Pre Olympic thoughts Posted 21st Aug
Around about now – two weeks out from the opening ceremony of the Olympics – elite athletes from all over the world will begin to notice the fluttering wings of the colonies of butterflies residing in their tummies. Any Olympic athlete will tell you that in the final approach to the games they wake up each morning knowing they are very much alive.
A common sports psychology approach is demystifying the aura of the five ringed circus by saying that it should be treated as just another race but there is no denying that the Olympics are different to all other competitions. Being an Olympian has a new set of pressures, many of which have been absent for ninety five percent of the Olympic cycle. Most Olympic sports are minority sports in Ireland and many of our Olympians have been preparing in relative obscurity and peace. Suddenly, on the approach to the games, their phones start to ring with requests for interviews, TV appearances, radio ad’s and video diaries. Everyone wants to know who they are, what they eat for breakfast and whether they are going to bring home a medal or not. Yes, competing at the Olympic Games is a full on experience from beginning to end and, as an athlete, it’s better to embrace that fact rather than ignore it.
During my own career, I was more concerned with chasing results than really taking in what it really meant to be an Olympian. I never congratulated myself for being an Olympian when I was at the games as I was too preoccupied with my own efforts and dealing with the fact that I failed to medal. This year – four years into my retirement – I really appreciated what it meant to be an Olympian when I saw the joy of Katie Taylor when she achieved qualification. The elation of a three-time World Champion in simply qualifying for London made me realise just how special the whole event is and what an honour it is to represent your country there.
Most of our athletes will have finished their preparation and qualification races and will now be fully cocooned in their final preparation bubble. It is a period where you fluctuate between wanting it to be over and done with and not wanting it to end. You may never feel as physically amazing in your life as you do in the final approach to the Olympics. Long, brutal training blocks gradually decrease on the run in as the tapering begins. The intensity of training can mask that you are actually a supremely fit athlete as you drag yourself from training sessions to bed and back to training sessions. The taper brings the life back into your body and as the training decreases, the rewards of all that hard work come to the fore as your body morphs from being a clydesdale into a thoroughbred.
Tapering has it’s own challenge however: time. When you are training hard you are incapable of thinking about little else other than the sessions and making them better and getting through them. Tapering means less training and more spare time and a lot more energy. More spare time can mean more thinking than is necessary (not usually a good thing) and more energy means you must click into a new form of discipline, the discipline of resting and staying out of trouble. Athletes love to do things by nature. Being asked to do as little as possible just before your biggest performance is actually quite a challenge. Boredom is a real enemy. In this period I used to read a lot of books, magazines and try to stay away from the internet as much as possible. Easier said than done and nowadays smartphones make it even more of a challenge to stay away from the big bad internet and the twitterati. Every time an athlete sends a tweet from now on, it will represent an official press release, no matter how inane. This is another indication that the Olympics is like no other event they will do.
The media seem to love stories about the problems and possible disasters associated with the organisation of the Olympics. England is the land of exceptional events, let’s face it, they know how to organise a gig over there. However, London is not escaping the pandemonium of the last minute glitches and the media world love reporting on what could possibly go wrong. For the athletes they will be expecting that everything will be perfect, as promised and that their Olympic challenge will be hosted in ideal conditions with the best facilities with not a crane or concrete mixer in sight. Before the Athens Games we were being bombarded with stories of what a disaster it was going to be. When we got there it was everything we had dreamed of, and more. It has been a long time since the host city of the greatest event in the world has failed to deliver on their promise and I fully believe that the London Olympics will be an exceptional experience for both athletes and spectators.
As for the weather, who cares about the prospect of rain? Irish athletes will excel with a bit of liquid sunshine as they finally get to compete at an Olympics where the weather conditions won’t work against them. We had to use ice vests at the Beijing Games in order to cool down and I think they will welcome the need for a rain jacket instead. Years of walking home from school in horizontal rain will finally make sense! It is also such a positive step to have Sonia O Sullivan as the Chef de Mission for the team. Her energy and aura and what she means to the Irish public at large will be a great asset to the Irish team as an inspiration provider alone.
The fluttering butterflies will multiply in numbers between now and when they take to the start of their first event in London. They will encounter the global giant that is the Olympic Games and they will be asking more of themselves than ever before in front of billions of people. It is only two short weeks away and for the ones who are primed and ready to go, that time will drag like never before and for the ones who feel underprepared, the time will tick faster and the day of reckoning will arrive a lot sooner than they would like. In any case, they are in for an exceptional life experience. London has been waiting for this moment for a long time and nothing will get in their way of producing what will probably be the best Olympics in recent memory.