One Year To Go To Tokyo 2020


Liz Johnson: Moving to Bath forced me out of my comfort zone

Duncan Mackay

When you’re a full-time athlete, you obviously have to get used to training occupying a lot of your time. It’s particularly nice when you see that training pay off and, when I broke my own world record a few weeks ago, this was certainly the case.

I train six days a week - on most days this involves four hours in the pool (an early morning session and an afternoon session). On three days I also build in a one hour session in the gym. As a Paralympic swimmer, it’s important to monitor the effects that training has on my body but I’ve always found that swimming has been more of a help with my cerebral palsy. 

When I was younger, and receiving treatment through a children’s centre, they commented that the swimming seemed to benefit my condition and so my mum actively encouraged me to swim more.  I’m always swimming now so it’s easy to underestimate the benefits that it has for me. Occasionally intense training can make it more difficult for me out of the pool but my coach and I can keep an eye on that and adjust what we do accordingly.

I train at the University of Bath, as part of Team Bath. My coach had never worked with anyone with my condition before and that’s actually helped my progress. Sometimes he’ll ask me to try something that might push me out of my comfort zone but that’s what is really helping my development. We’re currently working on changing my stroke and the training can be slightly trial and error but that makes it very rewarding. 

Forcing myself to move out of my comfort zone was the main reason behind my move to Bath from my original training base in Swansea. I studied and trained at Swansea for years but, once I had finished my degree, a lot of my friends moved away. Then I won the gold medal at the Paralympics in Beijing 2008, under very difficult circumstances both personally and physically, and afterward it seemed like one chapter of my life was over and I needed to start another one. It was hard to leave Swansea but being at Bath has helped me gain a fresh impetus and open myself up to new challenges.

I’m always looking ahead to London 2012 and the way to make sure I compete, and medal, at the Paralympics will be to stay motivated throughout the whole build-up. Being at Bath really helps with this - I’m surrounded by top athletes, from rugby players to modern pentathletes. There’s a real sense of camaraderie and if someone is having a tough day at training the other athletes will help push them through. This training environment breeds a much better interaction between athletes from different sports and we can all use that to our benefit.

In terms of my preparation ahead of London 2012, there are a number of competitions that I’ll be focusing on. The IPC World Swimming Championships in Eindhoven this year and the IPC European Swimming Championships in Berlin in 2011 will be key events for me. 



However, my next competition will be the BT Paralympic World Cup in Manchester. The competition is the only annual, international, multi-sport disability event in the world and is therefore an excellent chance for me to pit myself against athletes that I rarely get the chance to race. We hardly ever get to race against the Americans as it costs so much to travel to the US to compete, so getting that international race experience is really important.  It’s not just swimming that benefits as the event runs for seven days and also includes track and field athletics, wheelchair basketball and seven-a-side football. 

This year will also be the first year I have competed at the BT Paralympic World Cup since becoming a BT Ambassador. It makes a difference when you feel that a company like BT is willing to support you and work with you because they have faith in your ability. 

It’s also great to see BT supporting sport and being one of their Ambassadors has really benefitted me on a personal level as I’m able to share my experiences to help inspire BT customers and employees. On a practical level they have also made my life much easier by setting me up with mobile broadband, which really helps me stay in touch with family and friends when I’m away competing and stuck in a hotel!

I think anybody in an Olympic or Paralympic sport has one eye on London 2012, whether they admit it or not!  It’d be amazing to walk out in front of a home crowd knowing that they are really cheering for me, rather than walking out in front of a crowd and having to pretend that the cheering is for me!  It won’t just be people that compete at London 2012 that get something out of it, it’s an event that the whole nation will be able to share in.  

In terms of competing at the Paralympics, I feel like I’m on course, although you can’t take anything for granted. People discuss how the attention around London 2012 is putting pressure on athletes to perform. As far as I’m concerned, no one could put more pressure on me than myself!

Liz Johnson is a BT Ambassador.  BT is the official communications services partner for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and title sponsor of the BT Paralympic World Cup.  For more information visit http://www.btplc.com/BTLondon2012/


Mike Rowbottom: LaShawn Merritt is stretching something, probably the truth...

Duncan Mackay
What are we to make of the latest justification for a high profile positive doping test?

Of course, we will have to wait for the Olympic 400 metres champion’s case to be properly heard before we can judge whether LaShawn Merritt should henceforth be known as LaShawn DeMerritt.

His excuse this week that his three positive tests between October and January for the banned steroid DHEA were down to him taking an over-the-counter product to enhance his male part may turn out to be true, rather than a cock-and-bull story. Or a load of b****cks.

But aside from the question of whether Merritt is stretching the truth - or whatever else it may be - there is always going to be a problem about his statement on the matter: "To know that I’ve tested positive as a result of the product that I used for personal reasons is extremely difficult to wrap my hands around."

"Wrap my hands around..."

In the circumstances, that is an unfortunate image. Did he mean "Get my head around?" Did someone mention Freud?

Aside from the doubtless unwitting but sadly imperishable resonance of that phrase - which is, sadly, likely to accompany Merritt beyond the span of his athletics career - you have to ask: Which lunatic suggested that he released such a statement?

However it turns out, Merritt’s bizarre claim takes its place at a respectable height in the list of Ludicrous Excuses for Positive Doping Tests.

To refresh your memory...

Merritt’s area of exculpation is roughly in the same territory as that cited by the US sprinter Dennis Mitchell after he tested positive for testosterone in 1998. Mitchell claimed his manly levels had been raised to excessive levels the night before his test because he had consumed five beers and made love to his wife four times.

You picture him working out the figures like someone filling in their expenses sheet. Would 10xbeers and 15xSex be too much?

Yes. How about five and four?. Hmm. Looks more convincing...

Mitchell’s story was believed by USA Track and Field - but sadly for him, not by the international athletics federation, which banned him for two years.

Race walker Daniel Plaza also brought in the S-word to his defence, explaining his positive test for the banned steroid nandrolone by saying he had had prolonged oral sex with his pregnant wife, a defence based on the suggestion that pregnant women can produce nandrolone naturally.

Plaza too received a two-year ban, although he was later exonerated.

Sex is not the only excuse-rich zone. There’s also food.

Tennis player Petr Korda, who tested positive for steroids, claimed his levels had been contaminated by eating steroid-fed veal. His defence was undone when experts testified that, to achieve the levels he had, he would have had to have eaten 40 calves a day for 20 years.

Britain’s former sprinter Lenny Paul also used the food line when he tested positive for steroids as a member of the bobsleigh team, claiming that he had eaten contaminated spaghetti bolognaise.



Justin Gatlin (pictured), the 2004 Olympic 100m champion who was subsequently banned for testosterone, maintained that his positive test had come as a result of a masseuse with a grudge who had deliberately used a cream on him that contained banned substances.

The outside interference line was also taken by Ben Johnson - remember him? - in the wake of the 1988 Olympic 100m final which saw him stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for the banned steroid stanozolol. That bad thing, he maintained, had been a result of someone spiking the sarsparilla and ginseng energy drink he took before his race.

Dieter Baumann, Germany’s 1992 Olympic 5000m champion, claimed a positive nandrolone finding in 1999 had come as a result of someone spiking his toothpaste.

But I’m saving the best to last.

In 2004, US cyclist Tyler Hamilton, charged with illegal blood doping, countered that he was a chimera – a person with abnormal genetic cells. "I have a twin that was never born," he said. "That’s why my blood contains a different blood-type than my own."

Back in the 1992, a not particularly well-known British discus thrower and shot putter, Neal Brunning, tested positive for testosterone at the National Indoor Championships in Birmingham. "Don’t bother to test the B sample," the burly Londoner apparently said. "I know what’s in it."

I spoke to Brunning a couple of years later. He was candid. "I did it because I felt others in my event were doing it," he said. "I thought ‘If they can do it and get away with it, then let’s have a go.’"

I am struggling to think of any other track and field athlete, or indeed any other athlete, who has held their hand up as being guilty following a positive test.

Dwain Chambers? You can’t help but like him, but his full confession was partly precipitated by a slip of the tongue he made while giving an interview to the BBC, from which it transpired that he had been taking drugs earlier than the period which led to him incurring his two-year ban. 

As I say, Merritt’s merits have yet to be fully judged. But if things go against him, he might do well to ponder on the words of a South London discus thrower who never remotely reached the world and Olympic levels of performance that he did: "If you are caught you put your hand up," said Brunning. "There’s no point in doing anything else. It just makes you look like a fool."

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames

Alan Hubbard: For a Tory, Hugh Robertson is not a bad bloke

Duncan Mackay

Whoever wins the election on May 6, sport can expect some fundamental changes in the way it is governed.

I understand both Labour and Conservative parties have plans to shake up the system - and particularly the FA and Premier League’s administration of professional football - which go beyond the sketchy proposals made in their respective manifestos.

Government-backed organisations such as UK Sport, Sport England and the Youth Sports Trust can also expect some serious reform, as can their overlords, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, particularly if the Tories gain power.

A strong Labour influence in these bodies has been of some concern to the Shadow Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, who also pledges to restore Lottery funding for sport to its original level of 20 per cent. This has fallen from £460 million ($707 million) to £217 million ($334 million).

The election will pose fresh questions about the role of the sports ministry. Labour undoubtedly would retain Tessa Jowell as Olympics Minister to finish the job she has tackled so zealously. There is no doubt Jowell would be gutted not to be associated with a project which  she force-fed Tony Blair into backing when London’s bid was initially orchestrated.  

So should the Conservatives win. it is likely that LOCOG chairman Lord Coe, a Tory peer with whom she has forged a harmonious working relationship, would offer her some sort of ambassadorial role with 2012, though the Tories would insist this has to be strictly non-political.

If Labour are returned to office, some feel that the likeable but low-key Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe will have to raise not so much his game but his profile to keep riding shotgun with Jowell through to 2012. There are plenty of wannabes waiting on Labour’s subs’ bench who covet his job, seen as a plum junior ministerial post with of one of the best seats in the house at any major sporting event.

In any Conservative Government Robertson. who has twice turned down offers from David Cameron of promotion to higher office on the Opposition front bench, would want to combine the jobs of Olympics and Sports Minister, which he has been effectively
shadowing for five years. At 47, Robertson is understandably politically ambitious, and overseeing the delivery of the 2012 Games should surely make this a Cabinet position.

All three main parties, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats, pledge support for the bid to stage to stage football’s 2018 World Cup and a Tory victory would see David Cameron undertaking a Blair-like glad-handing role.     



As a lifelong, but currently rather disaffected Labour supporter (the lying over Iraq and the return of lying Mandelson et al), I would not be unhappy at seeing Robertson (pictured above left) as Sports Minister. For a Tory he’s not a bad bloke - one of the most decent and fair-minded politicians I have encountered. The ex-Army major who saw active service in Northern Ireland, the Gulf War and Bosnia, has a good grasp of what sport is about at all levels and he certainly would not be kicked around by the footy fraternity.

Of course there is now a Third Man to consider. Nick Clegg turned the opinion polls upside down with his virtuoso performance in the party leaders' TV debate, at least enough to concentrate our minds on a hung parliament, bringing the strong possibility of a Lab-Lib coalition. One of Clegg’s bargaining chips could be that his sports spokesman Don Foster, who the party consider the Vince Cable of sport, is given the job. While Foster didn’t exactly do a Clegg in the recent tri-party debate between sports spokesman organised by the Sports Journalists' Association, he was engaging, profound and well-informed.

Sport has never been particularly high on the political agenda - and it certainly isn’t in the party manifestos - but in the forthcoming election surely it should be with all the international events ahead here including a possible football World Cup and, of course, the Olympics where security and finance will be of paramount political importance. 

So what of the nitty-gritty? We know that Government funding for sport is likely to be cut whichever political party is in power.  As Robertson said: "Personally I wouldn’t cut exchequer funding for sport but none of us know what expenditure cuts there will be."

Both Foster and Robertson are in favour of a reformation of how lottery money is taxed and distributed, Foster describing it as "ridiculous" the way £120 million ($184 million) a year is taken out of the lottery through taxation. 

The Conservatives are anxious not only to reduce the left-wing influence on the current quangos but to curb some of the high salaries paid to executives.  

In the three party manifestos, Labour devotes more space to sport than its rivals, 550 words or some 1.8 per cent of the entire content. The Tories have just 123 words and the Lib-Dems 96. In fairness to the Tories and Lib-Dems, much of the Labour sports coverage is devoted to what they have done in the past and how the present Government is responsible for investing in sport to an unprecedented degree. Labour pledges to invest in a new national network of school sports coaches and give every child the opportunity to do at least five hours of sport every week. 

They also promise to work with the governing authorities to ensure that "professional clubs" (ie. football clubs) are accountable to their stakeholders and are run transparently on sound financial principles with greater involvement of communities, supporter representation and the development of proposals to enable supporters to buy shares in their clubs. However, these are somewhat watered-down from pledges on club ownership given in the pre-election leaflet. One suspects Robertson will have the bottle to impose tougher regulations.

What the Lib-Dems manifesto promises is merely to "use cash in dominant betting accounts to set up a capital fund in improving local sports facilities and supporting sports clubs, and closing loop-holes that allow playing fields to be build upon without going through the normal planning procedures." And, er, that’s it,more or less.

Although the Tory manifesto takes up little more than of a quarter of one page of it’s 131 pages, it does place emphasis on Olympic legacy, the restoration of the Lottery to its original four pillars and the promotion of a new national Olympic-style school competition which presumably would replace the UK School Games, one of Gordon Brown’s personal pet projects.

So who has the X-factor in this party game of sports politics? A question worth considering alongside the issues real politics before dropping the voting form into the ballot box in a fortnight’s time. 

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics


Simon Morton: Travel ban sharpens the UK’s focus ahead of London 2012

Duncan Mackay

As Head of Events for UK Sport, my team is responsible for helping to bring major international sporting events to the UK. This year we have worked with sporting and regional partners to bring 23 key events to the UK, with around 60 taking place between now and the start of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

We believe this is the most extensive events programme ever assembled by a host country leading into a Games, and has been developed to help the UK get 'match fit' ahead of 2012.

The benefits of bringing such events to towns and cities across the country are enormous. They provide British athletes with valuable experience in competing on home soil ahead of London 2012, give volunteers and officials the opportunity to hone the necessary skills that are required to deliver world-level competition, provide local economies with a boost, and give spectators the opportunity to see World and Olympic champions competing live on their own doorstep.

Who could have predicted that a volcano in Iceland would highlight another vital benefit that bringing major sporting events to the UK has?

This weekend, three UK Sport funded international sporting events were due to take place across the country. The Diving World Series in Sheffield, European Gymnastics Championships in Birmingham and the Mountain Biking World Cup in Dalby Forest. The response from the organisers of these three events has been outstanding.  Each has acted quickly, clearly and decisively.

Of course, the best events have well-prepared contingency and crisis management plans, but it’s only when you get these off the shelf and use them that you are able to see how professional and capable your event-staging system is. Absolutely crucial preparation before London hosts the Games in 2012.

And whilst the travel chaos of recent days has taken its toll on a number of events, the response has shown that the quality of major event organisation in the UK is second to none, and that the UK’s programme of major events leading into the Games is already helping to ensure that we’ll be the best prepared host country ever.

Cancelling or postponing a major international sporting event is an arduous task which tests even the most experienced of organising committees. Unfortunately we have had to lose the FINA Diving World Series in Sheffield, after most of the competitors found themselves stranded in Mexico, but we’re hopeful the event will return to the UK ahead of 2012.

On the positive side, both of the other events will be going ahead and whilst some of the teams may be unable to make it, I’m confident that most of the top international athletes will be present at both Dalby Forest and Birmingham over the coming days. Tickets are still available for both and I’d encourage everyone to head along and support our British 2012 hopefuls.

Major sporting events are now regularly multi-million pound enterprises with large operational structures and complex networks of contractual obligations, and there is none bigger than the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Ensuring that crises such as the one we have experienced this week have minimal impact on every stakeholder is vital for any country hoping to host such an event.

We can never predict every unexpected eventuality, but we can ensure we are best prepared and best practiced ahead of 2012. With a major sporting event planned for every two weeks from now until the flame is lit, I am confident that the UK will be ready to host the greatest show on earth in just over two years time.

Simon Morton is Head of Events for UK Sport, the UK’s high performance sports agency


Daniel Keatings: Looking forward to making my mark in Birmingham

Duncan Mackay

British Gymnastics have announced the team for the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships, which start in Birmingham today after a day's delay because of the disruption caused by the volcanco errupting in Iceland, and I have been selected to represent Team GB.

I will be performing alongside fellow Huntingdon gymnast Louis Smith, Kristian Thomas, Daniel Purvis, Sam Hunter and Ruslan Pantelemonov.

So far 2010 has been a really good year with some confident results coming from competitions such as the London Open and the Tyson American Cup, but the preparations have been tough.

Having trained hard in Mexico for the European Championships the whole team is hopeful to get a place on the podium for the first time as a team at a major championship.

After my recent success at the London Open I am feeling confident. The British Team Championships also went well despite me dislocating two fingers in training before hand; putting my position within the team at risk. 

At the British Team Championships "Team Huntingdon" were again favourites to defend the title. We have won for the last three years and were really looking forward to making it a fourth. The Championships were also the final qualifier for selection onto the European team, so it was important to perform well.

The team has worked really hard to prepare for the championships, with all day sessions perfecting our routines; we were keen to retain our title as the number one British team. But in the end it just wasn’t enough.  Despite some strong performances on the apparatus, South Essex beat us to the top spot leaving Huntingdon in a respectable second place, ahead of Hinckley who had a very strong team.

So now it’s all about the Europeans. The selected gymnasts for Team GB are training really hard to perform the best they can and everyone is I am really looking forward to competing on home ground.

Daniel Keatings, who is powered by Opus Energy, made history last October when he became the first British gymnast to win a medal in the All-Around event at the World Gymnastics Championships. To find out more about his sponsorship deal with Opus Energy click here. 


Mike Moran: My encounter with Juan Antonio Samaranch

Duncan Mackay
Journalists have swiftly moved today to record the dramatic contributions of Juan Antonio Samaranch to the Olympic Games and the triumphs of the former IOC President who passed away this morning in Barcelona.

The enigmatic Spanish leader now stands with American Avery Brundage as an icon in global Olympic history, hailed for notable achievements - bringing life to the Games after three successive, damaging boycotts, bringing the sham of Olympic amateurism to an end and allowing professional athletes into the Games,  bringing much needed diversity to what had been for decades an all-white, old boys club, and creating a financial colossus like nothing else in sport.
 
At the same time, critics will recall the tarnished events like the 1998 Olympic bid scandals that rocked Lausanne to its foundation and led to the ouster of IOC Members and a complete revamping of how cities bid for, and win the Games.

But, make no mistake, he was the most powerful figure in Olympic lore, and his uncanny ability to take the creaky, blue-blood organization where he wanted it to go was remarkable to observe.

Samaranch visited Colorado Springs twice during my 25 years with the United States Olympic Committee as its chief spokesman, and his first appearance in the city used to be marked by a plaque, long gone now, on the wall in the entry to the old Olympic House. He also held court one day with former USOC President Bill Hybl at Penrose House for two hours with a room full of fascinated men and women, and the wristwatch he gave me that day still keeps on ticking.

I was summoned to his suite during the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville one morning in 1992, and the two hours I spent with him alone remains one of my most cherished experiences in my Olympic journey. He wanted to chat about media relations, the difficulty of the IOC’s attempts to deal with PR and getting out information, particularly in the United States, and how I might help.

He was clad in slacks and a simple red sweater and as casual as my next door neighbour. He took notes, asked questions, and let me go with another watch and an appointment to the IOC Press Commission. He called me "Mike"  and spent the last 15 minutes inquiring about baseball, my family and American food.

My memories of his time are spread across the depth and breadth of Games from Seoul to Salt Lake, and his impact on one of sport’s most compelling and controversial moments. Games’ organisers waited anxiously at Closing Ceremonies to hear him say “These are the best Games ever,” and if he did not, there was despair. He willed the world, 161 nations, to come to the Games in Seoul after the damage of the Moscow and Los Angeles Games boycotts, and he created an environment of joy, and cities suddenly falling over themselves to bid and gain the Games, and he welcomed women into the inner circles and oak-paneled rooms of the IOC.

He crated funding for the National Olympic Committees, to share in the riches garnered from the Games, and he used the power of his office to rebuild the ravaged facilities in Sarajevo, destroyed by the Balkans War in the 1984 Winter Games host city, for instance. And despite a somewhat tardy beginning, he ramped up anti-doping efforts to begin cleansing the IOC from the abhorrent legacy of the drug-enhanced East German and Soviet machines and their unforgiveable damage to athletes and sportsmanship.

When he began as IOC President in 1980, there were serious doubts about the future of the Games, but he built upon the success of the Los Angeles Games and the wealth of financial opportunities to restore the vitality of the Olympic movement.  When he left, the IOC had some $350,000,000 in available resources, and the Games were worth billions.

He was embarrassed at a Congressional hearing in Washington related to the bidding scandals, but kept his composure  The effects of this incident remain today as part of the uncomfortable relationship between the IOC and the USOC, now being aggressively addressed by Larry Probst and Scott Blackmun.

But he also was aware of the ability of the United States to present Games that enhanced the Olympic movement, and the financial clout of the USOC and American corporations and television. While he was a small man, he became a goliath in his world, a hard-to-define human being with flaws, but with skills that now will become intensely apparent to those who follow him in Lausanne, now burdened with sustaining what he built from the rubble of those boycotted Games.

Mike Moran was the chief communications officer of the USOC for nearly 25 years before retiring in 2003. In 2002 he was awarded with the USOC's highest award, the General Douglas MacArthur Award. He worked on New York's unsuccessful bid to host the 2012 Olympics and is now director of communications for the Colorado Springs Sports Corporation.

Karim Bashir: Conservatives offer best hope for sport in General Election

Duncan Mackay

We’re half-way into the major political parties jousting for top position in the polls and let’s face it, it’s closer than anyone thought it would be. As I write this the polls suggest that the Conservatives are leading the way but by an ever narrowing margin. Like the last election this is going to be a tight one which will come down to personality and a few key issues.

All the manifestos have been released and whilst education, health, the economy, the environment, home and foreign affairs will top the bill as always I believe the policies on the future of sport in this country should and will play a role. 

So for fun I thought I’d set myself the challenge of answering this simple question:  if all else was equal which of the party’s sports policy would I vote for?

I wanted to ensure fairness here so I decided to look back on some of the key decisions made over the last few year’s. The most significant was the decision by John Major to set up the National Lottery. Without the grants into all levels of sport who knows where we’d be now? Another major sporting milestone came in 2006 when the IOC announced London as the host city for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Games. This came on Toby Blair’s watch but with a cross-party bid team led by Lord Coe.

Since this announcement the Labour Government cut funding into sport from £397 million down to £209 million in 2006. In March 2006, Gordon Brown, then Chancellor, announced £600 million would be spent on elite sport for the London Olympic cycle. UK Sport’s grant allocation was quite rightly based on this figure however no organisation picked up the baton on looking for the £100 million portion which was to come from the private sector. 

The fallout from this error has meant that some sports have had severe cuts from what they were promised and ultimately some athletes had no choice but to give up their Olympic dream.  If that wasn’t bad enough I know that at least one major sponsor walked away from providing a significant cash investment into elite sport as a result of this blunder. 

Add to this reports of rising child obesity, 7-10 per cent of children not getting the minimum two  hours of PE per week at their school and high dropout rates from sport once children leave school and you could say that the Labour Government haven’t "competed" well in this area.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. In recognising the failure to deliver £100 million of private sector funding, the Department for Media, Culture and Sport invested a further £50 million to halve the funding gap; a brave move in the current economic climate. 

There has also been the adoption of a new strategy for elite sport which has undoubtedly contributed to the success that TeamGB had in Beijing and since. The restructuring of Sport England has also proved to be a success. So a mixed bag all in all.

So what’s the difference in the major party’s policies moving forward? My intention was to compare the three major parties. 

Unfortunately there simply isn’t enough detail in the LibDem’s sports policy compared to the two other major parties so they wont be getting my vote - in this hypothetical election.

Both Labour and the Conservatives recognise the value of sport at grassroots level and are targeting increased participation. They also both promise to deliver a successful Games in 2012, on time and on budget. Surprise surprise!  Finally they both seems to agree on the fact that healthy competition needs to be re-instilled in school sport…whoever decided that wasn’t the case was having a bad day!  The lessons learned from competitive school sport (and I mean winning and losing) are impossible to replace later in life.



The differences?  Labour, under Prime Minister Gordon Brown (pictured) seem to me to be focussing on what has already been achieved. "Our ambition is clear to be the first nation to create a world class sports system on the back of a home Olympics…….We have already delivered an increase of around 600,000, more adults participating in sport, and have set ourselves a clear and ambitious target of a million more people doing sport regularly by 2012."

There is the mention of their aim to reform club and community sport to help reduce the sport dropout level for school leavers which is a good policy.

The Conservatives seem to be taking a much more radical approach. Whilst they commit to leaving things as they are until after 2012 (sensibly) they have taken a leaf out of Labour’s book having recognised the value of the reform to Sport England.  The ambitious task they are setting themselves is to bring Sport England, UK Sport and the Youth Sports Trust "under one roof". Their other major goal is to create a Cabinet Office cross departmental sports body. 

I’ve not gone into great depth here but I believe I’ve covered the major issues on which the leading parties are basing their sport’s campaigns. On the one hand Labour are presenting a safe bet which aims to continue the good work they’ve done in re-structuring the administration of sport in the UK.  This is much needed work and no one can argue with that.  On the other hand the Conservatives are taking the much riskier path which will result in a major overhaul, has the potential to upset a lot of National Governing Bodies (NGBs) and will undoubtedly result in job losses in public sector sports administration. However given the affect that sport has on multiple Government departments there is a growing argument for this approach.

So where does that leave me?  Honestly, this is a tough one. 

As a sportsman the safer Labour approach is attractive. NGBs wont be asked to make another set of radical changes to their approach to their sport’s infrastructure and the “slow and steady” approach wont attract huge resistance. The businessman in me asks the simple question; if I was in charge of the administration of sport in this country what would I do? 

The current set-up has grown organically and every organisation delivers against its target in the way it has been asked. Through no fault of their own though, these organisations aren’t "joined up" enough. This means their messages get diluted; the good work they do is overlapped by the good work of other sporting bodies and has generally led to a very confused stakeholder market. When I talk to potential sponsors some walk away from sport purely because they cannot understand how all of these organisations fit together. 

The answer: get through the Olympics, hopefully with even more success than we had in Beijing and then overhaul the entire setup of sport from Central Government to rural grassroots community sport.  If it just came down to sporting policies, the Conservative party would get my vote.  If only it were that simple.

Karim Bashir is a former British international fencer who won a silver medal at the 1998 Commonwealth Games. He is the founder and managing director of Catch Sport, an online sponsorship brokering service which is free to use for athletes from all sports.


Jonathan Brownlee: Moving up and setting my sights on my brother

Duncan Mackay

It’s nice to see a change in the weather and that the snow, as nice as it was, has finally melted up here in Leeds. Being a duathlete and triathlete, I spend a lot of my time out on the moors either running or cycling and so this long winter has been a bit of a nightmare. 

We had a week-long winter training camp in Spain where we thought we’d get a respite from the weather but it rained the whole time and then we arrived back and the UK was covered in snow!

For at least two months it was too risky to train on my road bike so I switched to mountain biking and also had to increase my turbo training and do more indoor training and swimming. 

The mountain biking was actually good fun and a nice change - it’s amazing how quickly you can become an expert at judging which snow to ride through and which patches you need to avoid.

As there are multiple disciplines within duathlon and triathlon, my training is very varied and takes up a lot of my time. I’m usually swimming from 7am for an hour-and-a-half and then I do two or three hours on the bike and a one hour run later in the evening. 

In between those commitments I’ll sometimes have extra gym or physio time. On top of all that, I have to find time to study for my history degree. Thankfully, my course isn’t too intensive in terms of lecture and seminar time so I can fit all the independent study around my schedule. It’s not always easy though and it doesn’t leave much time for a social life - it’s a good job that a lot of my friends are also people that I train with and I certainly find that cycling is quite a social sport.

I’m also very lucky that I get to train with my older brother and fellow BT Ambassador, Alistair, who is the current ITU Triathlon World champion. We’re great mates, and also share coaches, so we do nearly all our training together. It’s good to have someone to train with and, as Alistair is a few years ahead of me and has had extra experience of training and competing, he’s been able to help in my development as a triathlete. 

He is a particularly good judge of when we should push ourselves harder or take things a bit easier and I’ve also learnt a lot more about the technical side of the bikes from him. It’s invaluable to have so much time with him and to learn from his experiences and it’s even useful outside of competition - sometimes the travel or pre-race nerves can be a bit daunting and he’s fantastic to have as a travel buddy if we’re away competing together.

All the competitions can add up to a lot of travelling and that’s one of the reason it’s great that BT have signed both Alistair and myself up as two of their Ambassadors for their London 2012  programme. As well as providing us with phones and broadband access at home, they’ve also given us mobiles and roaming internet access so we have peace of mind that, whenever we’re away from home, we know we can stay in touch with people and also keep up with our studying commitments without having to worry.

Last year was a really strong year for me as I silver medalled at the ITU Junior World Championship and won the ETU European Junior Triathlon Championship and British Duathlon Junior Championship. That’s why, for the new season, I’ll be moving up to compete at under-23 level. 

It’s a big step, as the distances increase, but it’s one that I’m prepared for as I’ve already entered senior level competitions, including my first ITU World Championship Series races, where I feel I made some real progress and got very encouraging finishing places. 

When you compete at junior level, you tend to stay in it for two or three years, whereas under-23 level is a category that you look to move out of, into senior, as quickly as possible.

Like a lot of athletes my age, I’ve always got one eye on London 2012. To compete for Great Britain in triathlon on home turf, with my country’s crowd cheering me on, would be an incredible experience. I definitely recognise it as a once in a lifetime opportunity. As I’m still developing in my sport, it doesn’t feel like London 2012 is adding any extra pressure on me. 

It’s also great when London 2012 Partners such as BT want to support you and it certainly helps encourage me and keeps my mind focused towards the ultimate prize – winning an Olympic medal.

Jonathan Brownlee is a BT Ambassador. BT is the official communications services partner for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and title sponsor of the BT Paralympic World Cup.  For more information click here


Sue Mott: British hockey emerges with credit from China test

Duncan Mackay

It was tough assignment. GB women’s hockey chose a series of matches against the Olympic silver medalists, China, to launch their assault on a competitive season that will include hosting The Champions Trophy in Nottingham and playing the World Cup in Argentina.

But having fielded a young, partially experimental, GB team at Bisham Abbey against the Chinese they emerged with credit, winning the first warm-up game and then losing two closely-contested Test matches by a narrow margin of goals. They lost the first test 2-1, China scoring from their only two penalty corners of the game, and the second 3-1 after the home side failed to convert a series of corners and chances.

Danny Kerry, the GB women’s coach, was quietly impressed by his team’s ability to dominate the possession, but did admit to a nagging frustration at the failure to convert their chances. "But this is all about preparation for the major tournaments this year. The big thing, as a group, is that we’re making massive gains and it fills me with a lot of optimism," he said.

Among the relative newcomers to combat were debutant Ashleigh Ball, forward Charlotte Craddock, defender Nat Seymour and goalkeeper, Kirsty Mackay, from Blackpool who once bumped into David Beckham in the Disney Store at the Trafford Shopping Centre in Manchester and has his autograph to prove it.

The second Test also marked the 50th cap of defender Crista Cullen, who was returning to the team after a long injury lay-off following a serious operation on her wrist. Since her idea of recuperation was to drive a land cruiser down the East Coast of Africa with a friend, involving at least one swollen river, a home-made raft and a crowd of on-looking hippos, her successful reinstatement in the team was not a forgone conclusion.

Her coach described her as a "rumbustious" character, both "hugely strong and hugely athletic". Born in England and brought up in Kenya, Cullen has an elder brother, Gray, who is currently auditioning for the Kenya rugby sevens squad to play at the Commonwealth Games in India this autumn. It could make a good Trivial Pursuit question one day: "Name the brother and sister who played in two different sport for two different countries at the 2010 Commonwealth Games."



The preparation for this year’s World Cup now moves on to matches against Germany in May and Australia in June. It has not yet been decided which of the matches will be granted Test status but according to Kerry it makes little difference. "We don’t play friendlies against Australia anyway."

Possibly restored to the side by then could be a number of players from Scotland and Wales. Laura Bartlett, Emily McGuire and goalkeeper Abi Walker were all missing from the Test series against China because they were due fly to Chile on Sunday - volcanic dust permitting - for Scotland’s World Cup qualifying matches. Although lowest ranked of all the team in the group which includes Australia and Ireland, Walker was adamant that the Scots intend to "take more points off the teams than they take off us."

Walker was taking a short leave of absence from her day job to compete. She is a surgeon at St George’s Hospital in London, having recently completed a stint in brain surgery.

When people ask footballers about being brain surgeons, it is a fair bet they are only joking. When it comes to women’s hockey, it happens to be absolutely true. 

Award-winning sports columnist, feature writer and chief interviewer at the Daily Telegraph for 12 years, Sue Mott is now much in demand in her new freelance capacity. A major contributor to television and radio - all terrestrial channels, Sky, ESPN and Radio 5Live - she has covered all the major sporting events including World Cups, Olympics, Wimbledon, Commonwealth Games, Athletic World Championships, FA Cup Finals and several Test series.

Media contact www.davidwelchmanagement.com


Mike Rowbottom: Falling short of an Olympic buzz in Docklands

Duncan Mackay

OK. Let’s get the hard bit of this over with.

I took part in the media quiz this week at the launch of the National Lottery’s Games Brain of Britain, which seeks to challenge the general populace with what it describes as "the ultimate test of Olympic and Paralympic knowledge."

The prize for that lucky ultimate winner will be a trip to the Olympic location of their choice. (I’m thinking no-one needs to be checking flights to Atlanta anytime soon. Although any such trips may be academic if that Icelandic volcano - you know, the one that’s been in the news a bit - continues to selfishly disrupt the sporting programme with its burped magma. Who does it think it is? Krakatoa?)

Of course, taking part was not the hard bit. I just had to sit down in the Docklands Museum at an old-fashioned, hinged-lid schooldesk which had a piece of cardboard on it with my name clearly printed. And then I had to press a buzzer if I wanted to supply an answer. As the meercats would say, "Simples!"

The hard bit was this: I didn’t win. And not only didn’t I win, I was rubbish.

(The person who wasn’t rubbish, and did win, was Simon Hart of the Telegraph. And after receiving his trophy from our ruler-wielding teacher and quizmaster for the day, Sir Steven Redgrave, our victor ludorum looked suitably schoolboyishly sheepish as he was decked out with a gown, mortar board and stick for photographic purposes. The prize was two tickets to Barcelona. He’s already going to Barcelona this summer for the European Championships! Ah well. There you go.)

But I digress.

What I was thinking was this. Hardly any of the things I remember about the Olympics and Paralympics seemed to correspond with the questions being asked of me at my school desk, which strongly reminded me of the kind of desk I longed to have at my first school, and was promised when I reached the top year, and which I never got, because our family had to move down south after someone in the Ministry of Transport decided the M62 motorway was going to be routed through our house…

But I digress.

To return to our relevant narrative, on the rare occasions when my knowledge did coincide with something being asked, I found myself prodding away at a button which stubbornly refused to light up the display at the front of my desk.

The official reason for this was that I was too slow, and some other candidate had beaten me to it.
 
Clearly there is a major conspiracy going on here, but I am going to rise above this disgraceful fact and instead present my ideal set of Olympic quiz questions.

They are ideal for two reasons. Firstly, they are, I believe, irresistible. And secondly, I know about them.

If only they’d asked me questions on these…

In AD67, which Roman Emperor travelled to the Ancient Games in Greece and came away with six golds, including one for a chariot race in which he had taken part while under the influence of Bacchus, and forbidden any others to compete?

Yes, it was Emperor Nero. And yes, he did also manage to win the two events he had "suggested" should be included in that year’s Games, lyre-playing and tragedy.

Which Hungarian clan made fencing a family affair at the Olympics between 1912 and 1980?

It was, of course, the Gerevich family. Aladar Gerevich won a record seven golds, one silver and two bronzes between 1932 and 1960. His wife, Erna Bogen, won a bronze in 1932. Her father, Albert Bogen, won a silver in 1912.

Disappointingly, Aladar and Erna’s son, Pal, showed no sign of any athletic ability whatsoever. Actually that’s not true. He won Olympic fencing bronze medals in 1972 and 1980.

Which Canadian snowboarder won the first ever Winter Olympic gold in his event at the Nagano Games of 1998, but then saw the gold medal moving away from him when a test showed up traces of marijuana in his system? And what was his immediate defence?

That would be Ross Rebagliati (pictured) , whose gold medal was returned to him when it transpired that, due to an apparent failure of communication between the Olympic authorities and the international body that dealt with snowboarding, marijuana was not a banned substance at the time of the Games - a loophole that was swiftly closed.

Rebagliati claimed in mitigation that his positive test had occurred as a result of his attending a farewell party in his native Canadian resort of Whistler (where marijuana is reputed to be stronger than anywhere else in the world) at which many of his friends were taking advantage of the local resource. Specifically, Rebagliati’s defence was the reverse of Bill Clinton’s - he inhaled, but he didn’t smoke.

Who was disqualified in 1904 for cheating in the marathon?

That was Fred Lorz, who was first man back in the stadium looking suspiciously fresh. It transpired he had received a lift in a car after suffering cramp, and when the car had broken down near the stadium he had resumed running. He claimed it was a joke. Lorz was banned for a year. History doesn’t record whether this was for cheating, or for his shockingly bad excuse…

When Li Ho Jun of the People’s Republic of Korea won the small-bore prone gold medal in the shooting at the 1972 Olympics, with a score of 599 out of a possible 600 points, what was his response when asked how he had concentrated so well?

His answer was that he pretended he was "aiming at a capitalist".

Now I accept that the odds of these five questions cropping up in an Olympics quiz are long. But just in case they do - consider yourselves fortunate for this rehearsal.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames


Alan Hubbard: How The Cobra is helping Britain's boxers prepare for London 2012

Duncan Mackay

Carl Froch is probably the most celebrated sports personality to come out of Nottingham since Torvill and Dean - although the celebrations have been largely domestic.

The WBC super-middleweight champion himself admits he is hardly a household name north or south of the Trent, understated and relatively unsung despite being unbeaten over 26 fights with a 76 per cent ko record and a catchy nom-de-guerre, "The Cobra".

Until now, 32-year-old Froch has been a product of the provinces, hailed as a hero in his home town though his name has never been one that springs readily to lips of anyone but the genuine cognoscenti  of the thick ear trade elsewhere.
 
The US promoter Lou di Bella famously asked last year: "Who the froch is Froch?" He quickly found out when The Cobra sensationally crushed his man Jermaine Taylor to retain his title in boxing's Super Six series which is designed to unite the various titles in the division.    

Froch is some way from your archetypal pug. Tall, ruggedly handsome and articulate, he is university educated with sports science degree from Loughborough after studying business and finance at college. A good, clinical fighter who can box and bang, which is why he is such a good role model for Britain’s elite amateur boxing squad with whom he has been training at their English Institute of Sport HQ in Sheffield  in preparation for his next Super Sixs showdown  with, Mikkel Kessler in Herning, Denmark on  Saturday week (April 24).

Froch has been a regular visitor to Sheffield since his trainer, Rob McCracken, took over as the GB Performance Director for the amateur squad and head coach. I met him there last week when he was working with McCracken and sparring with some of the squad - something that would have given The Blazers apoplexy in the days. not so long ago, when amateurs weren’t even allowed in the same room as pros, let alone the same ring.

Froch told me: "It's been like a natural progression for me to come here because of Rob's new job and everyone seems happy about it and because it helps me and I hope it helps the boys.

"The facilities are fantastic and there are some good young boxers I can spar with, especially the bigger lads like Frank Buglioni and Steve Simmons. The talent and enthusiasm is amazing - they are a proper sound bunch of lads. They are eager to get to the Olympics and they are looking to me as a world champion to inspire them. They are happy to pick my brains and I am happy to pick theirs.

"It’s also handy to have a running track at the Institute and Rob is here so it is perfect for me to get in shape for this fight. 

"It’s quite a lot different from my own amateur days - then we were at Crystal Palace which was a bit dilapidated but we had a ring and a few bags which you felt was all you needed.  Here they’ve got everything on tap- state-of-the-art equipment, steam room, ice bath, coaches, physios. a psychologist and instant replay videos all over the place.

"We never had anything like that when I was an amateur but  boxing is being funded properly now and this will give the lads the best possible chance for 2012. And the great thing for them about Rob is that he’s boxed both as an amateur and professional."

Froch (pictured) is something of a late bloomer, having turned pro only eight years ago after an outstanding amateur career which culminated in him winning a bronze medal in the 2001 World Championships.

So he is able to tell those in the squad who may be thinking of a pro career after the Olympics that having as decent grounding in vest and headguards is essential.

"Had I not had a good amateur pedigree who knows whether I would be where I am now.

"I think having a long amateur career [he boxed over 40 times for England] taught me how to handle pressure and the roller-coaster of emotions  boxing brings. It builds your character. You become accustomed to what a ruthless world it is out there. You learn to believe in yourself."

Having seen the splendid Sheffield set-up I can vouch for Froch’s view that it is among the finest in world boxing - amateur or pro. Much of the credit for this must go to British Amateur Boxing Association chairman Derek Mapp, the former Sport England chief who will admit he knew little about boxing until he became an instant fan of the sport after being introduced too it by ABA chief executive Paul King and myself a couple of years ago.

A multi-millionaire who made his money largely from a chain of pubs and nurseries, he says: “I am a businessman and as such I apply business principles to my role. I leave the boxing side to Rob."

Bringing in McCracken, after the controversial axing of Terry Edwards and the brief sojourn of Kevin Hickey, has so far proved a master-stroke by Mapp. The proof of the pudding is in the punching and there have been some, excellent results in recent international tournaments: Ten medals, including four gold, in the Commonwealth Federation Championships in Delhi (achieved without several of GB’s leading boxers), and four (two golds, a silver and a bronze) in the highly competitive Prime Ministry tournament in Ankara, Turkey, last week.

The golds were won by flyweight Khalid Yafai, one of the two remaining members of the Beijing team, and middleweight Savannah Marshall, aka The Silent Assassin, the shy, unbeaten Hartlepool teenager who is my tip to be one of he stars when women’s boxing makes its Olympic debut in London.

This was the first time GB had sent a mixed team to an overseas tournament – and mixing it seems to be a McCracken philosophy - in every sense. For not only has he  brought in pro champ Froch to work with the amateurs but he also plans to have the male and female squads sparring with each other in the run-up to 2012.

Meantime you can be sure that Froch’s new fans among the  appreciate amateurs will be rooting for him as he tackles Denmark’s Kessler, a former double world champion who gave Froch’s predecessor Joe Calzaghe such a hard fight. Carl Who? He may be to many, but The Cobra has certainly made a name for himself in Sheffield.   

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered 11 summer Olympics and scores of world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire. Froch v Kessler can be seen on Primetime TV (Sky customers call 0871 200 444 or go to www.primetimelive.co.uk)


Roald Bradstock: A record-breaking start to my London 2012 dream

Duncan Mackay
On Saturday I had my first competition of 2010 at the beautiful new track at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, USA. This was also the official beginning of my quest for the 2012 Olympics when I will be 50. 

I have competed in almost 700 competitions to date in my 38-year competitive career but this meet felt very different, very surreal.

An hour before the competition started I went out on to the field, as I always do to prepare for battle. As I walked through the infield  covered with athletes bodies I got the weird sense that everybody was looking at me. Everyone was smiling. Hmm....how odd? 

As I stretched and did some running drills to warm up I noticed athletes and coaches looking over at me pointing, watching, seemingly my every move? Strange, very strange.

For the first time in my life I actually felt out of place on an athletics track, like I shouldn't be there. I looked around me at all the young athletes and became very aware of my advanced age. The next oldest athlete was 22-year-old Chris Hill, America's number one thrower in 2009. I was 25-years older then him - a quarter of a century - and almost 30 years older than some of the others.

I then looked around at the coaches and realised I was older than most of them too. Fortunately, it was when I looked at the officials I found a little comfort, finally there were some people out there close to my age, even a little older.

From that point on my focus came back to throwing and the competition. I had a mission to accomplish. Nothing could distract me now.

Despite the 18 other competitors there that day, they were not my rivals. I was the only competition. It was me against myself, against my aging body. I had to put aside concerns of injury, block out pain and discomfort and thoughts of embarrassing myself in front of all these people.  

Ninety minutes later, at the conclusion of the meet depsite coming second, I had smashed 12 UK national age records: six UK javelin age records for a 47-year-old - the furthest by 10 metres  And six UK age group records (45-49) with the best throw of 69.54m improving on the previous mark by over six metres. My performance also put me on top of the 2010 world veterans rankings.
 
After the competition I signed some autographs and posed for a few photographs with my fellow javelin throwers. They all had this look of disbelief. They could not understand or explain my presence, my unusual technique or my performance. One athlete seemingly dazed told me, "Don't take this the wrong way Mr Bradstock, but I have never been so humiliated in all my life? You're older than my Dad."  I took that as a compliment.

I walked out the stadium and met my wife who had been watching from the stands. Now she had a weird smile on her face. She gave me a hug and explained her bemusement. During the competition her husband - that would be me - had apparently been a great source of entertainment on the bleachers. 

Each time I got on the run-up the people in the stands commented, "Look Grandpa is going to throw again". The people sitting next to my wife referred to me as the Star Wars character "Yoda".  My age was an on going topic of conversation. Apparently the estimates ranged from early 70's to mid 50's - Yikes. I know I am old but that old?

As we walked back to the car I found myself beginning to smile. It had been a good day and a new experience for me, one more competition under my belt, one step closer to 2012. I was healthy, injury free and ready for my next competition.     

Read previous Roald Bradstock blogs here.

Roald Bradstock represented Britain in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and in 1996 was an alternate for United States Olympic team. Bradstock competed in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 United States Olympic Trials. He has now switched his allegiance back to Britain and hopes to compete in the trials for London 2012. In addition to being an Olympic athlete, Bradstock is also an Olympic artist dubbed "The Olympic Picasso"

Sue Mott: Have bikini will travel for British beach volleyball team

Duncan Mackay

Playing volleyball on Copacabana Beach may sound like a fantasy occupation but for the GB men and women’s beach volleyball teams it represents the next serious step in their bid for medals at the London Olympics.

They flew to Brazil this week to take part in the inaugural FIVB World Tour event of the season in Brasilia, the first of 16 events in 13 countries which will demonstrate the progress of the GB teams towards their ultimate ambition: success in London.

A week-long training and practice stint on the beaches of Rio will be followed by the competition proper next week, and the women’s team of Zara Dampney and Shauna Mullin will be hoping to approach the form that led them to their first top ten finish in Kristiansand, Norway, last season.

The men’s team, Gregg Weaver and Robin Miedzybrodzki, are cementing a partnership that came together for the last event of the season 2009 when they did well to qualify and finish 17th.

"It’s an exciting opportunity to see how we compare with the rest of the world at this early stage," said Matt Grinlaubs, the GB coach and former Australian Olympic beach volleyball competitor. "We’d obviously like to get in the groove and win some matches. No matter how hard you train during the winter, there is nothing to replicate competitive international matches."

Both teams will have to come through qualifying to reach the main draw, where they may face any of the seeded teams including the dominant United States or Brazilian teams.

The professionalism of GB beach volleyball has grown significantly since the sport was introduced into the Olympics in 1996 and a full preparation programme was set up at Bath University three years ago, specifically targeting London 2012. Both Dampney and Mullin were recruited from the indoor game.



Dampney (pictured left) is a law graduate who grew up on a farm on Dorset, now - among other things - a wedding venue. She may be one of the few active British Olympians who can claim to own a set of pet peacocks. Mullin (pictured right) is a former Scottish indoor volleyball international, whose father played gaelic football for Donegal and whose ambition is: "To be in the top ten teams in the world and medal at the Olympics."

Weaver, originally from Poole,  was lured back to Britain to join the squad, having spent three years in California where he met his wife, Leanne, currently teaching maths at a secondary school in Wootton Basset. His partner from Edinburgh, Miedzybrodzki, was on-course for a career in golf (playing off a handicap of four as a teenager) when he was diverted into volleyball at school.

By the time the sand goes down in the Horseguard’s Parade as the venue for the London 2012 beach bolleyball competition, both squads are intent on a higher profile for the sport that goes beyond bikinis and encouraging results amongst top-class world competition.

The winter training schedule has been characterised by an immensely-busy travel schedule due to a lack of an indoor training facility anywhere in the country. A usable venue, located in a Bristol warehouse, was closed down last October and, as yet, no new premises have been identified. Both teams have therefore been constantly on the move to train round Europe, from Tenerife (five times in the case of the women) to Hamburg, Berlin, Prague, Athens and Toulouse.

"It does takes its toll," said Miedzybrodzki. "If we could train at home, we could continue with the support of our strength and conditioning coach, and our physio/masseur at Bath University,  which would mean getting more out of training and keeping on top of injuries. It would be much more productive and we would be able to invite teams over to train with us. At the moment we’re on the road for most of the year."

Award-winning sports columnist, feature writer and chief interviewer at the Daily Telegraph for 12 years, Sue Mott is now much in demand in her new freelance capacity. A major contributor to television and radio - all terrestrial channels, Sky, ESPN and Radio 5Live - she has covered all the major sporting events including World Cups, Olympics, Wimbledon, Commonwealth Games, Athletic World Championships, FA Cup Finals and several Test series.

For updates and details www.britishvolleyball.org
Media contact www.davidwelchmanagement.com


Mike Rowbottom: Fell finding the going difficult at Bath central

Duncan Mackay
Heather Fell, Britain’s modern pentathlon silver medallist from the 2008 Olympics, is proud to come from Devon - and proud to promote anything else that comes from that county. Which explains why she has recently been supporting the launch of a new beer from her local Dartmoor Breweries, entitled Legend.

This 27-year-old from Princeton, near Tavistock, is already something of a local legend following her exploits in Beijing.

But as she turns her attention to this weekend’s World Cup event at Medway Park - she was eighth in her semi-final today to reach Sunday’s final - she is patently a less-than-happy bunny. And Devon is partly to blame.

Nobody could have accused Fell of talking up her chances when she attended a press call earlier this week to help publicise a competition that marks the official opening of the £11 million Medway Park centre, and which is being billed as the first global sporting event to be held in Medway.

She made it clear at the official conference that she had not been able to train effectively since finishing fifth in the first of this season’s World Cup events in Mexico last month, a state of affairs that had been exacerbated by a mild virus.

And she looked fed up.

As Medway Park staff busied themselves putting up banners and adding the final touches to a stadium that, six months ago, was scarcely more than a building site, Fell stood on the track with her GB hoodie pulled up over her head and told me that, if she had the choice, she wouldn’t be competing this weekend.

Fell has always been the most independent of Britain’s modern pentathletes. Having won the world junior title in 2003 and taken her place at the sport’s national training base in Bath two years later, a serious problem with shin splints effectively put her out of the running for 16 months, and she was reluctantly released by the man who is still the British team’s Performance Director, Jan Bartu.

Fell’s reaction to these circumstances defined her as an athlete. She went home to Princeton, got a part-time job as a barmaid in her local pub, The Plume of Feathers, and dedicated herself to the task of getting back to fitness on her home turf.

The task was completed, and with a glorious Olympic result.

Last season was less spectacular, although she helped earn Britain team silver at the World Championships held at Crystal Palace.

At this early stage of the 2010 season, however, Fell maintains she is less than confident . "I’m struggling a little at the moment," she confessed, adding that she has found it tricky adjusting to spending the bulk of her training time back at the World Class Performance centre in Bath, where she is under the guidance of the women’s head coach, Istvan Nemeth, rather than in Devon with her long-time coach Robin Brew.

"I’ve not got the best relationship with my coach at the moment," she said. "Maybe the best way of putting it is that I’m really struggling with the coaching set-up.

"I’m now training more at Bath, and things need to step up, and I’m ready to step it up. But something is missing and it’s quite hard to put my finger on it.

"I had a really good relationship with my coach at home, who was my swimming coach  but also understood my running and understood me and how I worked and what I needed, even though he wasn’t an overall pentathlon coach.

"And I’m kind of missing that guidance at the moment. I feel a bit lost with my training because I don’t have someone that I can go to speak to. At the moment I don’t feel 100 per cent but there’s no one there telling me, ‘Oh, you should train’, or ‘You shouldn’t train’.

"I still try to spend as much time as I can in Devon but they are not keen for me to do that. I’ve been in Bath more often than at home recently. But it’s now starting to show because my times should be getting better and they are not.

"It’s early to tell competition-wise, but I feel I haven’t got the base behind me I need to get me through the season and I’m hoping i will have time to get that base for later in the season.

"It’s not impossible to ring Robin, but I feel that coaches are incredibly busy all the time and you kind of feel you can’t just take, you’ve got to give a bit, and he’s not getting anything back. It’s quite a hard position only to ring him when I’m in trouble.

"I still want to give it a go up in Bath because in theory its great facility and set-up. But having a single programme for a group of people who are all very different... doesn’t always work."

What is adding to the pressure Fell is clearly feeling at the moment is the abundance of talent Britain is continuing to enjoy in an event which has yielded a gold, a silver and two bronze medals since it was introduced to the Olympics in 2000.

The British women’s team currently has at least seven world class performers to call upon. And although both the men’s and women’s teams were allowed to field up to 12 competitors for this weekend’s World Cup, as host - with the women getting eight competitors through to the final - the tariff falls to four for other World Cup events or the world championships.

As for the Olympics - well, there you get just two entries. Even if you are the host nation.

"We have the biggest problem because we are such a strong nation," Fell says. "For the Hungarians it’s just the same three women. The French have just one top girl so she goes to everything. The Germans have three girls who come to everything, same with the Poles. The Russians - the top two stay the same, the bottom ones change.

"For most of the countries it’s the same athletes at every World Cup, whereas when we went to Mexico for this season’s opening World Cup people were coming up to us and saying: ‘Where’s Mhairi [Spence]? Where’s Katy?’  and it was ‘Oh no. They’re coming to the next one.’ ‘Oh. And why are you not doing that one?’ ‘Because there’s too many of us.’

"We have to fight for it. It’s brilliant from the coaching perspective, and it’s great for British pentathlon as well."

The word “but” is not spoken; only inferred...

Fell is right, of course. Having such a wealth of talent can only be good for Britain’s prospects.

( Medal prospects?  Tick. Continued UK Lottery funding? Tick.)

But as London 2012 looms ever closer, you feel there is some urgent fine tuning required for Britain to get the best out of a young woman who has already indicated that she has the attitude and talent of a champion.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames

Tom Degun: How hard can it be to run and shoot?

Duncan Mackay

It was in November 2008 that the International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM) decided to radically alter their sport by combining two of the five events - the running and the shooting disciplines.

They did this with the intention of creating more excitement in a sport that has had its status as an Olympic event called into question in recent Games due to its seeming lack of popularity outside of Eastern Europe.

Despite criticism of such a dramatic change - which many believe has too radically altered the historic sport - it is undeniable that the restructuring of modern pentathlon has resulted in a more unpredictable and therefore more exciting climax to an event that was a favorite of the founder of the Modern Olympic Games: Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

The new run/shoot format basically involves athletes taking part of three bouts of pistol shooting followed by a 1000 metre run. In each of the three rounds of firing, athletes must hit the target five times. They must reload their gun after each shot and once they have hit all five targets, they may then resume running. If they don’t hit all five, they must wait until 70 seconds pass them by before they are allowed to continue running again.

This may not seem like a huge amount of time but when some of the better shooters can hit all five targets in just 25 seconds, 70 seconds can feel like a lifetime and can mean the difference between a gold medal and tenth place.

The key then, is to have a steady hand under pressure.

With my rather naïve view that shooting a few targets and running around a track couldn’t be that difficult, I confidently drove down to Medway Park in Gillingham, the picturesque venue that is set to host the Modern Pentathlon World Cup over the next four days. 

I arrived at the Medway Park having signed up for the journalist’s opportunity to participate in the run/shoot event following a press conference with modern pentathlon Beijing 2008 Olympic silver medallist Heather Fell, Olympian Nick Woodbridge and the precocious 19-year-old Freyja Prentice who has finished in the top-10 in all three of her World Cups to date.

To my delight, I bump into my esteemed insidethegames colleague Mike Rowbottom during the press conference who agreed, rather reluctantly, to join me in the journalist’s run/shoot event.

We marched out to the impressive athletics track which featured the temporary shooting range set to be occupied by the world’s best pentathletes.

There didn’t appear to be much of a structure in place for us so rather than run around the 400 metre athletics track, every single journalist, including Mike and myself, headed straight for the shooting range.

Once there, we were supplied with a magnificent silver pistol by the delightful pentathlon shooting staff and instructed on how to aim at the centre of the target.

After a few wayward shots that appeared to be more of a danger to the pedestrians of Gillingham than the target, I started to find my range and began to edge towards the bull’s-eye.

In the station next to me, I found none other than Mr Rowbottom, who was looking unusually focused. Mike was holding a pose that would have made James Bond proud and I grudgingly admit that it appeared to have a positive effect on his shooting.



Mike was consistently hitting the target and, after imitating his one-eye-open/one-eye-closed technique, I found myself almost as consistent as my colleague. 

In fact, after five minutes or so of shooting, it was becoming slightly too easy as the novelty of firing a shiny silver gun began to wear off.

“This isn’t too difficult” I said to Mike who was so immersed in concentration that I doubt he heard me. After a while, I put down my pistol and a minute or ten later, so did Mike.

“Do you fancy doing one lap of the track to see if it is harder to shoot when you are out of breath?" I asked Mike.

“Yeah okay” he replied to my complete surprise.

Mike took off his shoes while I took off my coat and we set off on our one lap together.

I was expecting my colleague to be a relatively slow runner but to my astonishment, Mike flew off the start line like Usain Bolt at an Olympic Games. Not to be outdone, I stepped it up a gear to draw back level.

We continued round the top bend side by side until Mike put in a burst of speed towards the end of the race to pull ahead. As I lined up my own sprint finish, Mike - inadvertently he claimed - diverted straight into my path to block my inevitable overtake. Though the picture suggests Mike was the victor of our one lap race, I feel inclined to say that he is a far better journalist than he is fair-competitor.

Anyway, enough of Mike’s devious tactics.

The two of us sprinted across to our shooting stations and picked up our pistols once more.

I was not expecting a 400m run to take very much out of me but as I looked up at the target and raised my pistol to aim, I began to wonder why everything was swaying from side to side.

I quickly realised that the run had thrown my senses completely off-balance and though I tried to hit the centre of the target; my heavy breathing made such a feat an impossibility.

My arm inexplicably felt extremely heavy and I was finding it difficult to regain the balance and posture I had achieved before I embarked on the one-lap run.

To my delight, I saw out of the corner of my eye that Mike had so exhausted himself on our run that he appeared too uncoordinated even to load his pistol.

I tried to steady myself again when I suddenly remembered a conversation I had had with Freyja Prentice just after the press conference.

I had asked her for her expert advice on the run/shoot format and she had replied: "Slow you’re breathing down and when you aim you pistol, hold your breath for a second so you’re hand is steady while you aim."

Feeling confident, I held my breath and aimed.  Needless to say, I completely missed the target and almost passed out through oxygen deprivation. After well over 70 seconds had passed and I had not hit the target once, I decided to call it a day and so did Mike.

I left Medway Park wondering how anyone can hit five consecutive targets three times in a row after running three sets of 1000m. If I was a pentathlete, I know I would certainly be better at the original format where the two events were separate. However, I had to admit that the run/shoot event is certainly a challenge and after today, I believe that anyone who can master the discipline certainly deserves their reward.

The run/shoot event may have come in for criticism and it may not be entirely in keeping with the history of modern pentathlon but no one can deny how exciting it is. And as Mike, I and anyone who has tried the event would readily confess; it’s bloody hard!

Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames and insideworldparasport