris Furber said: “We want to win almost every event that we enter so that shapes how we select the squad. The athletes are here because they want to be number one in the world. Second place isn’t good enough for any of them.”

4. Jody Cundy’s motivation is still sky high

Jody Cundy has been to four Paralympic Games – three as a swimmer and one as a cyclist since switching sports in 2006 – and won five Paralympic golds, as well as 10 world titles across both sports but the 33-year-old from Cambridgeshire is not finished yet. In fact he could keep going until the 2016 Paralympics.

Cundy is preparing for his sixth Paralympics (Photo: British Cycling)

Looking forward to London, he told me: “It will be an opportunity to go there in the prime of my career, compete on home soil, in front of a home crowd. It’s stuff dreams are made of.

“It would be the perfect place to retire if I pull off a gold medal performance but I’ve only been in the sport since 2006 and as long as I’ve got motivation I can see myself taking at least two years, and then seeing if Rio’s on the cards.”

Cundy, whose right foot was amputated when he was three, finds motivation from new challenges. After a 10-year international swimming career, he moved into cycling in 2006 and, after winning the “kilo”, 1km sprint time trial, and team sprint in Beijing he added the 4km individual pursuit to his repertoire, winning world silver last year.

Jody is well worth following on Twitter too.

5. Sarah Storey is faster than ever

She may not have managed to achieve her aim of making the Olympic team but Sarah Storey, 34, has come back to the para-cycling team far stronger after her time with the able-bodied team pursuit squad, to the degree where she has earned a place in the sprint team – an event where all-male trios are the norm – in LA.

Should that team stick together, it could be one of five golds Storey targets at the Paralympics, along with the 500m time trial and 3k individual pursuit on the track and the road race and road time trial, both of which take place at the Brands Hatch motor racing circuit.

Furber said: “That close harmony we had with the able-bodied programme where she was training with the team pursuit girls has opened the door for her to ride in our team sprint. She is now able to ride a lap of the track faster than she’s ever been able to before. She is also able to start better.”

6. Attention to detail can save your life and win you gold

Butterworth lost his left arm in an attack on basra Air Station (Photo: British Cycling)

Jon-Allan Butterworth says the Basra Air Station, where he was working as an RAF weapons technician in 2007, was generally attacked between four and 11 times a day. Had the ground he was lying on been harder, he believes, the shrapnel from a shell would have bounced at a higher angle of around 45 degrees, and not severed his left arm.

What feels like an alarming attention to detail in such a traumatic situation appears a key trait for Butterworth, a likeable, chatty rider from the West Midlands who won the C5 kilo title with a world record in on his World Championships debut last year having come through the Ministry of Defence Battle Back scheme.

Butterworth also took part in the setting of a record for the number of consecutive loop-the-loops by four aircraft flying in formation. He was a passenger in a plane that managed it 26 times before they felt too sick to continue.

7. Hoy’s former team-mate will be watching in London

Maclean won Olympic team sprint silver alongside Chris Hoy 12 years ago and plans to be watching from the stands when his fellow Scot begins the quest for three more gold medals in London.

Maclean, now 40, made his last appearance at an able-bodied World Championships in 2006 and started riding as a tandem pilot after the Beijing Games. As tandem is the only Paralympic event where able-bodied guides can win medals, he could join an exclusive club in August.

But rather than closeting himself in Newport in the run-up to the Paras, he will be watching some track cycling heats, and has tickets for the athletics 100m heats too.

“There’s part of me that would still like to be competitive at able-bodied sport but age and injury goes against you,” he admits. “Not that it’s a poor second [to be at the Paralympics]. It’s a bonus at my age still to be able to compete.”

Posted in cycling, paralympics | 1 Comment

How will Olympic sport fare in 2013?

With the start of London 2012 still half a year away, many Olympic sports already enjoy the highest profile they ever have in the UK, and that will only get bigger as the year progresses.

When the Games were awarded seven years ago, sports like handball and taekwondo barely had a presence in this country.  With funding, they developed high-performance programmes to enable them to be competitive at the highest level.

Sports like basketball and hockey, which had strong club structures but little recent international success, were given a heavy nudge towards altering their focus and aiming for gold medals.

And sports at which Great Britain had won Olympic medals in the recent past – the likes of rowing, swimming and track cycling – were given large sums to replicate that model on a far larger scale.

The £58.9m paid out by government funding body UK Sport in the run-up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000 grew to £256m for the four years leading up to London 2012, even after a tightening of belts because of the 2008 recession.

Most sports hope Olympic medals in 2012 will drive both future success at the same level and an increase in participation at all levels, including schools and clubs.

But tough financial times have alreadybrought cuts to government funding for grassroots sport, and stalwarts within some sports could argue the drive for Olympic success has been detrimental at club level, unpicking traditional structures to create a total focus on international success.

As the debate continues about the change in date for rowing’s British Championships, one senior coach made a comment on the Rowperfect website that pricked my interest.

“The average standard of rowing at club level has not changed significantly [over the last 15 years]. What has changed is the standards required to win at the top level and beyond,” said Richard Phillips of London RC.

“To feed what is now one of the world’s most successful and best-funded athlete development systems, British International Rowing have focused their resources on a select group of high performance centres and schemes such as World Class Start.

“This has left the bulk of the sport out in the cold and has almost completely divorced international athletes from club rowing. The majority of our current senior international rowing team have never been in a ‘club’ as opposed to a ‘rowing facility’ and thus feel no sense of loyalty, other than that with purse strings attached, to any ordinary club.”

I put out a call on Twitter, asking club-level athletes from all Olympic sports to get in touch, and put the same questions to each, aiming to see whether trends are similar, and whether there are any communal lessons that sports can learn from the people at their grassroots.

Here is the cast of volunteers who kindly gave up their time and offered their opinions.

Of course, there are as many opinions as there are sporting participants – these respondants are a straw poll, not necessarily a full representative sample. If you would like to get involved – particularly if you are involved in an Olympic sport at any level – please tweet me @martingough22 or comment at the bottom.

HockeyMani Kochar has played for Great Britain and England, and is still involved at Reading HC.

Swimming – Laura Fell will race for Gloucester  SC again this year after three years off, having swum competitively from the age of seven to 19, attending Loughborough University during that time.

CyclingJosh Morris is a club cyclist who presents the Saturday Sports show on Radio Cardiff as well as the podcast for ProcyclingLive.com, and occasionally writes on his cycling blog.

RowingChristopher Revell competes for Cambridge University’s Caius Boat Club, and at Marlow RC.

Below are selected highlights from their answers. You can each answer in full here.

How has your sport changed since London 2012 bid was confirmed in 2005?

Mani (Hockey): The sport in England/GB has changed massively. They essentially stripped back the infrastructure, conducted an audit of each and every element in extreme detail and then said, “This is what we want and this is hows it’s gonna be”. There is now something for everyone who wants any part of hockey in their life.

Laura (Swimming): Following Beijing 2008, British Swimming set up five Intensive Training Centres (ITCs) of world-class standard as a long-term strategy for 2012. With swimming, participation levels are high at a young age and then numbers decrease. It is quite rare to find swimmers aged 21+ who are not in/on the cusp of the GB system. Your shelf life as a swimmer is far shorter than in a sport such as rowing. You would never see a Greg Searle comeback in the pool! Ian Thorpe is only 29.

Josh (Cycling): The most tangible effect is the fact that with UK road cycling on the up: the test event the Surrey Cycle Classic hit the headlines, and murmurings were soon heard of other potential pro races around the UK.

How often do elite athletes compete for their clubs and how does that compare to a decade ago?

Laura (Swimming): Loughborough University collects elite athletes from a variety of clubs, and creates the most professional and impressive set-up I have seen in a club environment. A decade ago, I believe [the concept of] where and when athlete could compete would have been a bit more relaxed. Most notably, chances are, some elite athletes would have been with home clubs anyway [before ITCs].

Mani (Hockey): The greatest bugbear for the domestic clubs is the lack of contact time in Olympic year. This has always been the case and always will be. The middle-class, public-school nature of the sport, and the lack of earning potential means good hockey players choose career over even solid domestic hockey, meaning the standard once the internationals disappear is quite poor.

Josh (Cycling): This isn’t something that happens much with cycling clubs, but I’ve certainly taken note of the number of pro cyclists that call Cardiff, where I’m from, home: that is Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas. Ten years ago it would’ve been unthinkable you’d have two top tier pro cyclists from one town in the UK.

Rowing (Christopher): There seems to be no involvement at Marlow of elite rowers such as Zac Purchase and Kath Grainger. At Caius, however, Cambridge University Boat Club draws in a lot of top international athletes wanting to row in the Boat Race [although] college rowing is probably more novelty than anything else for them.

Does the national governing body have any initiatives to boost participation? Who do they target?

Josh (Cycling): There are particular races put on at various tracks and race meets called “Go Races” that [young] people can have a go at, plus discount sessions for kids during half-terms at various velodromes. But much of the initiatives are done through clubs.

Mani (Hockey): Everyone; check out Hockey Nation. There is In2Hockey, Back2Hockey  and Rush Hockey  all launched this year to target absoutely everyone and anyone.

Laura (Swimming): The swimming.org website is the home of grassroot participation. It also targets those swimming recreationally for health and fitness. My home swimming club really doesn’t look for children over the age of 10/11 to start swimming.

Rowing: British Rowing started much of this a decade ago, with talent identification programme World Class Start, now known as “Start” and Project Oarsome, focused on junior particpation. It recently launched Explore Rowing, which focuses on enjoyment in particpation, rather than competition.  Specifically for this year, there is the Row for Gold programme, aiming to help clubs, members and others to feel a part of the London 2012 experience.

How do you think medals at London 2012 would change the sport as a whole?

Mani (Hockey): No-one will forget the impact of Sean Kerly and the success of 1988. It will help so much more.

Rowing (Christopher): Rowing is accustomed to large medal hauls, so medals at London will probably have little effect.

Laura (Swimming): It would again raise the profile of swimming in the country, both in the media, and in participation numbers.

What do you expect will happen to the Great Britain team after the Olympics?

Rowing (Christopher): I would imagine after the Olympics there will be a small turnover of athletes but the team as a whole will carry on as always.

Mani (Hockey): The British have a swansong mentality after an Olympics, which has been a problem for countless cycles. The same applies here, however the target for this group isn’t simply to be able to say, “I played in an Olympic Games”; this bunch are genuine medal hopefuls and they know it.

Laura (Swimming): As with other Olympic teams, some will retire, and new talent will come through. It will be a good period of renewing and refreshing a progressively competitive team.

Josh (Cycling): The GB women’s team has been outstanding these past few years. Afew are moving on after this, although with the likes of Dani King, we’re not short of exceptional talent for the track. As for the men’s team, this is more than likely Sir Chris Hoy’s last Olympics, and a few of the younger athletes will more than likely be targeting the spring road races rather than doing track events to prepare for Olympics beyond this.

Do you have any other hopes or fears for your sport as the 2012 Olympics loom?

Mani (Hockey): We are genuine medal contenders, we have the new “SmurfTurf” blue astroturf pitches to capture the non-hockey viewer and our sport contains players with real Xfactor in Ashley Jackson and Alex Danson – I don’t see how it can be a bad thing. There are sporting hangovers post Olympics in every sport, but the initiatives being set up by English Hockey will capture these people when they decide to check out hockey in September 2012 and beyond!

Josh (Cycling): The 2011 season has been a breakthrough year for Brits on the road … and I’d hate for the UK to once again merely focus on the track, and turn off [road] cycling for another four years until the next Olympics. The Australians are the only other nation to focus on track cycling so much; everywhere else, it’s primarily just an off-season discipline.

Laura (Swimming): My fears are that the media hype may prove too much and certain swimmers will fall short of targets. Rebecca Adlington sometimes comments on the pressure she feels, and there won’t be much more pressure than that of a home Olympics.

Posted in cycling, funding, hockey, olympics, rowing, swimming, talent identification | 2 Comments

How will Olympic sport fare in 2013? Questionnaire responses in full

In writing the blog on Olympic sport in 2013, I asked club-level athletes to get in touch, and put the same questions to each, aiming to see whether trends are similar, and whether there are any communal lessons that sports can learn from the people at their grassroots.

Hockey

Mani Kochar has played for Great Britain and England, and is still involved at Reading HC.

How has your sport changed since London 2012 bid was confirmed in 2005?
The sport in England/GB has changed massively. If ever a set of governing bodies grabbed the bull by the horns it was the GB/English governing bodies. They essentially stripped back the infrastructure, conducted an audit of each and every element in extreme detail and then said, “This is what we want and this is hows it’s gonna be”. The GB coaching staff was already in place, so the pitch side of things was already in motion, but clear direction from the Performance Director David Faulkner, and off-field drive from the likes of Sally Munday and Philip Kimberley have made hockey in this country as strong as it could be. It still has work to do, but there is now something for everyone who wants any part of hockey in their life.

How often do elite athletes compete for their clubs and how does that compare to a decade ago?
The greatest bugbear for the domestic clubs is the lack of contact time in Olympic year. This has always been the case and always will be. The middle-class, public-school nature of the sport, and the lack of earning potential means good hockey players choose career over even solid domestic hockey, meaning the standard once the internationals disappear is quite poor.

Does the national governing body have any initiatives to boost participation? Who do they target?
Everyone; check out Hockey Nation. There is In2Hockey, Back2Hockey  and Rush Hockey  all launched this year to target absoutely everyone and anyone. Within these areas are schemes like the ‘BIG PUSH’ which is the travelling roadshow based around pushing a hockey ball for 2012 miles/kms before the Olympic starts with stops at Roadshow venues.

How do you think medals at London 2012 would change the sport as a whole?
No-one will forget the impact of Sean Kerly and the success of 1988. It will help so much more.

What do you expect will happen to the Great Britain team after the Olympics?
The British have a swansong mentality after an Olympics, which has been a problem for countless cycles. The same applies here, however the target for this group isn’t simply to be able to say “I played in an Olympic Games”; this bunch are genuine medal hopefuls and they know it. The fact they know it means that mentality is firmly put away. They will dispand, but they are hockey’s golden age of players.

Both the mens and womens sqauds will disband, Kate Walsh, Helen Richardson, Beth Storey, Rich Mantell, Jonty Clarke, James Fair are all in their 30s so will almost certainly call it a day, but others are young enough and good enough to carry. Ashley Jackson is world class and still young, Adam Dixon and Andy Bull are two others likely to have another Olympics in them. And the women have several players still in their mid-20s who will certainly provide the continuity. As for the coaching staff, Danny Kerry and Jason Lee have been in charge for a long time, so i expect them to go and be replaced by the likes of Bobby Cruthchley (men) and Craig Parnham (women).

Do you have any other hopes or fears for your sport as the 2012 Olympics loom?
None [no fears] at all, hockey doesnt hit the headlines as often as it should. So the Olympics is the ‘cash cow’ of our sport. We are genuine medal contenders, we have the new “SmurfTurf” blue astroturf pitches to capture the non-hockey viewer and our sport contains players with real Xfactor in Ashley Jackson and Alex Danson – I don’t see how it can be a bad thing. There are sporting hangovers post Olympics in every sport, but the initiatives being set up by English Hockey will capture these people when they decide to check out hockey in September 2012 and beyond!

Swimming

Laura Fell will race for Gloucester  SC again this year after three years off, having swum competitively from the age of seven to 19, attending Loughborough University during that time.

How has your sport changed since London 2012 bid was confirmed in 2005?
The real changes in the profile of British swimming really came after international success, most notably Rebecca Adlington’s two gold medals in Beijing 2008 and successful world championships since. With swimming, participation levels are high at a young age and then numbers decrease. It is quite rare to find swimmers aged 21+ who are not in/on the cusp of the GB system. Your shelf life as a swimmer is far shorter than in a sport such as rowing. You would never see a Greg Searle comeback in the pool! Ian Thorpe is only 29.

Following ’08, British Swimming set up five Intensive Training Centres (ITCs) of world-class standard as a long-term strategy for 2012.

How often do elite athletes compete for their clubs and how does that compare to a decade ago?

Loughborough University collects elite athletes from a variety of clubs, and creates the most professional and impressive set-up I have seen in a club environment. The coaching staff are incredible, the training sessions brutal and therefore it is an honour to represent the university. Elite athletes at Loughborough would compete for their home clubs at league galas, where clubs race other clubs domestically. Sometimes, the elite athletes would only race the final meet, to allow club swimmers a chance to compete. A decade ago, I believe [the concept of] where and when athlete could compete would have been a bit more relaxed. Most notably, chances are, some elite athletes would have been with home clubs anyway, as it is only in the last four years that ITCs were set up.

Does the national governing body have any initiatives to boost participation? Who do they target?
The swimming.org website (a sister site of britishswimming.org) is the home of grassroot participation. Swimming recruits looking to compete and potentially go on to become elite swimmers have to start young. My home swimming club really doesn’t look for children over the age of 10/11 to start swimming. The site also targets those swimming recreationally for health and fitness.

How do you think medals at London 2012 would change the sport as a whole?
It would again raise the profile of swimming in the country, both in the media, and in participation numbers. Following Beijing, swimming became a sport to watch.

What do you expect will happen to the Great Britain team after the Olympics?
As with other Olympic teams, some will retire, and new talent will come through. It will be a good period of renewing and refreshing a progressively competitive team. Depending on results, certain members will become stars: Fran Halsall, Lizzie Simmonds, Gemma Spofforth, Liam Tancock, Rebecca Adlington, Hannah Miley, Jemma Lowe and Kerri-Ann Payne are the ones to watch.

Do you have any other hopes or fears for your sport as the 2012 Olympics loom?
I think swimming is on a constant upward spiral in terms of participation and media profile. This can only continue to improve after 2012. My fears are that the media hype may prove too much and certain swimmers will fall short of targets. Rebecca Adlington sometimes comments on the pressure she feels, and there won’t be much more pressure than that of a home Olympics.

Cycling

Josh Morris is a club cyclist who presents the Saturday Sports show on Radio Cardiff as well as the podcast for ProcyclingLive.com, and occasionally writes on his cycling blog.

How has your sport changed since London 2012 bid was confirmed in 2005?
It’s a bit of an odd one, for the track side of things there’s been lots of excitement, although cycling is a sport that isn’t much affected by the Olympics – after all, most cycling is done on the roads, and there are only four Olympic medals up for grabs there, so there’s certainly a parallel to be drawn with tennis in that respect. The most tangible effect is the fact that with UK road cycling on the up: the test event the Surrey Cycle Classic hit the headlines, and murmurings were soon heard of other potential pro races around the UK.

How often do elite athletes compete for their clubs and how does that compare to a decade ago?
This isn’t something that happens much with cycling clubs, but I’ve certainly taken note of the number of pro cyclists that call Cardiff, where I’m from, home: that is Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas. Ten years ago it would’ve been unthinkable you’d have two top tier pro cyclists from one town in the UK.

Does the national governing body have any initiatives to boost participation? Who do they target?
There’s particular races put on at various tracks and race meets called “Go Races” that [young] people can have a go at, plus discount sessions for kids during half-terms at various velodromes: useful if you live in Manchester, Newport or Southampton. But much of the initiatives is done through clubs, be it lending bikes for things, or block-booking sessions for training or races at the velodromes or outdoor tracks.

How do you think medals at London 2012 would change the sport as a whole?
Well, seeing as the UK dominated track cycling events at Beijing, it’s certainly expected. Cycling has been the UK’s most successful sport in recent years, and it’d certainly be nice if it stayed that way!

What do you expect will happen to the Great Britain team after the Olympics?
The GB women’s team has been outstanding these past few years, but a few are moving on after this, although with the likes of Dani King, we’re not short of exceptional talent for the track. As for the men’s team, this is more than likely Sir Chris Hoy’s last Olympics, and a few of the younger athletes will more than likely be targeting the spring road races rather than doing track events to prepare for Olympics beyond this

Do you have any other hopes or fears for your sport as the 2012 Olympics loom?
The 2011 season has been a breakthrough year for Brits on the road in cycling, with Brits taking second and third at La Vuelta a España, plus a silly amount of medals at the world road race championships, as well as Mark Cavendish’s historic victory, and I’d hate for the UK to once again merely focus on the track, and turn off [road] cycling for another four years until the next Olympics. The Australians are the only other nation to focus on track cycling so much; everywhere else, it’s primarily just an off-season discipline.

Even with with that taken into account, British Cycling’s dictation of it’s racing programs at track meets is a bit silly – British athletes only compete in Olympic events, meaning some of the most exciting races to watch, like the madison, individual pursuit and the scratch race have no British participants, which is certainly a shame given the numbers of athletes to previously develop through these events, like Brad Wiggins, Pete Kennaugh and of course, Mark Cavendish.

Rowing

Christopher Revell competes for Cambridge University’s Caius Boat Club, and at Marlow RC.

How has your sport changed since London 2012 bid was confirmed in 2005?
As far as I can tell it hasn’t really changed much. Increased use of Twitter by athletes has been an interesting phenomenon but I don’t think that has any correlation to the London Games. Obviously with rowing the facilities at Dorney already existed so there hasn’t been the change in infrastructure that some sports may have felt.

How often do elite athletes compete for their clubs and how does that compare to a decade ago?
There seems to be no involvement at Marlow of elite rowers such as Zac Purchase and Kath Grainger. At Caius, however, Cambridge University Boat Club draws in a lot of top international athletes wanting to row in the Boat Race, and many of these will later for for their colleges after that. These athletes tend to come and go in a year or two, though, and college rowing is probably more novelty than anything else for them.

How do you think medals at London 2012 would change the sport as a whole?
Rowing is accustomed to large medal hauls, so medals at London will probably have little effect.

What do you expect will happen to the Great Britain team after the Olympics?
I would imagine after the Olympics there will be a small turnover of athletes but the team as a whole will carry on as always.

Christopher passed on the question about national governing body initiatives to boost participation. British Rowing started much of this a decade ago, with talent identification programme World Class Start, now known as “Start” and Project Oarsome, focused on junior particpation. It recently launched Explore Rowing, which focuses on enjoyment in particpation, rather than competition.  Specifically for this year, there is the Row for Gold programme, aiming to help clubs, members and others to feel a part of the London 2012 experience.

Posted in cycling, funding, hockey, olympics, rowing, swimming, talent identification | 1 Comment

Cycling stars who miss headlines and support

The news story on a Dutch cycling website on Friday could hardly have had a lower profile, and its obscurity grew when I used internet translator Babelfish to turn it into English.

“AA Drink-Leontien.nl takes over six racers of for the ziele the gone woman formation Garmin-Cervélo,” it said.

“Wielerland.nl had recently the international early product of the passage of Emma Pooley, Elizabeth Armitstead, Sharon Laws and Lucy Martin towards the Dutch formatie.”

Thankfully the Velonation website stepped up, with Pooley telling them via email: “I’m happy to be able to confirm that I’ll be riding for the Dutch team AA Drink in 2012.”

It was the only media outlet to report the signing in English for most of Friday.

As Velonation explains, for the second successive year, the bulk of the Great Britain women’s Olympic road race line-up have been forced to switch teams over the winter because of their employers’ financial difficulties.

Arguably the transfer of a British Olympic silver and world bronze medallist, and the likely move of a five-time track world medallist, is deserving of far larger headlines.

Perhaps comparing it with Mark Cavendish’s switch to Team Sky is a little over the top, especially given Cavendish’s move into the mainstream since winning the world title but – as with the Manx Missile – this is a move that could have an impact on Great Britain medal chances at London 2012.

Italy’s Giorgia Bronzini went one better than Cavendish in Denmark in September, winning her second successive world road title, and said this week that it is time women’s cycling received the money and sponsorship it deserves.

“In Copenhagen I wanted to speak with the president of [world governing body] the UCI to inform him that my jersey was worth just as much as Cavendish’s one,” she said.

Cash is perhaps less of an immediate issue for the GB riders, whose living and training costs at least will be met by UK Sport in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, but stability and the ability to plan must be at stake for riders who have to play musical teams each winter.

Because of the existence of Team Sky, Great Britain’s men are well provided for. As David Brailsford, the British Cycling performance director and Team Sky principal, has explained regularly, the existence of a men’s professional road team alongside the GB set-up means riders’ support network – fitness and technique training, physio and medical support – can be organised to ensure success both in the major pro events like the Tour de France and at the Olympics. There is no similar dual network for the British women.

Since the end of last season, Australia have copied the Team Sky model with the GreenEdge team featuring many of the country’s male Olympic hopefuls. The crucial difference is that they have a women’s team too, tied in with the Australian Institute of Sport and featuring world time trial champ Judith Arndt, plus a host of young Aussies.

Perhaps if Australia are successful in 2012, both on the roads of Europe and at London 2012, others will follow suit and make sure the world’s top women get more support.

Posted in cycling, olympics, sponsorship, women's sport | 2 Comments

Exciting trials give few clues on Boat Race potential

Two intense Boat Race trial eights races on the Thames on Tuesday demonstrated the strength in depth of both the Oxford and Cambridge squads this season but gave little clue as to who might win the big race on 7 April.

Cambridge coach Steve Trapmore described his squad’s race – in nasty wind and waves for much of the second half – as “one of the best ever” and was clearly pleased by a match that saw the lead change hands three times.

Oxford’s one-and-threequarter-length margin was closer but the race was a little more straightforward, with one crew taking over at Hammersmith and holding a winning lead.

The crews are given fun names by the students each year. Cambridge chose “Cloak”, featuring 2011 Blue Joel Jennings, and “Dagger”, with squad president Dave Nelson in seven seat and fellow 2011 veteran Mike Thorp two seats behind him.

Oxford president Karl Hudspith was the only remaining dark blue from last year’s winning crew, rowing in a boat named “Hell”, while former Isis cox Zoe de Toledo and German international Hanno Wienhausen raced in “High Water”.

The high water that Oxford raced on proved not to be the worst, though, as Cambridge suffered far rougher conditions during their race, which started 75 minutes earlier.

On the Middlesex station, Dagger has the better start of the two light blue crews and cox Ed Bosson, a former GB junior, made the most of it, pushing his rival Sarah Smart over towards the Surrey bank. Smart, who used to spend holidays working as a punting tour guide on the Cam, showed her mettle, though, holding her line at Hammersmith then getting the best of a serious clash of oars under the bridge.

Cloak took charge but could not make sufficient ground with the bend in their favour, never getting more than about a length then, along Corney reach, Dagger came back. They were level at the bandstand, extended that to a length at Barnes Bridge and had a lead of over 12 seconds by the finish.

“We kept the crews completely apart and we treated this period like a mini Boat Race, to make an event of it,” said Trapmore, who was based on the Tideway while training to win an Olympic gold in Sydney 11 years ago then coached at Putney-based Imperial College.
“It shows we have a close, robust group at the moment who produced probably one of the best trials eights there has ever been.

“To show the resolve when you are down and being hit by waves, whitecaps when you go round Hammersmith bend – it can be like that on Boat Race day and you can’t recreate that situation without being here and doing it.”

Using the “Boat Race tide” later in the day, Oxford had a wider river to play with but coxes De Toledo and American Oskar Zorilla stuck closely together.

Umpire John Garrett warned Zorrilla in particular and his regular shouts of “Hell, move to Surrey!” may have bemused casual onlookers.

After wash from a Fire Service launch at Putney – hampering High Water on Middlesex – then a slight clash at the Mile Post, Hell moved gradually ahead, a two-second lead at Hammersmith becoming a one-and-a-half length lead by the Bandstand, at which point Zorilla’s slightly wayward steering was moot. His men were longer and more effective but their opponents fought well to keep the margin close.

“It’s a very important event. We don’t necessarily prepare the crews for a long period of time because you’ve always got a conflict with the general development you need to make to win the Boat Race,” said coach Sean Bowden.

“Until they’ve done it they don’t really know what they’re in for and it’s not necessarily the physical component of it, it’s the understanding of the intensity with which you have to race at certain key times, how easily they get punished for small mistakes.”

In Olympic year, neither squad boasts the sort of experience it might have at other times but all now have a far greater knowledge of the unique Tideway course.

Cambridge, who will go on two training camps to Banyoles near Barcelona either side of Christmas, seem to be further from setting their crews but Trapmore has revised their training programme this year, driven by the four-length defeat he suffered on debut last season.

“Last year was very disappointing. It was a pretty emotional time because me and the athletes put so much into the event and for it not to work out the way you want to is pretty tough to deal with. We did a lot of analysis and there was a lot of good stuff that underpinned last year. It was just that we didn’t show it on race day,” he said.

“We’ve continued momentum last year but we’re looking at all sorts of new ways of doing things and – from my personal experience of training here – refining to make it more specific for this race.

“I’m pretty open-minded [on selection] at the moment. The way I’m looking at it is that it’s organic and developing through day-to-day training as well as the assessments we’re doing,” Trapmore continued.

“I’ve got a few ideas and I’m looking  at events like this to confirm different ideas I’m thinking about individuals, units, crews and coxes.”

Bowden believes he has many of his blue boat already in place and will get closer to his final line-up on camp in Temple-sur-Lot after Christmas.

“It will make it apparent to certain people who would have seen themselves as strong members of the group that they’re not as strong as some of the other guys and maybe they have to respond on an individual level if they want to be in the boat,” he said of the trial race.

“If you’d looked at them on paper you would have thought [they were two balanced crews], you might have even thought the one that lost was stronger, but it became apparent through training that the boat that won had more basic speed.

“I’d like to think I’m going to have six or seven guys in my mind to build our crew around but I’m aware that getting the perfect combination may well mean there is an odd person who you think is a good individual may not end up featuring if he can’t combine in the eight and make a good job.”

UPDATE Wednesday: Having listened back to coaches’ post-race interviews this morning, I’ve given the above a write-through, adding quotes and detail. I always enjoy speaking to Sean Bowden and listening again usually reveals something I’ve missed the first time.

Here are the audio highlights of my chat with cox Zoe de Toledo, where she talks about racing on her “home course” on the Thames, her determination to make the top Boat Race crew in 2012 after missing out last year, her struggles when she started coxing at St Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith, and her aims of making the Olympic team in 2016. The write-up should be in Hammersmith & Fulham Chronicle later this week.

And here’s a short feature for the West London Sport website, on how this year’s new boys are benefiting from the local knowledge and experience of Oxford president Karl Hudspith and Cambridge coach Steve Trapmore.

To stay in touch, follow me on Twitter @martingough22 or click “Follow” in the bottom right of this page.

Posted in rowing, the boat race | Leave a comment

When is a Brit not a Brit?

Spot the difference between these three athletes:

Athlete A was born in Sudan but moved to London when his parents were granted political asylum and took up his chosen sport in the UK. Aged 14, he moved to the United States to play that sport and returns now only to visit family, to run training camps and to compete for Great Britain, who he will represent at London 2012.

Athlete B won a world silver medal for her native Cuba in 1999 and moved to the UK with her husband in 2001 but competed for Sudan at the 2004 Olympics having failed to gain a British passport before the Games. She finally got her passport two years ago, came fifth in her event at last year’s Worlds and aims to compete for Great Britain at London 2012.

Athlete C moved to the UK from Ukraine in 2007 to act as a training partner for British athletes. Last year won European silver for GB. She will qualify for a British passport in February and hopes to gain it in time to compete for Great Britain at London 2012.

Actually there is very little difference, save for the welcome each of the three is likely to receive in London.

Athlete A, basketball star Luol Deng, is nothing like as famous on home turf as he is in the US, where he is president Obama’s favourite player, but he will spearhead the Great Britain side as they bid to justify suggestions they could have an outside chance of a medal. He went through a formal naturalisation ceremony in 2006 (but didn’t receive his passport in time to have this photo taken, so a friendly onlooker had to lend him one).

Triple jumper Yamile Aldama, Athlete B, has competed under the radar so far but the story of the challenges she has faced since arriving in the UK are enough to elicit sympathy from all but the most hard-hearted Team GB fan.

Wrestler Yana Stadnik is Athlete C but the hopes she and several other foreign-born British wrestling hopefuls have of competing at 2012 have been less well received, especially by those wrestlers they have overtaken for funding, coaching and support.

The head of the world wrestling governing body hit out at Britain’s reliance on foreign-born athletes during this weekend’s Olympic test event in London, arguing that their presence would hinder attempts at securing a legacy for the sport in the UK.

Although neither she nor any of the rest of the squad were talking to the media this weekend, Stadnik has argued in the past that she is helping to promote the sport, which was only open to women at Olympic level in 2004.

Speaking to my former colleague Nick Hope for a BBC Radio 5 live Investigates programme, British Wrestling chief executive Colin Nicholson said: “At the end of the run-up to London 2012, we will have an established world-class system where we know what it takes to deliver wrestlers of potential.”

Nicholson in effect argued that the disgruntled British wrestlers were simply not good enough to compete at 2012.

Stadnik’s cause is not helped by revelations that her marriage to British wrestler Leon Rattigan was kept quiet until this week, although her application for British citizenship is apparently based on residency rather than marriage.

The argument is nothing new. There were far more opponents to Zola Budd‘s inclusion in the British Olympic team of 1984, when her native South Africa was banned from the event.

And the inclusion of naturalised athletes is more acceptable in other sports – England’s Test cricket squad has five and the latest English rugby union side four.

All of these governing bodies are abiding by the letter of the law in fielding their teams, but interpretation of the spirit seems to differ from sport to sport and athlete to athlete.

Should an athlete who is eligible to compete for Great Britain ever be prevented from doing so?

Posted in olympics | 2 Comments