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The road to Rio (Nonesuch spring 2016) (Part 1)

Kate Miller

Kate Miller

13 May 2016

This summer, Brazil will become the first South American country to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games. But what will the Games mean for the residents of Rio? And what does it mean to represent your country in the world’s greatest sporting event? Nonesuch spoke to alumni and staff to find out.

Andrew Honeyman (BA 1985)

Four years on from London 2012, Andrew Honeyman, Head of Physical Activity and Olympic and Paralympic Legacy at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, outlines how the Games continue to have an impact in the UK.

As Rio 2016 approaches, there’s definitely a sharper focus on the legacy of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Some of the benefits are very tangible, like the fantastic sporting facilities that are now open to the public. Others less so, like the £14 billion boost to the national economy through trade and investment.

Legacy was built into the London 2012 bid from the very start. The intention was always to use the Games to help regenerate a disadvantaged part of east London, and government ministers were also keen to drive other possible benefits, from encouraging more people to play sport and volunteer, to improving attitudes towards disabled people.

The most obvious legacy of London 2012 is the change in and around Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London. When I compare the area now to how it was when I first visited in 2009, the change is amazing. Anyone can go and swim in the same pool as Michael Phelps and Ellie Simmonds for under a fiver, and thousands of people now live in affordable housing in the former athletes’ village.

Work has started on Olympicopolis too – an education and cultural quarter that will include arts venues, museums and university campuses. A community is growing up around the park, so what’s really exciting is that it will be decades before the true legacy story in east London fully emerges.

Companies across the UK won contracts for London 2012: many were small- and medium-sized enterprises that have since gone on to work on other major events abroad, like the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics or Rio 2016. Get Set, our education programme, continues to provide learning resources to schools around the country, and the legacy charity, Spirit of 2012, funds community-led sports and arts projects.

My colleague Heather Sinclair (BSc 2002) and I are the last two members of the legacy team, and we are involved with the government’s preparations for Rio 2016. It’s hard to say what the legacy for Brazil will be, but I’m sure it will be a great Games and there’ll be something that will really surprise everyone!

Hannah Mills (Diploma 2012)

Olympics debutant Hannah Mills won Team GB’s first medal in the women’s 470 dinghy in London 2012. But deciding whether to compete again in Rio wasn’t all plain sailing.

At first, I was absolutely gutted to win silver in London. We were guaranteed a medal: our final race was a battle for gold, that unfortunately didn’t go our way. We had to settle for silver. Very quickly though, the disappointment passed. Then, the high was undoubtedly the best feeling I’ve ever experienced.

It was followed by an equally big low. Saskia (my sailing partner) and I weren’t prepared for how empty we’d feel, and it took us a while to commit to Rio. I felt demotivated for a long time, but at some point in 2013, we decided enough was enough. We knew we had more to give and could do a better job with a three-year campaign (we’d only teamed up 18 months before London).

Going to university before becoming a full-time athlete felt like the sensible option. I’d always managed school and sailing, but doing that at university was a lot harder than I’d imagined. Mechanical Engineering was a demanding course, and required a lot of work and dedication. Being part of the Performance Squad was a huge help as it meant I could talk to people in similar situations and get their advice, but I had to be organised and make compromises. It was my only option.

Sailing is a big sport in Brazil, and includes some of their best medal hopes, so media coverage will be high. The venue is right in the city, but it is a hugely difficult place to sail. There are six courses and each is different. Some involve big waves off Copacabana Beach or feature crazy winds off Sugar Loaf Mountain. Others have strong tides and currents: if you get it wrong, you can suddenly be a long way behind.

Saskia and I have had a great build-up so far, coming second at the test event, and winning the Copa de Brazil regatta in December. We’re in a very different position to 2012: we aren’t just competing to do our best and hoping that’s enough to win a medal. People’s expectations — including our own – change, and managing those will be a challenge.

I think about life after Rio a lot. Saskia will definitely retire, so if I want to continue sailing, I’ll have to find a new partner or perhaps change the class of boat I sail. I’m also considering going back to studying, maybe at Bristol, to get a qualification in economics and business.

Sir David Tanner CBE (BSc 1970)

Rowing is Great Britain’s most continuously successful Olympic sport. And Sir David Tanner CBE, British Rowing’s Performance Director, has been at the helm since 1996.

During my first year at Bristol, I used to row from the old boathouse at Saltford, cycling to and from Wills Hall five or six times a week. In my second year, I offered my coaching services to Clifton College and took the under 16 squad to regattas on the Thames that I’d raced in at school. When they began to win some ‘pots’, I discovered I had some talent for coaching, and went on to coach the men’s four at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

I knew Sir Steve [Redgrave CBE] and James [Cracknell OBE] well before I became British Rowing’s Performance Director (PD). I was Team Leader for Rowing for the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, as well as the World Championships in between, all while being head of a big London comprehensive school. Since 1996, lottery funding has been a game-changer for the sport: we are now the envy of the world, thanks to the British public. Katherine [Grainger CBE]’s first year in international rowing was 1997, and my first as PD, so we’ve developed our careers alongside each other.

Sir Steve, James and Katherine are all ‘standout’ people with a massive will to win. That doesn’t always make them easy to work with: they’re strong-minded, ambitious, and uncompromising in their aims. But they’re also great to work with: they want the best, and have an innate competitive spirit.

I’m probably most proud of launching our talent recruitment programme, Start, in 2002. Start employs coaches across the UK to find future rowers, most of whom have never thought of rowing. At London 2012, five of our ten Olympic champions learnt to row through Start. We still need to find more coaches though and, particularly in the university sector, unlock the talent of our massive pool of students.

After London 2012, our biggest challenge will be defending our position as the world’s leading rowing nation. All the competition is after us and ‘winning after winning’ is always a challenge. We are always ambitious with our targets, but we try not to be too tied to numbers. For London, our Olympic target was six, and we won nine (from 14 events); our Paralympic target was one or two and we won one (from four). It takes a lot of rowers to win the medals we won in London, and it’s hard to be too precise.

Rio is simply beautiful and we’ll be racing in a natural lake bounded by Ipanema and Copacabana Beaches, with the statue of Christ the Redeemer just behind. I’m looking forward to the regatta being the centrepiece of the Games: usually our venue is far outside the host city. Be sure to watch all of our boats – we’ve qualified for 12 events (of 14) for the Olympics and all four in the Paralympics, the best of any nation.

Continue reading for views from Matthew Brown, Misha Glenny (BA 1980) and Matt Birch

Listen to an audio version (mp3)

Further information

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