In 13 days, Tokyo will capture the world’s attention and the Olympic cauldron will finally be lit (however unconventionally) after a one-year delay. More than ten thousand athletes around the globe are getting ready for their time to shine after an incredibly challenging year.
To understand the sea of emotions and mountain of pressure they are under, Britain’s joint most decorated female Olympian, former rower and current chair of UK Sport, Dame Katherine Grainger reminisces and gives advice to the new generation.
She remembers having been a nervous, rosy-cheeked twenty-something 13 days before her Olympic debut, wondering what will happen. ‘By now, pretty much all the selection is done, in a way, the hard bit is behind you, the uncertainty of whether or not you’re going is gone and there is nothing between you and the Games starting,’ Katherine smiles.
‘From now on, time goes very very fast. You have this event that is being talked about years in advance, ‘London 2012’, ‘Rio 2016’, ‘Tokyo 2020’, this has been your futuristic driving force for years and suddenly, it’s around the corner.
‘Now, you suddenly see the TV channels, starting to show adverts for it, you see articles in the written press and online. Suddenly, what used to be just you and your teammates’ focus, is in the public eye.’ Katherine remembers the feelings and emotions well but she also knows the years of hard work that goes into securing a spot on the team.
‘It’s still long enough to go that you still have a lot of preparation to do, a lot of hard training to do. Part of it is managing your energy, you don’t want to exhaust yourself before getting to the startline,’ she reminds us.’ The athletes chosen to represent Britain will have their clothes to wear by now, their plane tickets booked, schedule ready for when they land in Tokyo.
Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, there will be extra safety measures in place which will likely mean everyone will have to stay in their accommodation, wear masks in public, cancel their sightseeing plans and compete in near-empty venues.
Despite the necessary but heartbreaking changes, the Olympic Village will hopefully stay as magical as Katherine remembers it.
‘I was stunned to find out [the Olympic Village] was genuinely a village with streets, trees, bus stops, a post office and a shop. It seems ordinary, but behind the doors of every house, every apartment is a fantastic Olympian who is the best in their country at what they do.’
She goes on to explain the unique atmosphere at the village which almost feels like an Alice in Wonderland-esque dream. On one side of the mirror, it is a comfortable space full of professionals with common goals and experiences, giggling, coffee in hand. On the other side, it is the calm before the storm, where all the sporting giants are gathered to get ready for the biggest stage in the world. This duality creates a ‘constant excitement and disbelief’ nothing can compare to.
This unique aura around the Olympics is sensible for the audience as well. ‘A lot of people say to me they don’t like sports, but they love the Olympics, there is a magic that comes with it.’ Katherine’s words are supported by the figures that show the 2016 Rio Olympics drew in 3.6 billion viewers worldwide. She adds, ‘sports have a real ability to connect people and provide an escape from reality or provide inspiration and aspirations, both of which we need right now.’
Katherine’s love and respect for the event manifest in the way she remembers her career. ‘I first competed over 20 years ago and I still struggle to find the right words to sum [the Olympic experience] up.’ With five Olympic, eight World Championship and one European Championship medals under her belt, she is still at a loss of words when it comes to her time as part of Team GB.
‘As an athlete, it’s what you dream about, it is the pinnacle of achievement to get to the Games, to wear Team GB kit and to walk in behind the flag,’ she adds. Interestingly, Katherine grew up watching the iconic sporting event never even imagining she would one day write its history.
After rowing for Edinburgh University’s team, she quickly rose through the ranks and despite not having initial plans to continue the sport, she got to compete for Scotland and eventually Great Britain. She hopes the next generations of Scottish athletes look to past giants for inspiration and continue to aim for gold. ‘Luckily, at UK Sport, it’s part of my job to watch the Olympics, so I will be watching and cheering our athletes on!’