Category Archives: Simon Rea

Sport is in a state – why has drug use become such a major issue?

By Simon Rea

As someone who has been involved competing in sport, working in sport and watching sport all my life I have become increasingly concerned about the negative reports about its association with drug use.

Image courtesy of sscreations at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of sscreations at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Team Sky has had a particularly bad couple of weeks with speculation over the contents of a ‘mystery package’ that was sent to Bradley Wiggins in 2011 added to by revelations that ex-Team Sky rider, Josh Edmondson, had been using a pain killer, Tramadol, and injecting vitamins in 2013 and 2014. Although vitamins are not a banned substance it is contrary to the policy brought in by the cyclist’s union, UCI, in 2011 that banned cyclists from the use of needles.

Added to this is the revelation that US anti-doping agency (USADA) are investigating whether any rules were broken when Mo Farah was injected with a legal protein supplement, L-carnitine, by Dr. Robin Chakraverty. These two incidences are interesting because neither is illegal as the substances are not banned but they are considered as dubious or underhand practices that contravene the spirit of sport. In particular, it is the use of needles seems to cross the line between acceptable and unacceptable practices for professional sports people.

However, top level sport in the UK seems to have a relatively minor doping problem. According to UK anti-doping (UKAD) there are currently 52 athletes or coaches banned due to the use of illegal substances and only 12% of these are involved in professional sport. Most banned athletes are involved in amateur sports (62%) or semi-professional sports (21%). A BBC poll (BBC, 2017) showed that 35% of amateur sports people know someone who has used drugs and 8% said they had personally taken steroids.

The use of drugs is a major problem because as well as being cheating they can have devastating side effects, such as heart conditions and liver failure, that are ignored in favour of their benefits. Also, as they become more prevalent people will start to adopt the dangerous attitude that ‘they are only doing what everyone else is doing’.

Which substances are being used and why are they being taken?

The BBC poll showed three motives for drug use with 41% saying they took drugs to improve performance, 40% for pain relief and 34% to improve how they look. This fits in well with the three categories of substance most commonly used. Anabolic steroids, such as nandrolone and stanozolol, mimic the hormone testosterone and promote muscle development that can enhance performance or improve the perception of an individual’s body image. Semi-professional and amateur rugby union and league have a particular issue with anabolic steroids as success is increasingly allied to strength and bulk. These sports have accounted for 46% of the sanctions issued by UKAD (BBC, 2017).

Stimulants, such as amphetamines and ephedrine, are taken to reduce fatigue and allow an athlete to compete at maximum intensity for longer thus enhancing performance. They also create a ‘fat burning effect’ which can be desirable for those wanting to improve their appearance. Narcotic analgesics, such as morphine and pethidine, act as painkillers and can mask the effect of injuries and allow athletes to train harder and longer. Tramadol has a similar effect but is an opioid rather than a narcotic.

The motives for drug use are clear but there are two main factors that are contributing to its growth.

Firstly, the ‘win at all costs’ mentality or what Team Sky described as a ‘medallist’ culture. This can lead to athlete welfare being compromised at the expense of ensuring they are successful. The song ‘We are the champions’ which was played during the ceremony as Manchester United were recently presented with the EFL Cup has the line ‘No time for losers ‘cause we are the champions’ exemplifying attitudes to success and failure. Possibly a dubious message to send to our children.

Secondly, the obsession with body image and pressure to conform to stereotypes of male and female beauty. This is often media driven through images in fitness magazines and increasingly training seems to be about attaining an attractive physique rather than gaining health benefits. Indeed, the practices of training for health and training for body image are often at odds with each other as steroids are used to build muscle and stimulants to promote fat burning. The psychological condition ‘bigorexia’ where muscular people see themselves as having physical flaws or not being muscular enough has become as much of a concern as anorexia where people see themselves as being overweight irrespective of their actual appearance.

Is sharing negative experiences of drug users a solution?

Nicola Sapstead, the head of UKAD, has described drug use in UK sport as ‘fast becoming a crisis’ but it is possible that a potential solution is already available. On the BBC 5live phone on 20th March there was a steady stream of people who had used drugs describing the damaging long-term consequences of drug use’ with one male gym user who had to have to surgery to remove excess breast tissue that had developed due to the increase in oestrogen levels caused by steroids.

Creating effective education programmes and showing people that despite what they may experience many athletes, such as Jess Ennis-Hill, experience success without taking supplements or resorting to dangerous practices.

References
BBC Sport (2017) ‘Doping in sport: Drug use ‘fast becoming a crisis’ – Nicole Sapstead [online]. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/38884801 (accessed 21st March 2017)

Waddington, I. and Smith, A. (2009). An Introduction to Drugs in Sport: Addicted to winning? Abingdon, Routledge.

Cheating in sport and the issues surrounding drug use are covered in our new module E117 that will be available from October 2017. For more information visit the Study with us section of this website.

 

Reflections on the Student Hub Live Olympics Special

On Friday 19th Aust 2016 members of the OU sport and fitness team (Simon Rea, Karen Howells and Caroline Heaney) took part in the Student Hub Live Olympics Special. This was our first experience of a live streamed event, but we all thoroughly enjoyed it. We were joined by Kath Woodward and Elizabeth Silva and the session was expertly hosted by Karen Foley.

imageOn our arrival we were delighted to see that the green room was well stocked with tasty treats, possibly as an incentive to take a green room selfie!

We then participated in a short Facebook live video talking about what we would cover in the session. This helped us to overcome some of our nerves about the main event and we were impressed how many students watched the video. This filled us with excitement about what was to come and the amount of student interaction that was possible.

imageThe session kicked off at noon and Simon Rea was up first discussing the history of the Olympics. He also shared his experience of racing 1980 Olympic 100m champion Alan Wells!

 

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Simon was followed by Elizabeth Silva, Professor of Sociology, who examined some of the economical and political aspects of the Olympics, and gave some interesting insight.

 

 

 

 

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Karen Howells was up next discussing the coach-athlete relationship and the role of sport psychology. This session highlighted the importance of the team behind the athlete.

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Karen was followed by Caroline Heaney who discussed the links between mental health and sport and exercise. As well as looking at exercise as a treatment for mental health conditions, the session looked at the incidence of depression in elite athletes.

 

imageThe session concluded with an interesting discussion about gender and the Olympics with Kath Woodward who challenged the audience to consider whether traditional views of gender are too narrow.

The Student Hub Live Olympics Special provided us with a great opportunity to interact with students and share our knowledge on sports related topics. We hope that those who engaged with the session found it interesting.

If you missed the session it will be available through the catch-up link on this page, or you can watch the video below.

If you are interested in studying sport and fitness at the OU please click here to find out more.

European Championships 2016: Home Nations dare to dream or will it be an early Brexit?

By Simon Rea

On Friday 10th June the 15th UEFA European Championship will commence when the host nation, France, play against Romania in Saint Denis. This will be the first time the tournament has comprised of 24 teams and shows a huge expansion from the 4 teams who competed in the first tournament. The French are the bookmakers’ favourites to win the tournament but who else should we look out for?

The big three

Spain are the holders of the title and have won the last two tournaments whilst Germany are the world champions so these two are major contenders. However, the Spanish squad is in transition with new players such as Nolito and Morata replacing Torres and Mata in the squad. The German squad still retains the majority of their World Cup winning team but their results in qualifying were underwhelming and included defeats by Poland and Republic of Ireland.

As host nation the French will have home advantage and they won as hosts in 1984 in a team inspired by Michel Platini. Their team is centred around a core of English Premiership stars, such as Hugo Lloris, N’Golo Kante, Anthony Martial and Dimitri Payet, as well as world stars like Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann. Their will have become increasingly focused after the November terrorist attacks in Paris. The argument against a French triumph is a potential quarter or semi-final against the Germans.

Making up the final four

Portugal, Italy, Belgium and England will be hoping to get into the semi-finals. Portugal have probably the best European footballer in Cristiano Ronaldo, while historically Italy historically do well at major tournaments. Belgium are the team to look out for as in Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaka and Toby Alderweireld they a magnificent selection of individual players. However, they now need to show they can develop into a team and challenge at a major tournament.

This is an exciting time for England. They qualified with 10 victories out of 10 and have an exciting young team lead by a now experienced Wayne Rooney.  However, all England’s talent seems to be in attack where Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli have all excelled in the last 9 months.  They have good attacking full backs but a shortage of centre backs.  It may be that England will need to score freely to make up for any weaknesses in defence.

Outside bets

It is worth bearing in mind that 12 years ago this tournament was won by an unfavoured Greece team and 12 years before that in 1992 by Denmark who only qualified as a replacement for the war torn Yugoslavia. Two teams who may be interesting outside bets are Austria and Poland. Poland are inspired by striker Robert Lewandowski and recorded a qualifying victory over Germany. Austria qualified strongly winning their group with 9 wins out of 10.  They have star players in David Alaba of Bayern Munich and Marko Arnautovic of Stoke City and have one of the weaker qualifying groups.

What about the other Home Nations?

This is the first time since the World Cup of 1958 that four Home Nation teams have qualified for a major tournament and Wales were the team who progressed furthest reaching the quarter finals on that occasion. The 1958 team was built around their star player, John Charles of Juventus, just as the 2016 team revolves around Gareth Bale, the Real Madrid striker. He is backed up by other stars, such as Aaron Ramsey and Ashley Williams. The other players include a mixture of Premiership and Championship players.

This is also the case with Northern Ireland who would appear to have no big name players, although they do have a core of well experienced Premiership players in Steven Davis, Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley. However, this band of brothers have the elusive quality of team spirit and are backed up by the raucous support of the Green and White Army. Also, they may be the only team who has a player with a current top 40 hit about them. Expect to hear the anthem ‘Will Grigg is on fire, your defence is terrified’ ringing around the stadium whenever they play. Something happens when players like Kyle Lafferty pull on the green shirt so expect some surprises.

The Republic of Ireland qualified through the play-offs and have an excellent manager in Martin O’Neill. Like Northern Ireland they are a team of honest, hardworking professionals with strikers Shane Long and Robbie Keane offering a bit of star quality.

A word about penalties!

Invariably at some point we will be subjected to the particular pain of the penalty shootout. Unfortunately, England have one of the worst records of all the nations involved. With 6 failures they have lost the most shootouts with a single Stuart Pearce inspired victory at Euro 1996 being their solitary success. Only Italy can come close to England with 5 failures, while Germany with 5 successes and Spain with 4 have the best records. Penalty shootouts need to be avoided at all costs!

Who will win?

In the spirit of 1992 and 2004 I would love to predict success for an outsider but a Northern Ireland v Wales final seems unlikely sadly. I think we could see a France v England final with England being inspired by in-form strikers, Kane and Vardy. It may be fanciful but in the words of the Northern Ireland slogan we should ‘dare to dream’.

For more coverage of Euro 2016 visit the OpenLearn Euro 2016 Hub

Wimbledon is here – finally the summer of sport begins

By Simon Rea

This summer in the absence of an Olympics Games or major men’s football tournament sports fans are relying on events such as the women’s Football World Cup, the first European Games in Baku and the ICC women’s championships for entertainment.  From Monday 29th June this will be supplemented by two weeks of Wimbledon fever and a supply of tennis from lunchtime to bedtime.  The British tennis fans will be asking whether all our hopes of glory rest with Andy Murray or can any other British players have a good run in the tournament.

TennisBallNetSky

Image courtesy of PinkBlue at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Who will win?

The men’s singles and women’s singles could not be more different at the moment in terms of predictability.  If asked most people would answer that one of four, possibly five, men will win the men’s title while it seems that anyone could win the women’s title.

Women’s tournament

Serena Williams is once again the favourite for the women’s title and has been in spectacular form winning the last 3 major tournaments.  Most recently she won the French Open on her less favoured surface of clay but she hasn’t won Wimbledon since 2012.  Is she overdue to win or is her time at Wimbledon over?  If not Serena then two time winner and defending champion Petra Kvitova must be a favourite to succeed or Maria Sharapova, who has not won since 2004. These three stars of the game are joined in the top 5 by Simona Halep of Romania and Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, both of whom have appeared in Grand Slam finals. Personally, I think this may be the year for Wozniacki who has underperformed at Wimbledon but in the last two years her performances have steadily improved and she has gained the consistency needed for success.

Men’s tournament

Novak Djokovic is favourite for the men’s title just ahead of Andy Murray.  They recently shared an epic semi-final on clay at the French Open that Djokovic just won before he was beaten in the final by Stanislas Wawrinka.  We are living through probably the toughest era in men’s tennis where four men, Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray, have been competing for the major titles.  There has often been a rivalry between two players but never have we had four of the best players ever to play the game competing in the same era.  This has meant that each man has had to raise their game and work on every weakness to remain competitive

I think that this year may be Andy Murray’s year to win a second title.  Firstly, he came very close to beating Djokovic after producing incredible tennis to drag himself back from two sets down. Djokovic is probably his closest rival at the moment and grass courts represent Murray’s favourite surface.  He recently replicated his form of 2013, when he previously won Wimbledon, at the Aegon Championships to win the tournament convincingly.  His form has been up and down over the last two years but he finally seems fit and strong after his back surgery towards the end of 2013.  Murray needs to ensure that he doesn’t lets his opponent back into the match during the second set after he has won the first.  If he can show his ruthless streak he would be very well placed to succeed this year.

Are there any other British players to watch out for?

Heather Watson and Laura Robson are now well established on the tennis circuit but Robson has only recently overcome a wrist injury that had kept her side-lined for 17 months.  Watson is joined in the top three British women by Naomi Broady and a relative newcomer, Johanna Konta.  Konta is Australian born and has never got beyond the first round at Wimbledon, however, she performed impressively at the pre-Wimbledon Aegon tournament in Eastbourne where she knocked out 2 top-20 players so she is definitely one to watch.

British men’s tennis has a new number two in the shape of Aljaz Bedene who is ranked 74 in the world and has held a British passport since March, having moved to Britain from Slovenia seven years ago to develop his tennis career.  It is the first time since the days of Henman and Rusedski that Britain has had two men in the world’s top 100. He has never won a grand slam match but is one to watch to see how he responds to the fervent support of the British public.

This summer may be quieter than others but hopefully along with the England women’s football team and England cricket teams there will be plenty of success to savour.

Mind games: the psychiatrist hoping to help England stay in the World Cup

By Simon Rea

England play Uruguay tonight in a crucial match that, if lost, could leave the team with one foot already on the flight home. It’s for situations like these that Steve Peters, England’s sport psychiatrist, was invited to accompany the team to the World Cup.

It’s worth considering why England’s manager Roy Hodgson has chosen Peters over the more traditional sport psychologists who have been regularly employed by England football teams in the past.

Peters does have a great track record – he worked with the British cycling teams who enjoyed huge success at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, as well as snooker great Ronnie O’Sullivan. But psychiatrists are nevertheless more commonly associated with mental illness. Hodgson will have found himself getting a different service from Peters than his predecessors will have had from psychologists.

Psychology vs psychiatry

Sport psychology is still a relatively new discipline, having only been around since the 1950s. Its aim is to understand the mental factors that underpin successful performance and influence them positively. Among other things, a sport psychologist will help people to think and act in different ways by constructing skills (or interventions) that can be used in sports environments. Skills such as relaxation to control anxiety and stress, self-talk to promote positive thinking and imagery to mentally rehearse skills are all commonly taught. Sport psychologists will also work with coaches to help build cohesion and systems of leadership within a team.

Sports psychologists and psychiatrists are educated in different ways. The term “sport psychologist” is protected by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and anyone claiming to be one will need to have an MSc in sport psychology and be a member of a professional body, such as the British Psychology Society.

A sport psychiatrist, on the other hand, is first and foremost trained as a medical doctor. They will have qualified in psychiatry and then chosen to work with sports people. Peters calls himself a consultant psychiatrist, perhaps because sport psychiatry is not recognised as a speciality in the UK. He describes himself as being a doctor who specialises in looking after the human mind.

Psychiatry in sport does not necessarily look at treating illnesses but it recognises that thoughts and thought patterns developed by athletes can be detrimental to their performance. A main difference with psychology is that sport psychiatry is not aimed at producing performance enhancement, rather it focuses on how the brain is working and any problems that the brain is causing. It may produce performance enhancement but unlike the interventions of a sport psychologist, this is not the primary aim.

The Chimp Paradox

Central to Steve Peters’ work is a system he has developed of mind management, which he presents in his book, “The Chimp Paradox”. This concept is used to present a simplified view of how the brain works. He explains that thoughts are generated in two parts of the brain. The frontal lobe is responsible for rational thinking based on facts and the limbic system is responsible for emotional thinking.

The “chimp” sits in the limbic system and has the first opportunity to process what is happening around you. The chimp produces what are described as catastrophic thoughts, such as “this is terrible”.

Take the example of a footballer striding up to take a penalty kick. He may experience anxiety and tension due to the pressure of the situation. He may have thoughts like “I have got to score or I’ll be a failure” and “I’m going to let everybody down”. He should feel confident about taking the kick, but his thought processes have been hijacked by his chimp.

England currently face the looming prospect of exiting the World Cup at the first group stage for the first time since 1958 – high potential for catastrophic thoughts to thrive in players’ minds. Peters will be working with players to overcome these and maintain positivity.

If athletes can bypass their chimp then they will start having rational thoughts, which will aid their performance in these situations. Peters explains that the anxiety produced by the chimp gets the better of people, but once they recognise that these feelings are unwanted and are stopping them performing at their best, they can start to manage their chimp.

Sport psychologists and psychiatrists have both been successfully used by sports people. Ultimately a professional’s title or chosen field of study matters little if they can deliver the support needed by England footballers. Let’s hope Peters can help England’s footballers to replicate the success of the Olympic cyclists and produce their best performances on the world’s biggest stage.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

World Cup 2014 – it’s here again but is it coming home?

By Simon Rea

It’s upon us again – the football circus that is the World Cup.  Flags are appearing on cars, houses and pubs and the talk is of heat, humidity, samba football and penalty shoot outs.  If you have no interest in football now is the time to book that once in a lifetime trip to Albania or Kazakhstan, or other countries who have not qualified, for the next month.

Brazil has a special significance in the hearts of football fans.  They are the most successful team in World Cup history with five titles and have been represented by outstanding footballers such as Pele, Garrincha, Zico, Romario and Ronaldo.  They boast iconic stadia, such as the Maracana, placed in breath-taking settings. Certainly my interest in football was cemented by watching Brazil beat Scotland 4-1 in the 1982 World Cup. I could not believe that football could be played like that.  The sport of football may have developed in England but somewhere along the line Brazil became its spiritual home.

In this article I will consider some of the important factors that may contribute to one team rising above the others and claiming the title on 12th July.

Who will be in the quarter finals?

FIFA rankings show Spain, Germany, Portugal and Brazil as the top ranked teams with England rated as 11th.  The Elo ratings, developed by Arpad Elo which take into account skill levels of players and teams, the performances of teams in recent competitions and home advantage are almost in agreement.  They say that the semi-finalists are likely to be Brazil, Spain, Germany and Argentina with Brazil and Argentina making it to the final.  These statistical predictions look fairly sound but do not take into account what may happen during the tournament – injuries, lower ranked teams over performing or the role of luck.  Also, Brazil, Argentina and Germany are three of the four most successful teams in World Cup (based on matches won) with Italy being the fourth.  In a bid to raise optimism it is worth noting that England are the fifth most successful team, just ahead of Spain. Brazil are the clear favourites to win a sixth title but what are the key factors for success?

The effect of home advantage

This will be the 20th World Cup and of the previous 19 tournaments 6 have been won by the host nation.  Even more relevant is that 17 tournaments have been won by a team from the Continent that has hosted the event.  Spain’s 2010 victory in South Africa was something of an anomaly as was European teams gaining the first three places.  Pollard (2006) identified that factors such as crowd support, less travel, familiarity with grounds and conditions, referee bias and psychological factors (the expectations of success) can all play a part.  Home advantage is often reframed as away disadvantage as the tiring effects of travel, living away from home, changes in diet and lack of familiarity with weather conditions can all play a negative role.

Team dynamics

While performance on the pitch is the only thing that counts this can be effected by what happens off the pitch.  Players are forced to live, eat and breathe with each other for periods of up to six weeks.  There may be clashes of personality, battles of egos, loyalties divided along club lines and all manners of barriers to team cohesion.  In 2010 the French team, who had been victorious in 2002 and runners up in 2006, boycotted their final training session in protest at the sending home of Nicolas Anelka.  Anelka was involved in an argument with the coach and this caused a rift between players and coach.  The outcome was that France went home after the group stage.  Dutch teams have also often been characterised by infighting and group conflict.

Tactics

Teams need to be aware of the heat when working on tactics.  The high tempo, pressing game favoured by European teams, England included, is not suited to the heat of the Brazil and particularly the jungle in Manaus.  Many South American teams favour a passing team where the ball does the work and saves the energy of the players.

My choice of quarter finalists

I think Brazil and Argentina will be there and joined by two of Chile, France and The Ivory Coast.  I think that the Spanish team are one major tournament past their peak and their age may work against them; Germany will be hard to beat but their reliance on Miroslav Klose to score goals is risky.  Chile have two world stars in Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez and they play very attacking football.  France are developing as a team and in Rafael Varane and Paul Pogba have two outstanding young players.  If the Ivory Coast can develop a team ethic then players such as Yaya Toure, Chiek Tiote and Didier Drogba could make them a major force.

What about England’s chances?

I think that England are developing into a very effective team and that they will have the chance to grow throughout the tournament.  In 1990 the England team was introducing players such as Paul Gascoigne and David Platt to their first tournament and they excelled on the big stage. England’s Daniel Sturridge has to be scoring goals for England to progress but it is the players who supply the chances that are the central to success. The English players to watch are Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling.  Lallana has neither pace nor power but he has fast feet and can find space in tight areas; on the other hand Sterling has searing pace that can scare defenders.  If England are to progress they must beat Italy as it will be difficult for them when they face Uruguay.

Who wins then?

The World Cup favours the host nation, those with the best players and the most fanatical supporters.  I have to tip Brazil to win and Neymar to be top scorer.

Reference

Pollard, R. (2006). Home advantage in soccer: Variations in its magnitude and a literature review on interrelated factors associated with its existence. Journal of Sports Behaviour, 29, 169-189.

Team GB’s equal best medal haul – but it’s all about the Curling!

By Simon Rea

On Friday 21st February Team GB will win their fourth medal, either a silver or gold, in the men’s curling final. It will equal the team’s best performance from the first Winter Olympics in 1924 held in Chamonix. Four medals may look a modest haul in contrast to Norway’s 21 and counting but it represents a significant improvement on the single medal achieved in 2010 and means that the team’s medal target has been achieved with a couple more medal chances to come over the weekend.

Sliding onto the podium
There was a major breakthrough on the first Sunday of the Games as Jenny Jones won a bronze medal in Snowboarding. According to the record books this is the first British medal on snow (all the others have been won in ice events), although Alain Baxter’s performance in the skiing slalom in 2002 needs to be acknowledged. He won the bronze medal but was disqualified for failing a drugs test due to the presence of a stimulant in an American Vicks inhaler he was using. He was later cleared of any wrong doing but the IOC declined to give him back his medal. Team GB’s first gold came courtesy of a brilliant performance over four runs of the skeleton course by Lizzy Yarnold. She followed in the footsteps of Amy Williams and celebrated by changing her name to ‘YarGold’ for one day.

Curling – the nation’s new favourite sport!
Team GB’s success in 2014 has centred on the Ice Cube Curling Centre. Social media has been buzzing with posts and tweets about how people have become obsessed with the curling events. Interest in Curling has overcome the jibes about it being ‘competitive housework’ as viewers are treated to the excitement and the drama of the matches that can change with every stone released. The use of language, such as stones, hammer, sweeps and skips is becoming commonplace and curling works on many levels. Unlike many Winter Olympic events the competitors compete head to head rather than one after another so the drama is constantly unfolding and the battle between the teams is visible to see. It is a perfect television sport as the sheet that it is played on can be viewed from overhead, the stones, the house and the team’s kit are colourful and appealing. The camera can look straight into the eyes of the curlers and examine every change of emotion as they release the stones and watch their trajectory. Commentators refer to the wide, blue eyes of Anna Sloan or the steely glare of Eve Muirhead. The sport is highly skilled and the curlers have to control their emotions under extreme pressure and keep their concentration. Curling has earned the nickname ‘chess on ice’ because success is reliant on the strategy of each team. Each team has eight stones per end and the first stones are as influential as the last as the team seek to put up guards for their later stones or keep the route to the house clear. Maybe Curling is better compared to snooker as not only do you have to keep thinking ahead to the next shots but you also have to work out angles to hit your opponent’s stones to your advantage. The movement of the stones can be controlled by the sweepers whose work decreases the friction between the stone and ice and can influence the speed and direction of the stone.

Can it get even better?
Four Scottish women with an average age of 23 have won the bronze medal and Dave Murdoch’s men’s team will win either gold or silver. A gold medal would improve on the medal haul from 1924 and would be the first time Britain has won two golds at a Games. They are also putting together a strong case against Scottish devolution from the UK! There are other medal chances as well as the seriously unlucky Elise Christie (a former OU student) and the men’s 4-man bobsleigh provide the possibility of medals. Team GB has also had several athletes placed well in finals but outside the medal positions.

Up to this point the Sochi Games have proved to be a positive experience with spectacular venues and performances to match. The new events, such as slope style have been popular and well received. And maybe, just maybe, the best Winter Olympic performance for Team GB.

Sochi, here we come – The Winter Olympics 2014

By Simon Rea

On the 7th February the Olympic torch arrived in the Russian resort of Sochi, nestled beside the Black Sea, having been carried by 14,000 torch bearers over 65,000 kilometres through 83 states of Russia.  Its arrival marked the start of the 22nd Winter Olympics and the first to be held in Russia.  These Games will be the most compact in Olympic history with two main sites – The Coastal Cluster that includes the 40,000 capacity Fischt Olympic Stadium and the Mountain Cluster 18 miles to the north in the Caucasus Mountains.  The Coastal Cluster will host events such as ice hockey, speed skating and figure skating with the skiing events being held in the Mountain Cluster.

President Putin is hopeful that the twin ‘mega events’, the Winter Olympics of 2014 and the Football World Cup in 2018 will boost the positive image of Russia around the world, just as the Summer Olympics of 2008 and 2012 did for the cities of Beijing and London.  This is a dangerous game to play as amid the terrorist threats, accusations of human rights abuses and restriction of the freedom of expression Russia are also presiding over the most expensive Olympics Games in history.  These Games are expected to cost the Russian taxpayer around £32 billion in comparison to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver that cost £5.3 billion or London 2012 that cost just under £9 billion.  The road between the Mountain and Coastal clusters has cost as much as the budget for the entire 2010 Winter Olympics and led to an opposition Minister enquiring if it was paved with caviar.

The Winter Olympics were first held in Chamonix in 1924 with 250 athletes from 16 Nations. In Sochi there will be over 2500 athletes from 88 different Nations, including Zimbabwe and Togo for the first time, competing in 98 events in 15 different sports.  The first Winter Olympics were dominated by athletes from Norway, Finland, Austria and USA. Medal tables in subsequent Olympics show that this trend has continued with most medals being won by European and North American nations.  It is not too surprising given the shortage of physical resources that there has never been a Winter Olympic medallist from Africa or South America.

Slip sliding away

There have been many memorable moments in Winter Olympics history, such as Torville and Dean’s perfect rendition of Bolero and Herman Maier crashing and landing head first during the downhill skiing in Nagano only to walk away and come back to win gold medals in the giant slalom and Super-G events.  There have been honourable failures, such as Eddie the Eagle soaring to last place in the ski jump and the Jamaican bobsleigh team ending up travelling down the course upside down. 

The most successful winter Olympian is a Norwegian cross-country skier, Bjorn Daehlie, who won 12 medals including 8 golds between 1992 and 1998.  He was reputed to have a VO2 max (measure of aerobic fitness) of 96ml/kg/min which is one of the highest ever recorded.  He was also an athlete of great sportsmanship.  In 1998 he had become aware of a Kenyan skier, Philip Boit, who was competing in the 10k race.  Boit had only been skiing for two years and had excelled at 800 m running. He started training on ski rollers in Kenya before making his way to Finland to try snow for the first time. Boit’s event was won by Daehlie but rather than going directly to the medal ceremony he waited twenty minutes for Boit to finish so he could congratulate him on his achievement.  Apparently Boit informed Daehlie that he should enjoy his moment as he would beat him in Salt Lake City in four years’ time. It started a lifelong friendship and Boit named his first son after the Norwegian champion.

Bringing it back home – who to watch for the medals?

The Russian team are confident of a significant haul of medals to excite their supporters and their biggest hope is the men’s Ice Hockey team which contains several of their sporting icons.  However, Canada are the defending champions in this event and along with the Americans are always very strong. When looking at potential medallists it becomes clear that certain Nations are historically successful in certain events.  For example, Norway dominates cross-country skiing, Austria in ski jumping, Germany in the luge and bobsleigh, the Netherlands in speed skating and USA in snowboarding.  The following athletes are generally viewed as some of those most likely to make it to pinnacle of the podium.

  • Kallie Humphries is the Canadian driver of the two-woman bobsleigh and is reigning Olympic and World Champion. Kallie has been known to develop power for the start by pushing cars in training.
  • Shaun White is an American snowboarder who competes in the halfpipe event.  Known as ‘the flying tomato’ in tribute to his red hair his signature move is the Double McTwist where he rotates through 1260 degrees or 3 1/2 turns.
  • Sara Takenashi is a 16-year old Japanese schoolgirl who is aiming to become the first winner of the women’s ski jump event.  She has the perfect attributes for a ski jumper as she is under 5 foot tall and as a trained ballerina came to the sport with exceptional balance.
  • Felix Loch is the reigning champion in the luge and expected to win again.  In 2010 aged 20 he became the youngest winner of the event that was overshadowed by the death of a Georgian competitor, Nodar Kumaritashvili, during practice for the event.
  • Lizzy Yarnold is the British world champion in the skeleton event.  British sliders have had success in this event during the last three Winter Olympiads and with Yarnold and Shelly Rudman, the silver medallist from 2006, expectations are high.

The British Olympic team are hopeful that this can be their most successful Winter Olympic Games to follow the most successful Summer Olympic Games.  Irrespective of British performances the events, especially those with inherent dangers, are always going to be thrilling.  Added to this the stunning facilities in a magnificent setting the Sochi organising committee are promising a truly memorable Winter Olympics. 

Reference:

http://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2013/oct/09/sochi-2014-olympics-money-corruption

Great Britain on snow and ice – a brief history of involvement at the Winter Olympics

By Simon Rea

Out in the cold: Britain’s medal tally at the Winter Olympics

Great Britain’s recent involvement in the Summer Olympics has been an overwhelming success. It culminated with a third place finish in the medal table winning a total of 65 medals at the London Olympic Games of 2012 and many GB athletes becoming household names.  But how does this compare to Britain’s performances at the Winter Olympics? Ask most British people what they know about the Winter Olympics and they will reply with Torville and Dean, Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards and something about skeleton Bob!

So are the Winter Olympics less relevant for a country that has few mountains where skiing is possible and no sliding facilities? Or is it something to get excited about and hopeful for British success?

Unfortunately, history is not on our side.  Compare the total medal hauls for the Summer and Winter Olympics:

  • Summer Olympics – Total: 780 medals (236 gold, 272 silver and 272 bronze)
  • Winter Olympics – Total: 22 medals (9 gold, 3 silver and 10 bronze)

Whilst acknowledging that these statistics are skewed because there are fewer medals available at the Winter Olympics, Britain has achieved under 3% of its Olympic medals at the Winter Olympics. Added to this Britain’s best performance at a Winter Olympic Games came at the first, held in Chamonix in 1924.  Great Britain secured four medals (1 gold, 1 silver and 2 bronze).  This performance achieved a sixth place in the medals table in comparison to sixteenth in 2010.  Along the way there have been some highpoints for British performers as well as several low-points, which may be best forgotten.

Success on the ice

In the late 1970s and early 1980s British figure skaters were prominent on the podium.  John Curry and Robin Cousins winning gold medals in the men’s singles figure skating in 1976 and 1980 respectively. Then in 1984 Christopher Dean and Jayne Torville won gold in the ice dancing and famously achieved the highest score for a single routine with twelve 6.0s and six 5.9s for their Bolero routine.  This was an all-time Olympic highlight.  They tried to repeat their success in 1994 but pushed the rules too far with a controversial assisted lift and had to settle for bronze.

British athletes have found success in the skeleton event which was introduced at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. This is an event where the athlete lies face down on a small steel sled and hurtles down an ice track at speeds of around 90 mph. British success in the skeleton was started in 2002 by Alex Coomber who won a bronze medal, an amazing feat considering that she had broken her wrist ten days prior to the event!  This was followed up by a silver medal for Shelley Rudman in 2006 and then a gold medal in 2010 for Amy Williams.  Currently, British women top the medal tables for this event.

As the sport of curling has Scottish origins it is one where we may expect that British athletes have found success.  In fact, Great Britain won the men’s event in 1924 and were the holders of the Olympic title until it was reintroduced into the Olympics in 1998.  Continuing the trend Rhona Martin’s team dramatically won gold in 2002 with the last stone of the competition, since then medals have been in short supply.

Frozen in time

With the exception of achievements in speed skating (Nicky Gooch, 1994) and in bobsleigh (Sean Olsson’s four, 1998) medals have been sparse on the ground.  Interestingly, one British failure at the Winter Olympics is remembered as fondly as the successes.  Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards became an all-time Olympic hero in 1988 when he became the first (and still only) British competitor in the 70 m and 90 m ski jumps.  Eddie was a dedicated athlete who had tried to qualify for the British ski team in 1984 but had failed to make the team.  Not disheartened by failure he moved to Lake Placid and began training for the ski jump. However, he had two main problems – he was too heavy and he was long sighted.  In ski jumping it pays to be light because gravity will bring the heavier jumper to the ground more quickly. It also pays not to have to wear glasses as they become steamed up in cold weather.  Unfortunately Eddie came last in both events after which the IOC changed the rules to restrict the competition to ski jumpers who had achieved a certain standard. As a result Eddie failed to qualify for the next three Olympic Games.  Eddie the Eagle is an extraordinary story but spare a thought for the Finnish jumper who won the gold medal and whose victory was over shadowed by a jumper who finished over thirty metres behind him.

Skiing is another sport where British athletes have failed to gain a medal.  It looked like this had all changed in 2002 when Scottish skier, Alain Baxter, won a bronze medal in the slalom.  However, he was disqualified a few days later, when he was back home celebrating in Aviemore, having failed a drugs test.  He was found to have traces of methamphetamine in his body – this is a drug that had been in a Vicks inhaler he had used.  It transpired that the American version of the inhaler contained methamphetamine but the British version, which he usually used, did not.

Sochi 2014: British hopefuls set to break the ice

The lessons here are that if we are looking for British success in Sochi 2014 we should look at ice events such as curling, skeleton, speed skating and bobsleigh.  The attention of British viewers on the lookout for British success should be focused on some of the following athletes:

  • Lizzy Yarnold in the skeleton has won three World Cup races this season and has finished on the podium in every race.
  • Shelly Rudman who is the current skeleton world champion and looking to improve on her silver from 2006.
  • The women’s curling team and their skip, Eve Muirhead, are coached by Rhona Martin and are the current world champions.
  • Elise Christie in short track speed skating who is the current European champion at 1000 m and 1500 m.
  • John Jackson the pilot of the four man bobsleigh that just missed out a World Championship medal in 2013.

British hopes for Winter Olympics medals are usually modest. But this time maybe we can dream of beating our best performance of four medals in 1924 to match our best performance at a Summer Olympics in 2012.