Olympic mindsets

With the London Summer Olympics just a few short months away, we asked John Bland, one of our senior consultants, about his experiences: John was a rower for Britain in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He was also part of the Oxford University rowing team that won the boat race for three consecutive years, as well as winning the Grand at Henley in 1981 (an event Oxford hadn’t won since 1843) when they came from behind to beat the national team. That year he went on to win silver at the World Championships. In 1983, John completed his PhD, and was selected for the Olympics in 1984.

John Bland, Global Integration
John Bland, Global Integration

Life for a sportsman in the early eighties seems very different to the life of an Olympian today.

For example in 1983 I was living and studying in Oxford whilst the national team that I was rowing in at the World Championships that year was based in London.  So typically I would head off for London on Tuesday afternoon to train on Tuesday evening then spent the night sleeping on the coach’s floor (not in a bed!).  We’d then train early Wednesday morning, and I’d go into London to write my thesis in the British Library during the day.  We’d then train Wednesday evening and I’d have another night on the floor, before a final session on Thursday morning after which I’d return to Oxford. With additional sessions on Saturday, Sunday and Monday there was no respite.

I wasn’t sufficiently good to know I’d be guaranteed to get to the Olympics, although my performance at the World Championships in 1981 and 1983 had encouraged me to believe I could make it.

So, from September to January, I was based in Newcastle on Tyne, whilst the rest of the squad was in London.  Then in January I took leave of absence from my job from which I’d saved every penny, to be in London and train in order to make the Olympics.

Almost all of the squad worked full time and trained outside of work.  So I would be up at six every work day and at the river training from seven in the morning.  That session would last at least one hour, finishing at around 8.15 so that they could start work at 9.  We’d be back training after work at 6pm for two hours. On a Saturday we’d have two training sessions from 8 til 3, and then on Sundays one or two sessions which usually lasted from 7 am to 1pm.

I believe most of today’s athletes are full time, allowing a healthier work/life balance. They also have funding set aside to enable this – lottery money means they can focus closely on what they’re doing.

But the stakes are correspondingly higher, and I’m not sure how I would have handled a life of such single focus.  For many of today’s Olympians is it a four year project, so the dedication required is incredible and the pressure must be huge.

In my opinion there are three factors that make a good Olympian:

  1. Genetics: without being the right physique for your sport, you’re at a disadvantage; Being at the opening ceremony of the games was a fascinating insight – seeing the genetic freaks we all were, but each perfectly adapted to the specific sport we were there to do.
  2. Training and development: without it, you can’t get to the top of your game;
  3. State of mind: I always remember the motto of the Oxford University Boat Club ‘Possunt quia posse videntur’, which we preferred to translate as ‘We win because we know we will win’.  So on the start line, we would know who was going to win.

One thing that does make me smile though is when the winner is interviewed and says how he or she won because of their dedication and the effort they have put in.  I can tell you as someone who came ninth out of 10, and who trained alongside the gold medal winners, those who come last have probably worked at least as hard as the winner and yet have come away with nothing.

Or have they?

Despite the hardship, and the sheer determination to perform, the pleasure comes from developing a skill, making progress, excelling. You learn discipline and rigour – and those qualities, as well as endurance, have to come from inside, and stand you in good stead throughout your life.  And. of course. there is the privilege of representing your country.

And finally if there were no losers, there couldn’t be any winners either, nor would there be any spectacle. So as you watch, remember to appreciate everyone – it truly isn’t the winning but the taking part.

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