Archive for August, 2012

In addition to the Jamaican dominance in the sprints, the other remarkable success story of London 2012 was the success of Team GB.  With a relative small population of 62 million, Great Britain came third in the medals table, out-performing larger countries like Germany, France, and Russia.  Part of this success is no doubt due to the home advantage –  that extra boost that athletes get from performing infront of a strongly partisan home crowd, just as it helped the Aussies in Sydney in 2000, and the Chinese in Beijing in 2008.  But there is clearly something more to it than that. After all, the home court advantage seems to be of no aid to British tennis players at Wimbledon.

Usain Bolt and Mo Farah – two icons of London 2012

The mystery is not only how did these small countries  punch above their weight, but also ‘how can the UK dominate in sports that we don’t even see outside of the Olympics, and yet have had no success at the game’s national game of football since 1966? For the answer we must follow the money.  Not the money generated by the sport (in which football has no equal) but the money pumped into grassroots development.  Part of the reason that the host nation always performs well at the Games that they host, is not just due to the support of the crowd, but due to the extra investment that the government pumps in, in the run-up to the event.

The UK is now the dominant world power in cycling, winning 7 out of the 10 Gold medals on offer.  As well as a Gold medal, Bradley Wiggins also won this year’s Tour de France, and Sir Chris Hoy is now Britain’s most successful ever Olympian winning 6 Golds, usurping legendary rower Sir Steven Redgrave.  But Britain only started their domination in cycling at the Sydney games in 2000 after the team started receiving funding from the national lottery in 1997.

Despite the high profile success of UK athletes Mo Farah and face of the games Jessica Ennis, Team GB under performed on the track winning only 6 medals (2 below the target).  But they punched above their weight in equestrian events, sailing, and rowing.  Team GB also struck Gold in trap shooting. Are you noticing a pattern?  These are the pastimes of the rich.  Anyone who listened to the post-event interviews with the British medal winners can’t failed to have notice the differences in accents between the Olympic winners of these elitist sports, and the regional accents of those who participate in athletics, boxing, and judo.

Olympic Gold medalists Nicola Adams. Boxing and football are left to the working classes.

Nearly a quarter of this year’s Team GB competitors were educated at fee-charging schools (which are attended by only 7% of the total child population).  Obviously in events like sailing, shooting, and equestrian the proportion is much higher.  In stark contrast to the classic story of boxers who only avoided a life of crime by discovering their sport, some of Britain’s row team are academics. Gold medal winning rower Katherine Grainger is a law graduate from Edinburgh university, who went onto to take a Masters in medical law, and is now doing a PhD at King’s college London.  Her rowing partner in the women’s double sculls, Anna Watkins is a Cambridge graduate, now studying for a PhD in mathematics.  Now more than ever, a good education, just like sporting success doesn’t come cheap.

The story of Peter Wilson, gold medal winner in the trap shooting, is revealing.  Wilson was educated at three independent schools and took up shooting at his father’s suggestion after he suffered nerve damage to his shoulder in a snowboarding accident which left him unable to play squash and cricket.  Having been brought up on his parents’ farm he was no stranger to shotguns. Within four months of trying shooting at the Bisley Ranges,Wilson became the 2006 European Junior Champion.  However, following the lack of shooting medals at the 2008 Games, Wilson’s funding from UK Sport was cut and he was required to self-fund his shooting expenses – nearly £10,000 a year.  His parents funded him for a year while he tried to secure further funding and also received support and coaching from Ahmad Mohammad Hasher Al Maktoum, who is a member of the ruling family of Dubai.  After winning Gold at this year’s Games Wilson went on TV to encourage any youngsters to go on-line and find their nearest shooting centre so they could take up the sport.  Without wanting to take anything away from his medal success, he seemed blissfully unaware that his own progress had been dependent on the wealth and contacts of friends and family.  Wealth and contacts that most British kids who go to comprehensive schools, do not have.

Peter Wilson – having rich friends always helps

It is the same story in many non-Olympic sports.  Of the England cricket squad in August’s test match, all seven batsmen were privately educated.  Football and boxing it seems are the only sports where state educated, working class boys can attain success (see David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, John Terry etc).  We’re used to such observations being made about Politics, and employment, but why does the English class system exist in sports?

For the answer we must go back to school.  Anyone who went to state school, and now has children in the same system will have noticed how things have changed in regard to sports in school.  It’s not just about the advent of such ridiculous things as the ‘non-competitive school sports days. It’s about access and facilities.  School playing fields are being sold off, and teachers are more reluctant to supervise out-of-hours sport, partly due to changes in their contracts, and partly because of increased pressure to meet academic targets.

school sports day – a thing of the past?

At the same time the fee-paying schools are investing in more tennis courts, rugby pitches, cricket nets, indoor heated swimming pools, and athletics tracks, as a way to attract the patronage of the monied parents.  If you are going to pay £20,000 a year in tuition fees, you not only want a top notch education and the best academic standards for your children – you also expect top notch facilities for extra-curricular activities like music, drama, and of course sport.  And whilst these elite schools will invest in tennis, rugby, archery, and shooting, they leave football to the plebs in state school.  Until someone starts to pump money into developing footballing talent at the grass roots, England will never again win the World Cup.

During this Olympics, there was much talk of Jamaicans being natural sprinters, or the Kenyans being natural distance runners, but surely the explosive power of the sprinters could also be put to good use in rowing or swimming, and the cardio vascular endurance of Kenyans prove useful in the Tour de France?  (Strange isn’t it that no one talks about ‘natural sporting talent or genetic advantage of Europeans in these sports).  But sailing, rowing, cycling and swimming require expensive equipment and facilities like velodromes, and heated Olympic sized swimming pools – whereas running requires nothing but somewhere to run.

If Team GB wants to continue its medal success in future Olympics, and avoid the demise that Australia has suffered over the last two games, then the government must continue to pump money into grass roots development.  David Cameron has already confirmed the future funding for elite athletes. But what about the kids?  How do they get to join that elite squad, and get access to all that funding, facilities, and coaching?  It seems that if we want our children to enjoy sporting activity away from the games consoles, then we must either send them to private schools or take on that responsibility ourselves.

Team GB medal winners. Will we be able to repeat this success?

Jessica Ennis and ………..

Well the greatest show on earth is over, and we can now reflect on what lessons we can take from the spectacle.  Part of the pleasure of watching these recent Olympics, was seeing the lean and muscular bodies of the competitors, honed to perfection.  This is not the same as ‘perving’ over the bodies of glamour models or porn stars.  You know that these athletes’ bodies are the products of years of hard training, not the quick fix of tummy tucks, liposuction, and silicone implants that so much of the rest of the population are prepared to resort to in the pursuit of perfection.

In support of the US Olympic team, in July the UK was visited by first lady Michelle Obama and former Olympic champion Carl Lewis. Mrs Obama has been vocal in her attempts to encourage healthy eating and reduce obesity in the US.  But despite the svelte example set by the POTUS and the First Lady, reducing America’s skyrocketing obesity levels looks like a ‘mission impossible’ that would make Tom Cruise think twice!  For though they might lead the world in Gold medal winning Olympians, they also lead the world in fatsos!

Michelle Obama – leading the fight against obesity in the US.

Obesity levels in the US have increased faster than any other nation on earth, now at around 35% of the population.  And just as in the Olympics medal table, the UK are not far behind, with about 25% of the UK population being classified as obese.  Projections are that by 2050 60% of men and 50% of women will be in this category. The contrast between the super-fit athletes and the couch potato general public grows ever more stark.

As part of my background reading in preparation for this year’s Olympics I came across the story of Andy Cougan. Mr Logan was nominated by multiple Gold medal winner Sir Chris Hoy to carry the Olympic torch through Dundee back in June.  Logan was one of Scotland’s brightest athletes in the 1930s but his career was cut short by the Second World War. Fighting in the Far East he was captured by the Japanese and held in various prisoner of war camps for nearly four years, where he was forced to do hard labour and nearly died from Malaria.  When he returned to Glasgow in 1945 he weighed less than 7 stone, and was never again able to compete at the highest level, although he did resume running just for the love of the sport.  Despite his physical hardships this man was still fit enough to carry the Olympic torch at the age of 95.

Sir Chris Hoy and Andy Cougan

It also made me think of Nelson Mandela.  He suffered in prison for 27 years, and he too did his share of hard labour in a lime quarry, and yet he still alive to see the age of 94.  It got me thinking, maybe there is a link between a life of hard work and relative deprivation and longevity.

On Monday August 6th the BBC’s Horizon series hosted an edition entitled Eat, Fast and Live Longer. The basic thrust of the programme was that survival on a minimal diet can actually help you live longer.  According to the programme’s host Michael Mosely “calorie restriction is the only thing that’s ever really been shown to prolong life.” Experiments on a variety of species, among them fish, rodents and dogs, have shown that calorie restriction appears to increase both median and maximum life span.  Animals fed very low calorie diets and found to be the thinnest (without being medically underweight or malnourished) were the healthiest and lived the longest.

Another remarkable OAP who carried the Olympic torch this year, who was also featured in the programme was veteran marathon runner Fauja Singh.  He is 5ft 8in, weighs just over 8 stone, and survives on a calorie-light, vegetable and plant based diet.  Clocking in at 101 years old it is obviously a diet that works well for him.

101 year old Fauja Singh

Not only does the highly calorific western diet shorten our lives, but  it has been found that sugar also makes us look older.  Research has shown that a diet high in sugar and high glycaemic carbohydrates, such as breads, rice, potatoes and baked goods, can create a chemical reaction that makes skin more stiff and inflexible, leading to premature ageing.  It all makes McDonald’s sponsorship of the Olympics look all the more out of place.

One of the challenges facing the organisers of the Games is to create a ‘legacy’.  Part of the problem is that there is such a large disconnect between the pizza and burger guzzling couch potatoes who watch the Olympics from their sofas, and the hardcore dedicated athletes who train to compete.  But you don’t need to have a chance of competing in Rio in 2016 in order to be inspired by the efforts of our Olympians.  Despite what advertisers would have us believe, you don’t have to spend money on the latest new gadget, or scientific discovery, to achieve health and longevity.  What our bodies really need is for us to go back to basics and behave in the way in tune with how our bodies evolved over thousands of years.

Here are some life lesson and health tips that we can all take from the Olympics.

  1.  ‘Llow the McDonalds.  Put down the burgers and the chicken Mc Nuggets – eat more fruit and veg.
  2. Despite what the sponsors would have you believe, you don’t need the Powerade, and Lucozade, unless you’re running a marathon or triathlon.  Water is all you need to keep you hydrated. And not even the expensive bottled variety.  What comes out of the tap in this country is just fine.
  3. Forget cosmetic surgery.The number of women who have paid the ultimate price for their vanity, and died during or after cosmetic surgery continues to grow each year.  Just this year a Black British woman died after having silicone injected into her buttocks trying to get the Beyonce booty, and scores of British women were running to their doctors to have their sub-standard breast implants removed. Ladies – rather than using silicone, botox, collagen, liposuction, tummy tucks and gastric bands to maintain your looks, try swimming, yoga, pilates, salsa, zumba and spin classes.4.Switch off the X-box.  Forget playing Fifa 12, WWF Smackdown, UFC Undisputed, and NBA jams on a console.  Get out and do it in real life.  Not only is it good for your health but will improve your social life.

5.Persistance overcomes resistance, adversity can make you or break you so don’t give up – Mo Farah failed to qualify for the 5,000m final in Beijing four years ago, before winning Gold in London. Jessica Ennis could not compete in the Beijing Olympics because of an ankle injury.  Rower Katherine Grainger had to settle for silver in Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004, and Beijing in 2008, before winning gold at London 2012.  You can’t fail until you quit.

Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins

So rather than just enjoying the two weeks or Olympic spectacle, and then just going back to life as normal, trying taking inspiration from the example of these super-athletes, to make positive changes in your own life.

Firstly, an apology to all my subscribers for the lengthy gap since my lasting posting.  I’ve been too busy watching and tweeting about the Olympics (follow me on twitter @LeePinkerton). 

But ironically the Olympics has been good for views of my blog. As people the world over have been astounded by the success of Jamaica on the track, they have gone on-line searching for an explanation, and discovered my posting on Race and Athletics (257 hits so far). 




Once the excitement is all over, normal service will be resumed and  I will be publishing two Olympic-themed posts examining life lessons we can all take from the greatest show on earth.

Stay tuned………………