How talent-spotting boffins help Team GB bag Olympic gold
Amateurs plucked from obscurity, shoved into sporting history
Fancy a trip to Rio in 2016? Getting on the British Olympics team might be one way of doing it.
Sound ridiculous? Maybe not: Helen Glover, who last week won Britain’s first gold medal at London 2012 along with rowing partner Heather Stanning, only started rowing four years ago in 2008. London was her first Olympics competition.
Glover was a teacher drafted into Team GB using a 2007 programme started by gold-medal rower Sir Steve Redgrave for UK Sport called Sporting Giants. The goal of the programme was to find tall and talented contenders in the fields of rowing, handball and volleyball: sports for which it is traditionally hard to find contenders, or where Britain had little presence – such as in handball, which has been an Olympic sport since 1936.
Overall, 11 athletes were selected for London 2012 in rowing, canoeing and handball using Sporting Giants and six similar programmes by UK Sport, listed here.
Glover, left with crew mate Stanning: London 2012 was Glover's first Olympics. Pic credit: London 2012
Their presence has helped nudge Great Britain to its best Olympics performance in a century, certainly within recent years. Glover, with Stanning, might also have provided a vital psychological boost for Team GB after we missed out on "guaranteed" gold in men's road cycling during the weekend before.
By Tuesday, team GB had beaten its Beijing haul. The British team won 19 golds and 47 medals in total during the previous Olympics in 2008 – where we ended up fourth behind China, the US and Russia.
Programmes like Sporting Giants represent a growing application of science and selective rigour to sport by nations like Britain in a world where performance enhancement drugs are banned and microsecond performance vital as records keep tumbling.
UK sport has run programmes across 17 sports including taekwondo, flat-water canoe/kayak, skeleton and bobsleigh, archery and – yes – cycling, where we have dominated the gold-medal tables, snatching both existing titles and a few new ones.
Former British Olympics team coach Ben Oakley, who coached Team GB for the South Korea and Barcelona Games, spoke to The Reg about the tighter marriage of science and sport. Oakley now heads up sport and fitness for the Open University.
The former coach said: “There’s an increasing use of science within sport, of sport and science to gain minimal margins. The ‘sciencification’ of sport, has been going on for a while but as the stakes get higher you see more of these initiatives.”
Prior to Sporting Giants, Britain seems to have dabbled with placement of athletes using something known as “talent transfer". This is where existing athletes swap their existing discipline, where people with specific skills and body types are matched to another suitable discipline.
Remember Rebecca Romero? She first won silver for Britain rowing the quadruple scull at the Athens Games in 2004 and only took up cycling in 2006, winning two golds for Great Britain at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Britain has not been alone in applying talent transfer to get results. China moved Chen Zhong from basketball to taekwondo in 1995 and within five years she had been selected for the national team. Zhong went on to win gold at the 2000 Olympics - where taekwondo made its debut as an Olympic sport.
A time for tall people
In an age of reality TV programmes such as Britain’s Got Talent or The Voice, Sporting Giants' process has a ring of the familiar: it searches the public for new talent, selects a few and then watches them perform to see who comes out on top.
In reality, they couldn’t be more different. Competition to join Sporting Giants was intense: Glover was one of 4,500 applicants who initially signed up in 2007 and she was part of one the 200-strong batches of people that were tested at a time at the England national sport centre in Bisham Abbey.
The basic entry requirement was also strict. Never mind a sneaking sense you’d quite like to give rowing a go, first you had to be tall: the tallest woman on Sporting Giants was 192.7cm (6’4”) and the tallest man 217.3cm (7’2”).
When it comes to rowing, the taller the better – ideally six feet and more. Also considered is wing span – the distance from hand tip to hand tip – with the greater distance favoured: a long wing span indicates “long levers” and a long stroke length – rather like Usain Bolt’s huge stride length on dry land. A weight lifter would have a different body type: shorter with shorter wingspan.
Next page: Right body and mind?
Re: Maybe start younger
I agree with much of what you say; but I'm not quite sure about "forcing" them.
Younger children usually want to be active; they have bags of energy and are very curious. They will wnat to try out different things, they probably won't need to be forced. (I accept, not always true) However, as they get older, it will become more difficult and it's highly unlikely that most schools will have the facilities or the adequately trained personnel to do more than the very basic of sports.
I know that lots of teachers think that because they are a "teacher" they are automatically the only people that should be allowed to teach. However, I would suggest that is utter pigswill; they need to accept that they can't do everything and allow people from outside of teaching to have some influence.
The teachers could certainly guide children into the right areas; if they show a knack for gymanstics, send them to a local gymnastics club. If they appear to have a burning desire to shoot arrows, there will be a club to allow them to join and improve in that area.
But I would also like to see the schools allowing some of these external groups access into the school. I know that some do, and where this happens, there can be a really good pickup of young people. But it doesn't happen everywhere; and that is a big shame as the kids lose out and the sports lose out.
Perhaps we need to be a bit more positive about the way that we treat various sports other than the inevitable football?
Maybe start younger
Finding great sportspeople is great. But soon we won't even have that.
Kids aren't allowed to play competative sports until senior school (or if they do no score is kept) sports day is no longer manditory, they're talking about making it so PE isn't manditory. By the time the next olympics comes over half our kids will look like those people from wall-e.
I'm all for encouraging people to take up sports, but we need to start when they're in schools, not when they're fully grown adults who have catching up to do.
Just an honest opinion here. During the early stages of school, kids should be forced to try a variety of different sports, find what they like and enjoy. I am terrible at sports, most sports. It turns out the only sport I was good at was Rugby, and after the first year I wasn't allowed to play that because I was put into the mixed group for sports because well... I sucked at everything else, so couldn't join the "top" class (best athletes were in boys / girls group. worse were in mixed where we did sweet FA)
Get kids doing sports young, a wide variety of sports to find out their skills. Then when they get older, rather than having a normal PE where you're told what to do, let them choose what they enjoy doing, rather than forcing them to do soemthing useless they hate (dance).
Hell, we have plenty of colleges and university courses doing sports courses. Make part of their curriculum that they have to go to a school a few times a week and teach gym, two birds one stone.
But right now the way we're going by the next olympics kids coming out of school won't even be able to walk propperly (seriously saw a little fat kid the other day who couldn't walk, all he could do was waddle, he actually did look like one of the people from wall-e.)
The permanent members of the UN's security council should be made up from the top five nations in the Olympic medal table. That would guarantee we spend on sport.