Category Archives: Olympics

How does educational background shape Olympic success?

By Jim Lusted

You don’t have to have attended private school to be a member of the British Olympic team for Tokyo 2020 – but it may have helped, particularly for some Olympic events. Dr Jim Lusted, Lecturer in Sport & Fitness, explores the role that educational background can have in athletes reaching the highest levels of Olympic sports like rowing, hockey and archery.

Rowing crew

The level playing field of sport

The Olympic games provides an opportunity for us to witness some sporting achievements that push ever further the boundaries of human performance limits – with only the very best claiming Olympic gold.

Sport is a meritocracy, right? That is, the most successful sportspeople achieve their awards because they deserve them – they are the fastest, strongest, most talented and/or hardworking of their generation, and the sporting competition determines the best from the rest. Who can argue, for example, that the person who reaches the finishing line first in the 100m sprint doesn’t deserve their victory? It’s an alluring idea that draws many of us to watch and enjoy elite sport events – perhaps never more so than a summer Olympics like the delayed Tokyo 2020 games.

The strong connection between sport and meritocracy is in part because it is so obvious – and yet you may already have thought of some examples where the winner might not have always been the ‘best’ athlete. Take the infamous sporting doping cases like Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, US cyclist Lance Armstrong and more recently the whole Russian Olympic programme. These – and many more – would certainly challenge the ideas that Olympic ‘winners’ achieve their success on hard work and talent alone. It is also not uncommon to hear the world’s best athletes talk about how they were never the best in their sport at school – but somehow they had ‘made it’ to success as an adult while others had fallen away as they grew up.

The influence of school background

Sutton trust chart - education of medallists
There are, of course, a range of complex factors that can influence people’s opportunity to fulfil their athletic potential and then go on to compete at the very highest levels. One of these might be an athlete’s own educational background. What school you attend might not be immediately significant, yet it seems to have an impact on who ends up competing for Britain at the Olympic games. Across the UK, independent (private fee-charging) schools educate 6.5% of the total school-age population (ISC 2021). However, research completed by The Sutton Trust just after the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics found that 36% of British athletes who won medals had attended independent (private, fee paying) schools compared with 60% who attended comprehensive (state funded) schools (with the remaining 8% coming from Grammar schools – usually free to attend but with a selective entrance policy of some kind).

For some Olympic sports, including rowing and women’s hockey, the majority of medal winners in 2016 had been privately educated. In others, former state or Grammar school pupils dominated the medals, such as cycling where only 8% of medallists had studied at an independent school in 2016.

This research also looked at the figures for the London 2012 Olympics and saw a slight increase in the proportion of state school medallists in 2016 – it will be interesting to see how the figures compare again with Tokyo 2020. We should be a little cautious of reading too much into the statistical trends given the relatively low numbers involved being open to fluctuation. But educational background seems influential, particularly in some sports.

Why is educational background important?

The substantial over-representation of privately educated athletes as British Olympians is probably of no particular surprise; certainly, many independent schools use sport to market the desirability of their education, by investing heavily in expensive specialist facilities and infrastructure and emphasising the priority placed on pupil participation in PE and sport. This investment often includes paying for particular coaching expertise along with ring-fencing additional time in and out of the school day for sport training and competition. Sport in the state sector has always compared poorly in such sporting provision and the gap is arguably getting wider, particularly since the promising School Sports Partnership scheme which was set up in the early 2000s to grow PE and school sport in the state sector was closed down by government in 2010 (Lusted, 2014).

 

Young women playing hockey

‘Buying’ access through social capital

But it is not just economic investment that can shape the sporting journeys of the most promising athletes attending private and state schools. As social theorist Pierre Bourdieu has observed, there are other forms of ‘capital’ (not only economic) that are available to some people to ‘buy’ access to (and power in) sport (Bourdieu 1988). We can draw on one of these forms – ‘social’ capital – to explore more deeply why some sports appear to be more accessible to some than others, and the role that education plays in this process.

Social capital refers to the networks of contacts, friendships and relationships that can help gain access to spaces and opportunities that we may not otherwise have. In this respect, the interconnections of private school teachers, coaches, parents and other relatives and local (often professional) sports club contacts can often help smooth an athlete’s journey to further progression. For sports such as cricket, hockey, archery and rowing, talent pathways are heavily informed by the inter-personal and organisational connections that congregate around independent school environments (and often, later, the associated elite Universities such as Oxford and Cambridge). Access is therefore often secured not only by an individual’s outstanding sporting talent, but by being in a position to ‘cash in’ regularly throughout one’s career development on the networks of social capital that such pupils have to hand. This allows us to entertain the idea that the different educational background of two otherwise equally talented young athletes might lead them on different athletic journeys.

Breaking the cycle of the traditional pathways to success

For Bourdieu, networks like these can be extremely difficult to break into without the ‘right’ social capital. It is not just a case of ‘talking to the right person’ or ‘getting in with the right crowd’ – such social capital is slowly accrued over time, is often informal, rarely acknowledged but heavily guarded by those who possess it. This can help explain why such networks are reproduced over time and can create long-term trends in sport participation.

Sport organisations are starting to recognise the often ‘exclusive’ nature of traditional pathways for some sports and have more recently looked to widen their talent identification programmes beyond their usual sites in the search for the next gold medallist. UK Sport’s ‘Fromhome2theGames’ offers an opportunity for all young people to be considered for development in one of many Olympic sports, initially just by completing 3 online physical tests. Whether this open-access approach can significantly challenge the existing development networks of some sports remains to be seen. Perhaps more of the next generation of British Olympians will be able to buck participation trends and find their educational background was lower down on the list of reasons for their eventual sporting success.

 

This article was originally posted on OpenLearn.

Olympics 2021: The story of how a small Shropshire town influenced the modern Olympic movement

By Steph Doehler

Whilst this year’s Olympic Games will almost certainly suffer from COVID-19 constraints, the event remains the largest sporting spectacle in the world. Over time the Games have evolved from their modest beginnings into something incomparably grand. In this article, Steph Doehler discusses how a rural English town has closer links than most to the modern Olympics.

Despite the perception that it was Baron Pierre de Coubertin who revived the modern Olympic Games there were in fact many Olympic events taking place throughout Europe before Coubertin was even born. One of these, set in the small Shropshire town of Much Wenlock, has been widely considered by sports historians as one of the key influences on the modern Olympics, and even delegates for the Tokyo 2020’s organising committee noted its importance and legacy.

Much Wenlock

Going to Much Wenlock is like taking a step back in time, with quaint bakeries, country walks and old-fashioned pubs. The town has a modest population; at the time of the 2011 Census it had just 2,877 residents. Each summer they host a special sporting competition, the Wenlock Olympian Games, attracting amateur athletes who compete in events including archery, clay pigeon shooting and a seven mile road race. The tale of the Wenlock Games in the present day fails to do justice to their inception in the 1800s and how their legacy developed. One of the London 2012 mascots was named Wenlock in recognition for its influence.

The annual sporting event

William Penny Brookes Much Wenlock’s most famous figure is Dr William Penny Brookes (pictured right), born in 1809. In 1850 Brookes formed the Wenlock Olympian Games, an event that emphasised his admiration for the ancient Greek Olympics. Excluding a few short breaks, the Wenlock Games have continued annually since their inception. Whilst the Olympics of today boast a modern programme of events, the first annual Wenlock Games invoked a more rustic feel with competitions such as quoits and a blindfolded wheelbarrow race. Soon, the Games became an important event in the athletics calendar, attracting competitors from afar.

Mirroring Olympic philosophies

Brookes sought to reflect ideologies of ancient Olympic Games highlighting one’s intense desire to win and be recognised as the best. Similarly, whilst nowhere near the level of grandeur experienced at the modern Olympics, pageantry was an important element of early Games. A band would lead the parade of flag bearers, competitors and officials from the town, in similar vein to a contemporary opening ceremony. The Games took influence from similar competitions in Greece, as Brookes discarded many rural events and the Games became more consciously ‘Olympic.’

By 1859 international relations had emerged as Brookes became more involved in the Greek Olympic movement, which was being initiated by poet, Panagiotis Soutsos. Later, Greece’s Zappas Games, offered more inspiration for Much Wenlock; Greek mottos and banners were displayed and medals featuring Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, were introduced. The Wenlock Games experienced a turning point in 1860, assuming an independent identity known as the Wenlock Olympian Society (WOS).

International relations

By the early 1870s Brookes regularly communicated with ambassadors in Greece and London to encourage the restoration of the Olympics Games. One notable individual was John Gennadius, the Greek Chargés d’affaires, who later wrote to Brookes: “I cannot but feel indebted to you that you continue with this idea, the project of a revival of the Olympic Games.”  In 1880 Brookes took his boldest step towards his Olympic pursuit by conceiving the idea of a recurring international event, and by the end of the decade he found someone with similar views of Olympic values, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

The Frenchman was invited to attend an autumn edition of the Wenlock Games in 1890. Brookes wanted to enlighten Coubertin on the WOS’s efforts, with a view to develop something similar in France. It was here where Coubertin drew inspiration for the inclusion of medal ceremonies, an innovative (for its time) celebration that had been commonplace in the Wenlock Games for years. As Brookes’ lifelong dedication to Olympic values began to wind down, he passed the torch to 27-year-old Coubertin. In June 1894 Coubertin held a conference in Paris to discuss a revival of the Olympic Games – 79 delegates unanimously voted to restore them, leading to the birth of the International Olympic Committee.

A lifelong dream achieved

The first modern Olympics was originally nominated to take place in London. However, Coubertin opposed, suggesting Athens instead, echoing Brookes’ own wish. It was Brookes’ life dream that the first international Games would happen in Athens and that he would be able to attend. Half of his dream came true in 1896 as the inaugural modern Olympics were held in Athens. Unfortunately, Brookes was not able to witness it as he passed away just five months earlier.

The Panathenaic Stadium, Athens, Greece

The Panathenaic Stadium, which hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896, Athens, GreeceBrookes was the missing link between Soutsos and Coubertin, or simply put, the missing link between the Zappas and the 1896 Athens Games. This is not to discredit the work of Coubertin; he was the first to formulate many Olympic principles – all sports, all nations, all people. In many ways Coubertin preserved Brookes’ life’s work; had the Olympics not been revived much of what Brookes had dedicated his time to would have been in vain.

So, when you sit down to watch the Tokyo Games take a brief moment to consider that had Coubertin not visited Much Wenlock in 1890, the modern Olympic movement as we know it today could look very different.

This article was originally posted on OpenLearn.

Tokyo 2020 in 2021: Do the best things come to those who wait?

By Caroline Heaney

The life of an Olympic or Paralympic athlete is characterised by highly planned and structured 4-year cycles designed to lead to peak performance in Olympic/Paralympic year, but what happens when that cycle unexpectedly stretches to 5 years and is threaded with uncertainty?

Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

The COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented situation with Tokyo 2020 being the first Olympic/Paralympic Games to be cancelled or postponed since the Second World War. The postponed 2021 games will likely be a different experience to previous games with, for example, no spectators at most events (BBC, 2021) and a scaled down opening ceremony (Telegraph Sport, 2021). So, what effect does the postponement have on the athletes and their preparation? This article will explore some of the psychological and physiological impacts of this unusual situation.

What impact did the postponement have?

Obviously, there is variability in how athletes reacted to the postponement of the Olympics/Paralympics in 2020, but feelings of disappointment, frustration, confusion, and uncertainty seemed to be common (Taku and Arai, 2020). For example, in response to the announcement that the Olympics would be postponed British Olympic Taekwondo champion Jade Jones stated:

“I’m truly gutted – you give your heart and soul to something for four years, then for it not to go ahead is just horrible. Obviously, health comes first, […] but as an elite athlete, it is very demotivating and mentally tough. I’m a very positive person but the idea, right now, of having to devote myself to another year’s slog is a very difficult one” (BBC, 2020).

As well as the impact of the games being postponed, the lockdowns also had a significant impact on athletes and their preparations from both a psychological and physiological perspective. Lockdowns and the associated quarantine has been shown to have a negative impact on the mental health of the general population (Henssler et al., 2021) and elite athletes are not immune to this. Elite athletes were found to experience increased symptoms of mental health difficulties (e.g. depression) during COVID-19 lockdowns (Simons et al., 2021). As such the need for psychological intervention to support athletes is paramount (Reardon et al., 2021).

The impact on the training schedules of athletes was also significant. During the first UK lockdown, for example, many training venues were closed, and consequently many athletes lost face to face contact with their coaches and teammates and were forced to train alone in sub-optimal conditions. Research has shown that there was a reduction in the quality of training and sleep for many athletes (Mon-López et al., 2020), which could lead to a detraining effect and loss of fitness as well as an increased risk of injury (Sarto et al., 2020). To prevent these potential effects, athletes and coaches were required to be creative with their training sessions and develop innovative training programmes away from normal training venues.

Athletes who successfully managed to maintain their fitness ready to peak for a 2021 Olympics/Paralympics were faced with further difficulties when it came to qualifying for the games. Many qualifying tournaments and competitions were cancelled due to COVID-19 giving athletes far fewer opportunities to qualify.

For many, participating in an Olympic or Paralympic Games is a once in a lifetime opportunity and a postponed games may well make that opportunity unavailable for some, such as those who were at their peak in 2020, but injured or retired in 2021.

The ones who didn’t make it…

Postponing the Tokyo Olympics/Paralympics meant that some athletes who would have been there in 2020 didn’t make it to the 2021 Games. Retiring athletes are one example. It is common for athletes to retire after an Olympic/Paralympic Games and many athletes approaching the end of their career might having been looking at the 2020 games as their final swansong. The pandemic left these athletes with a difficult decision – hang on for one more year or bow out now. Some, such as Japanese volleyball player Risa Shinnabe and New Zealand cyclist Eddie Dawkins, chose to retire in 2020. Shinnabe said:

“That one year, to me, felt very long […] I could no longer imagine that I would be able to go through the same cycle for another year and maintain my condition” (Rowbottom, 2021).

The ones who hung on…

Those who decided to hang on include Olympic gymnastics champion Simone Biles who had originally planned to retire after the Olympics in 2020 but has decided to postpone her retirement. In fact, Biles is now considering continuing to the 2024 Olympics. She is not alone in this, with some athletes deciding that another three-year cycle is not as daunting as a four-year cycle. As Paralympic volleyball player Lora Webster puts it “three years seems like nothing when you look back on what these five years have felt like” (Radnofsky, 2021). These athletes seem to have benefited from the delay and they are not alone.

The ones who benefitted…

There are many athletes who appear to have benefitted from the postposed games. Take for example, an athlete who was injured in 2020 and would have missed the games, but now has the opportunity to compete. In many ways 2020 was the best time for an athlete to be injured as the entire world of sport effectively stopped for a while.

2020 also provided athletes with a unique opportunity to take a break from the physiological and psychological stresses of elite sport. This will likely have benefitted many athletes giving them a chance to recover and rejuvenate. The pandemic also allowed athletes to develop important skills such as resilience.

Tokyo: The games of the resilient athlete?

Resilience is considered to be an important quality in athletes, and those who have come through a pandemic and successfully qualified for the delayed games have certainly had the opportunity to demonstrate resilience. It will perhaps be the athletes who have the best skills in this area and have been able to adapt and thrive in this unprecedented situation that will rise to the top of the podium this year. Researchers exploring resilience have identified that the COVID-19 pandemic has created unexpected and novel adverse experiences for athletes and that resilience can help athletes to adapt positively (Gupta and McCarthy, 2021).

There has certainly been evidence of athletes demonstrating a positive approach. For example, in response to finding out that the games had been postponed, reigning Olympic champion swimmer Lily King posted on social media “Just one more year to get better #Tokyo2020” (Klosok and Church, 2020).

Let’s hope that such positivity and optimism will lead to a spectacular summer of Olympic and Paralympic performances.

References

BBC (2020) Tokyo 2020: How athletes reacted to Olympic Games postponement. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/olympics/52027542  (Accessed: 12 July 2021).

BBC (2021) Tokyo Olympics: Spectators largely barred as Covid emergency declared. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-57760883  (Accessed: 12 July 2021).

Gupta, S. and McCarthy, P. J. (2021) ‘Sporting Resilience During COVID-19: What Is the Nature of This Adversity and How Are Competitive Elite Athletes Adapting?’, Frontiers in Psychology, 12(374).

Henssler, J., Stock, F., van Bohemen, J., Walter, H., Heinz, A. and Brandt, L. (2021) ‘Mental health effects of infection containment strategies: quarantine and isolation—a systematic review and meta-analysis’, European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 271(2), pp. 223-234.

Klosok, A. and Church, B. (2020) Athletes come to terms with ‘heartbreaking’ Tokyo 2020 postponement. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/25/sport/athletes-reaction-tokyo-2020-olympics-postpone-spt-intl/index.html  (Accessed: 12 July 2021).

Mon-López, D., García-Aliaga, A., Ginés Bartolomé, A. and Muriarte Solana, D. (2020) ‘How has COVID-19 modified training and mood in professional and non-professional football players?’, Physiology & Behavior, 227, pp. 113148.

Radnofsky, L. (2021) ‘Athletes Who Waited for the Tokyo Olympics Are Asking: Why Not Stick Around for Paris 2024, Too? After a long wait for this summer’s Games, some old hands who had planned to retire are figuring they can also hang on another three years’, Wall Street Journal (Online), 04/11/2021 Apr 11. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/simone-biles-will-push-on-to-2021probably-11585738819?mod=article_inline .

Reardon, C. L., Bindra, A., Blauwet, C., Budgett, R., Campriani, N., Currie, A., Gouttebarge, V., McDuff, D., Mountjoy, M., Purcell, R., Putukian, M., Rice, S. and Hainline, B. (2021) ‘Mental health management of elite athletes during COVID-19: a narrative review and recommendations’, British Journal of Sports Medicine, 55(11), pp. 608-615.

Rowbottom, M. (2021) A bridge too far – the athletes who retired instead of waiting for Tokyo. Available at: https://www.insidethegames.biz/articles/1109206/big-read-athlete-retirements-tokyo-2020  (Accessed: 12 July 2021).

Sarto, F., Impellizzeri, F. M., Spörri, J., Porcelli, S., Olmo, J., Requena, B., Suarez-Arrones, L., Arundale, A., Bilsborough, J., Buchheit, M., Clubb, J., Coutts, A., Nabhan, D., Torres-Ronda, L., Mendez-Villanueva, A., Mujika, I., Maffiuletti, N. A. and Franchi, M. V. (2020) ‘Impact of Potential Physiological Changes due to COVID-19 Home Confinement on Athlete Health Protection in Elite Sports: a Call for Awareness in Sports Programming’, Sports Medicine, 50(8), pp. 1417-1419.

Simons, C., Martin, L. A., Balcombe, L., Dunn, P. K. and Clark, R. A. (2021) ‘Mental health impact on at-risk high-level athletes during COVID-19 lockdown: A pre-, during and post-lockdown longitudinal cohort study of adjustment disorder’, Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 24(4), pp. 329-331.

Taku, K. and Arai, H. (2020) ‘Impact of COVID-19 on Athletes and Coaches, and Their Values in Japan: Repercussions of Postponing the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games’, Journal of Loss and Trauma, 25(8), pp. 623-630.

Telegraph Sport (2021) Tokyo Olympics 2021 Opening Ceremony: when is it, what time does it start and how can I watch? Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/olympics/0/tokyo-olympics-2021-opening-ceremony-time-does-start-can-watch/  (Accessed: 12 July 2021).

 

This article was originally posted on OpenLearn.

What can we expect at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games?

By Simon Rea

Simon Rea previews the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo, looking at the new sports featuring, plus who are Team GB’s best chances of winning medals.

The Games are going ahead despite a host of problems

After the successes of Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and London in 2012, the 2021 Olympic Games land in Tokyo amid difficult circumstances. Only domestic spectators will be allowed in the stadiums due to concerns about athletes and spectators bringing in the COVID-19 virus. It looks like the New National Stadium in Tokyo will not allow any spectators as a national state of emergency has been called in Tokyo, due to rising numbers of coronavirus infections. Athletes will have to undergo regular testing and their movements will be restricted and monitored. Unfortunately, the Olympic flame that began its journey in Fukushima in March before being scheduled to travel across 47 prefectures and arrive in Tokyo on 23rd July has been beset by protests and eventually its journey through Tokyo was cancelled due to fears over COVID-19.

However, at least the greatest sporting spectacle in the world is going ahead and there is plenty to look forward to. The Olympics will run until 8th August and will involve a record number of 339 medal events across 33 sports. The organisers have taken inspiration from the London Games by putting together high-profile events for Super Saturday (31st July) and Golden Sunday (1st August) that includes the 100m finals.

Four new sports and new competitors to look forward to

Four new sports, surfing, climbing, karate, and skateboarding have been introduced to cater for a younger audience and to keep the Games relevant to all generations. Also, softball and baseball return to the Olympics after being dropped for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

Female surfer Shino Matsuda from JapanCopyrighted image IconSurfer Shino Matsuda of Japan

Surfing will take place at Tsurigasaki Beach roughly 100 km away from the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo and will involve a series of heats of 4-5 surfers who will each have 30 minute to showcase their skills and catch as many waves as they can. They will be judged on five criteria including difficulty, innovation, and variety. Currently, the top surfers come from USA, Australia, and Brazil. Americans John John Florence and Carissa Moore are the top Americans while Australian, Stephanie Gilmore, is a seven time World Champion.

Player at Bouldering tournament in Doha beach games in Doha, Qatar Player at bouldering tournament in Doha, QatarSport climbing will feature three disciplines, speed, bouldering (pictured right), and lead, in a combined competition. Speed is measured by athletes climbing a 15-metre-high wall at angle of 95 degrees as quickly as possible. The current men’s world record in 5.63 seconds and the women’s is 6.96. Bouldering involves a climber being faced with a 4.5 metre wall that they will ascend as many fixed routes as they can. They must try and ascend as many routes as they can in four minutes. Lead climbing is where a climber uses a rope to make a vertical climb. They have to keep attaching their rope to the climbing wall over a 15-metre climb. They have six minutes to get to the highest point and if they are tied with other climbers they are separated by time. The six medals will be competed for by 20 men and 20 women with Czech Republic climber Adam Ondra a favourite in the men’s event, while Slovenian climber Janja Garnbret is favourite in the women’s event. She has competition from GB climber Shaunna Coxsey who has a chance of a medal.

Japan is the home of karate, so it is fitting that it is making its debut here. There are six events in Tokyo – three weight categories for men (67kg, 75kg, 75+kg) and three for women (55kg, 61kg, 61+kg). Japan have high hopes in these events with Kiyou Shimizu in the women’s event and Kiyuna Ryo in the men’s event.

The introduction of skateboarding seems like a radical move for the Olympics and will hopefully engage a different audience to the traditional Olympic sports. There are two disciplines of skateboarding – Street and Park. Street skateboarding is held on a straight street-style course and includes stairs, handrails, benches, and walls. Athletes are judged based on originality and execution, and the number of tricks they perform. American skater Nyjah Huston has won more prize money than any other skater in history and has over 4.5 million Instagram followers.

Park skateboarding takes place on a hollowed-out course that features curves and deep bowls. They often include halfpipes and quarter pipes. This is the event where we will see Team GB’s youngest ever Olympian Sky Brown who will be just 13 years old when she competes. She is a very modern athlete who has a huge Instagram following and learns her moves on YouTube rather than having a coach.

What about Team GB’s chances of medals?

While Sky Brown does have the chance of a medal Team GB having some hot favourites, such as swimmer Adam Peaty in the 100m breaststroke event. Cycling golden couple, Laura and Jason Kenny, are both close to creating British Olympic history as Laura is one gold medal away from Katherine Grainger’s record of 5 gold medals and Jason is one medal short of Bradley Wiggins’ record of 7 medals. There is real interest in the athletics as well where World and European champion Dina Asher-Smith takes on American Gabby Thomas and veteran Jamaican athlete, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce over 100m and 200m. There are medal hopes in the middle distance events with Scottish athletes, Jemma Reekie (800m) and Laura Muir (1500m) in the women’s events and the trio of Elliott Giles, Oliver Dustin and Daniel Rowden in the men’s 800m.

GB's 4x100m medley relay team featuring Adam Peaty during medal ceremony at the Rio 2016 Olympic GamesCopyrighted image IconChris Walker-Hebborn, Adam Peaty, James Guy and Duncan Scott at the medal ceremony during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games

There are a couple of less known athletes to watch out for including Northern Irishman, Patrick Huston, in the men’s archery competition and Scottish shooter Seonaid McIntosh who is reigning world champion in the 50m prone event. Boxer Pat McCormack is favourite in the men’s welterweight category and along with his brother, Luke, is one of eight sets of siblings who will compete for Team GB.

While it may be hard for Team GB to better their medal haul of 67 medals, including 27 golds, from the 2016 Olympics there is excitement that the Games actually going ahead after the barren summer of 2020.

This article was originally published on OpenLearn.

The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are coming!

The delayed Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games will be starting soon. Look out for lots of related content from #TeamOUsport here on our blog, on Twitter and on our OpenLearn platform.

The Olympics start on 23rd July 2021:

The Paralympics start on 24th August 2021:

Golden Oldies!

By Ben Langdown

Late nights watching Olympic and Paralympic sport have been a highlight of my summer and it has been absolutely incredible. The lack of sleep has aged me considerably but it has been worth every second to see all the amazing stories unfold.

The media has always loved a story of winning against all odds. In particular, with regard to age:

Too young to win – but look out for them in Tokyo!

Long past their prime – far too old for a spot on the podium!

And then it happens as quinquagenarians pop up and win Olympic and Paralympic gold medals! 15 year olds win medals in varying events and spark a flurry of news reports on success at such a young age.

Male Life Cycle

But why should we be so surprised about athletes young and old winning medals?

As we age many changes take place within our bodies as we develop and train towards peak physiological age of between 20-39 years old, dependant on the sport or event (Allen & Hopkins, 2015). Our muscles grow bigger, stronger and faster, the heart increases in size and can pump with greater force and capacity meaning we can run for longer, row harder or swim faster (see Lloyd and Oliver, 2013 for a full review of youth physical development). As we adapt to aerobic training we experience an array of changes in and around our muscles including an increase in the size and number of mitochondria which are the energy producing powerhouses in muscle cells (NSCA, 2016). This increase results in more energy for muscle contractions and allows us to go:

 Citius, Altius, Fortius!

 Then we hit the slippery slope…I am not even going to search the Latin for ‘Slower, Lower, Weaker’, but you get the idea! From the age of 30 the body’s systems, responsible for our peak performances, will stand at the top of the slope and look down (Spirduso et al, 2005). Now begins the slow, gradual descent that reverses all the good things their childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood years brought them, reducing an athlete’s chances of success.

ID-10055113 FreeDigitalPhotos.net Stuart Miles

FreeDigitalPhotos.net Stuart Miles

After the landmark 30th birthday the following changes start to take place at even the highest levels of sport:

  • Decreases in strength and power due to decreases in muscle mass and increases in intramuscular fat (Rodriguez et al., 2009).
  • Decreased muscular endurance, resting metabolic rate and increased body fat (NSCA, 2016).
  • Cardiac output decreases at a rate of 1% per year as does V̇O2Max, averaging 1% per year from 25 – 75 years (Jackson et al., 1996; Schvartz & Reibold, 1990 as cited in Garber & Glass, 2006).

For example, performance in competitive weightlifting declines by 1-1.5% per year until 70, after which the performance decrement gets even greater (Meltzer, 1994, as cited in NSCA, 2016).

A note of caution – the physiological adaptations to ageing are dependent on the individual, the amount of physical activity, the environment, and disease (Garber & Glass, 2006)).

 STOP PRESS!

This summer athletes have been pushing the boundaries of their physiological clocks; whether this is the result of training or through sheer determination to succeed one last time…

Take Elizabeth Kosmala, a 9-time gold medallist competing in her 12th Paralympics at the age of 72. Okay, she started out as a swimmer and has since switched to the less physically demanding event of shooting, but it is still an achievement to be competing at the top level in her category.

How about 50-year-old Kazakh, Zulfiya Gabidullina who won her country’s first-ever Paralympic Games medal with a world record breaking performance in the S3 class 100m freestyle swimming. Allen and Hopkins (2015) reported that swimmers generally peak around the age of 20! What’s even more impressive is that she didn’t even start training for swimming until her 30s!

Nick Skelton is another great example, at 58 years old, overcoming the physical demands of equestrian events to take individual jumping gold with his horse, Big Star, himself also a veteran (in horse terms!) at 13 years old!

At the other end of the spectrum the youngsters have also picked up medals in both the Olympics and Paralympics. Most notably the likes of gymnast Amy Tinkler (16 yrs), bronze medallist and the youngest member of #TeamGB, swimmers Ellie Robinson (15 yrs, S6) and Becky Redfern (16 yrs, SB13). Also athletes such as Kare Adenegan (15 yrs, T34) and Ntando Mahlangu (14 yrs, T42), who took the 200m silver behind #ParalympicGB’s Richard Whitehead (40 yrs) which is surely one of the biggest age gaps between gold and silver winning athletes!

It is easy to get drawn into the stories surrounding performances but we must pause for a moment and consider the factors potentially allowing them to happen. Let’s take the young competitors first, there is a high possibility that, physically, they have developed earlier than a lot of their peers and are therefore ready to compete at the highest level. Yes, there will be training and physiological adaptations to come but they could be, what are known as, early maturing individuals (Lloyd et al., 2014).

 FreeDigitalPhotos.net arztsamui

FreeDigitalPhotos.net arztsamui

As for the older competitors, especially at the Paralympics, we have to look at the talent pool from which they are emerging. A small talent pool allows athletes to compete for longer and achieve better results than they would if this talent pool were to grow. For example, the women’s 100m freestyle event in swimming, at the Olympics this event was won by Simone Manuel, a 20 year old American. She came from a pool of over 500 swimmers who, on the Fina world ranking list, are all within 5 seconds of each other, thus there is an abundance of swimmers competing on that world stage. Conversely, 50-year-old Paralympian gold medallist Gabidullina has succeeded from a talent pool of 19 swimmers listed on the S3 IPC world rankings, only one of whom was within 5 seconds of her time.

Of course there are many other variables I have not discussed and it is never an exact science to say who will win and at what age, but to even qualify for either of the Games there are times and standards in place, albeit put in place by each home country. So, as the Paralympics continue to thrive following the success of the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Games, it is possible that these talent pools will grow therefore reducing the amount of stories we hear of the super quinquagenarians achieving Citius, Altius, Fortius!

 

References:

Allen, S. V., & Hopkins, W. G. (2015). Age of peak competitive performance of elite athletes: a systematic review. Sports Medicine, 45(10), 1431-1441.

Lloyd, R. S., Oliver, J. L., Faigenbaum, A. D., Myer, G. D., & Croix, M. B. D. S. (2014). Chronological age vs. biological maturation: implications for exercise programming in youth. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(5), 1454-1464.

Lloyd, R. S., & Oliver, J. L. (2012). The youth physical development model: A new approach to long-term athletic development. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 34(3), 61-72.

Garber, C. E., & Glass, S. C. (2006). ACSM’s resource manual for guidelines for exercise testing and prescription. L. A. Kaminsky, & K. A. Bonzheim (Eds.). Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Haff, G. G., & Triplett, N. T. (Eds.). (2016). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 4th Edition. Human kinetics.

Rodriguez, N. R., DiMarco, N. M., & Langley, S. (2009). Position of the American dietetic association, dietitians of Canada, and the American college of sports medicine: nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(3), 509-527.

Spirduso, W. W., Francis, K. L., & MacRae, P. G. (2005). Physical dimensions of aging, 2nd Ed. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.

 

Life after the Olympics: retirement

By Caroline Heaney

The close of the 2016 Olympics bought with them the prospect of the retirement of some of the leading names in sport. Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Michael Phelps, for example, will all be notable absences from the 2020 Olympics, but how will these athletes cope with life after elite sport?

After the thrill of the Olympics many athletes experience a post-Olympic come down and some can even experience depression. It seems logical that after the four-year build-up and the excitement of the event, many athletes are left asking themselves the question of ‘what next’ once the games are over. When an athlete feels that they’ve achieved all that they can achieve in the Olympic environment the answer to that question might be retirement.

Retirement from sport is not an easy transition for any athlete to make. Elite athletes who have dedicated their whole life to their sport and tend to have a strong athletic identity, where being an athlete is a large part of their perception of their identity. To have that part of their identity taken away can be traumatic and lead to an identity crisis. Several high profile athletes have admitted to struggling with retirement and career termination (retirement) is considered to be a significant potential cause of depression and anxiety amongst athletes. Of course, retirement from sport doesn’t have to be a negative experience – some may view it as a ‘rebirth’ rather than a ‘death’. How an athlete copes with retirement can depend on a multitude of factors such as their general resilience, whether they have made plans for life after sport, whether they have fulfilled their potential, and whether their retirement is planned or forced (e.g. a career ending injury).

Let’s examine the case of three Olympic medallists who are reaching the end of their careers and are contemplating retirement in the not too distant future – Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Michael Phelps.

Bolt: The man with a plan

After he achieved the unprecedented ‘triple triple’ (Olympic gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m in 2008, 2012 and 2016) Usain Bolt announced that Rio would be his last Olympics. This comes as no surprise as Bolt had identified this as his plan long before the Rio Olympics. Bolt is not retiring just yet and is planning to compete in the World Athletics Championships in London next year. This ‘phased retirement’ may help Bolt with the transition into retirement that many athletes struggle with. The difference between Bolt and some athletes who find retirement difficult is the fact that Usain has achieved everything he possibly could in his sport and is exiting on his terms (a ‘planned’ retirement) – for Usain there will be no unfinished business. This will give Usain a strong sense of control over his retirement. Despite this, retirement must still be a difficult decision for Bolt, particularly when he is viewed by many as the saviour of athletics – a pressure indeed and his absence from the sport will no doubt be felt when his retirement does come.

Ennis-Hill: A decision to be made

Whilst Bolt has a clear plan for his future Jessica Ennis-Hill, after achieving a heptathlon silver medal in Rio, following her Gold in 2012, is taking some time to contemplate her future. After her event she stated “It’s going to be a tough decision, I’m going to go away and think about it… it’s a big decision.” Like Bolt, Ennis-Hill has given a clear message that she will not be at the 2020 Olympics, but has yet to decide whether to draw a line under her career now or at a later date. A home World Championships for the reigning World Champion might be a temptation for a final swansong, but will it live up to a home Olympics? Preparing for a heptathlon competition is no easy task and having twice before won the World Championships Ennis-Hill may decide that the incentive just isn’t great enough. Maybe what Jess needs is a new challenge, such as joining the exclusive 7000-point heptathlon club. Taking her time to reflect on her future and not rushing into a decision in flurry of post-Olympics emotion is a sensible approach as effective retirement decision making can be a complex process. Whatever decision she makes Ennis-Hill has been a fantastic ambassador for her sport and as one of the few women in sport to become a household name her role as female athletic role model should not be underestimated.

Phelps: The comeback king

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history (28 Olympic medals over 5 games), is an example of an athlete who retired, but then came back to swimming. Returning to sport after retirement is often associated with a compulsion to compete and an inability to cope with the sense of loss that occurs following retirement. This appears to have been the case with Phelps who stated that he experienced a tremendous low point after his retirement. Phelps has made no secret of the mental health challenges he has experienced in his life and in sharing these he has helped to overcome the stigma of athletes experiencing mental health conditions such as depression. Having learnt important lessons from his first retirement Phelps felt that he had ‘unfinished business’. His response to his imminent second retirement has been very positive:

‘I feel fulfilled. It was what I wanted. I was able to dedicate myself to this last comeback and that was it. One last hurrah. Looking back, it happened exactly how I wanted it to and exactly how it should have. Now I can hang up my suit and be happy with retiring. During the medal ceremonies, I was more emotional than I ever was before. I think that’s just because I was truly happy with where I am and how everything went.”

Bolt, Ennis-Hill and Phelps have all left their mark in Olympic history and as they move towards new chapters in their lives they face new challenges which they will hopefully take on with the mental strength of an Olympian.

‘Super-human’ athletes are at risk from the post-Olympic blues – here’s why

Karen Howells, The Open University

As nations all over the world welcome their Olympic athletes home, many of us will take a moment to reflect on the whirlwind of psychological pressure, physical strain, elation and disappointment, which they have just experienced. But whether they’re revelling in the glory of hard-won medals, or recovering from heartbreaking defeats, Olympic athletes won’t have long before our attention shifts to the next spectacle.

So what happens to elite athletes when their moment in the spotlight is over? Sadly, it seems likely that many could suffer a case of the post-Olympic blues. Research following the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics found that the return home can be accompanied by confusion, depression, anger, resentment, abandonment and emptiness. We have only to browse the media or peer into the lives of Olympic athletes through their autobiographies to appreciate that dark times await many of these seemingly super-human beings – irrespective of their successes or failures.

Anecdotal reports suggest that the post-Olympic blues are common, with many athletes finding the return to normality difficult to handle. Some even appear to develop symptoms that are in keeping with a diagnosis of depression.

While there’s no consensus in the research that the incidence of depression is any different for elite athletes, research has identified that the public perception of athletes as being mentally tough means that athletes can find it harder to speak out about their struggles.

Even so, the stories of depression following previous Olympics serve as a warning to those leaving Rio; Amanda Beard, Ian Thorpe, Allison Schmidt and McKayla Maroney have all disclosed their experiences of depression. Cassie Patten, bronze medallist in the ten kilometre open water swim at the Beijing 2008 games said:

In the year after the games, I felt lost. I got really depressed … I would come swimming and just sit on poolside and just cry. It was horrible, because I loved swimming.

The curse of celebrity

Previously known only to the staunchest of swimming fans, Adam Peaty is now a household name after 57.13 seconds of record-breaking speed. In this age of social media, celebrity is easy to come by: within seconds of success or failure, the result has been interpreted and reported, and a celebrity is born.

Oh what a feeling – but can it last?
PATRICK B. KRAEMER/EPA

The notion that athletes are “great” is widespread throughout mainstream media, and for a golden moment in time that would positively impact on athletes’ sense of worth and self-esteem. But within weeks – if not days – of returning home, the harsh realities of life as a professional sportsperson will return.

No longer will the athletes be celebrities, who are loved and instantly recognised by their adoring fans. Instead, they will be at the start of another four-year cycle of gruelling training and fierce competition, working toward that distant goal of qualifying for Tokyo 2020.

The impact of this return to the daily grind on elite athletes has not been explored in depth. But it is likely that there is some negative impact on self-worth that may well contribute to the development of mental health issues.

The athletic identity

Issues surrounding identity – that is, someone’s sense of who they are – can also contribute to the likelihood of depression occurring, especially for those who are transitioning out of sport. Olympians whose identity as athletes to the exclusion of other roles may be at the greatest risk. For athletes who are used to measuring their success and worth in terms of their speed, strength and stamina, it can be very difficult to find fulfilment in other domains.

In an interview with NBC, US swimmer Michael Phelps spoke of his debilitating experiences with depression. Following London 2012, he said: “I thought of myself as just a swimmer, and nobody else.”

Phelps’ experiences highlight how important it is for all elite athletes – even those for whom sport remains their number one priority – to prepare for futures after their sporting careers.

Looking forwards

Sport psychologists and coaches stress the importance of setting process, performance and outcome goals in the years before the Olympic Games. Research has shown that the setting of goals can provide focus and markers of progress, as well as serving to maintain self-esteem and promote resilience throughout the difficult training schedules.

But when the Olympics are over, those goals become irrelevant. Accordingly, many athletes lose focus, feel lost and lack direction. As London 2012 gold medallist Victoria Pendleton stated:

You have all this build-up for one day, and when it’s over, it’s: ‘Oh, is that it?’ You’re relieved but kind of sad and numb. It’s over … people think it’s hard when you lose, but it’s almost easier to come second because you have something to aim for when you finish. When you win, you suddenly feel lost.

So irrespective of success or failure, it is vital that athletes re-evaluate their post-Olympic lives, and set new goals – whether they are remaining in sport or not.

As the public divert their attention to other events, and national sporting organisations shift their focus to the next four years, it is important that coaches and teams spend some time focusing on returning athletes, to address the negative impacts of sudden celebrity and dominant athletic identity. At the earliest opportunity, athletes need to form new goals, to move forwards into post-Olympic life.

Karen Howells, Lecturer in Sport and Fitness, The Open University

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

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!

 

image

 

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.

 

 

 

 

image

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.

image

 

 

 

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.

How Team GB cyclists peaked at the Olympics and owned the velodrome

By Candice Lingam-Willgoss

To say that Team GB have dominated the Olympic cycling would be the biggest understatement of the games. British track cyclists seem to have made peaking in line with the Olympic cycle their speciality. They won seven of the ten gold medals on offer at both London 2012 and Beijing 2008, but this year in Rio, they have really surpassed themselves. Every member of the 15-strong squad has come away with a medal, taking the final tally to six golds, four silvers and one bronze.

This remarkable success has baffled their rivals. Michael Gané – the French sprint coach – must have echoed the thoughts of many teams when he remarked; “they don’t exist for four years, then at the Olympics they outclass the whole world”. So, how have Team GB managed, yet again, to peak at the optimum time?

Training for success

It all comes down to a technique called “periodised training” – a strategy which has long been used to prepare athletes for major events. The training year is divided and organised to ensure that peak performance is achieved at the optimum time – in this case, at the Olympic Games.

A multi-year programme involves a gradual increase in training intensity through the pre-competition period, followed by a reduction or tapering of training, as the competition period draws nearer.

When following a multi-year periodisation plan – such as the four-year Olympic cycle – the final year is the most important one. That’s when the amount of training (the distance covered or time spent) is reduced to prevent injury and fatigue, while the intensity of the workouts is increased to ensure athletes are in top form for the big event.

For Team GB’s cyclists, training will focus on muscular endurance, anaerobic endurance (ability to sustain high intensity exercise) and sprint power. But the real skill is to maintain the subtle balance between periods of work and recovery, which must be tailored to each rider’s individual capabilities.

The British Cycling team has clearly mastered this approach, having set the Olympic Games as their number one priority. This may also explain why the team are less visible on the podium at world championship events in the lead up to the games.

That said, while timing athletes’ training right will unquestionably give them an edge, there are still a few other factors to consider.

The price of gold

The winning streak of Team GB cyclists at successive games has brought about a significant increase in investment from UK Sport – the organisation which allocates public funds to elite-level sports – at the expense of many others. According to sports policy expert Dr Borja Garcia, the “brutal” regime is “as crude as it is effective”. Certainly, with a grant in the region of £30m every four years, lack of funding has not been an issue for Team GB’s cyclists.

GB gold medallist Jason Kenny, looking flash.
Javier Etxezarreta/EPA

And it’s clear that investment pays off: former Olympic gold medalist Chris Boardman said that “the British team have always been at the head of the technology race and we’ve seen that again [at Rio 2016]”. This level of funding has enabling the development of bikes worth in the region of £10,000, and skin suits so aerodynamic that they can produce up to a 5% performance gain, compared to those used at the world championships in London earlier this year.

In post-race interviews, many of the athletes have also praised the extensive sport science support network working behind the scenes; from nutritionists to data analysts.

Success breeds success

The old addage “success breeds success” clearly applies to the whole of Great Britain’s Olympic team. On the track the first cycling gold in the men’s team pursuit at Rio seems to have given the squad a level positivity and confidence which not only motivated them, but also potentially has intimidated their rivals.

This notion was echoed by Max Whitlock, when he reflectedon the huge success that Team GB gymnasts had experienced: “I’m a big believer in success breeding success. The results we’ve had have pushed us to get more, it’s made us all believe that it’s possible”.

British Cycling head coach Iain Dyer openly said that the whole squad have been focusing first and foremost on the Olympics:

While we peak athletically for the Olympics, we also peak in our research and innovation for the Olympics … we’ve got a really great team of people doing a fantastic job, who will go to the ends of the earth looking for that final marginal gain. It’s all about marginal gains, isn’t it?

While this approach has left some competitors scratching their heads, no one can question the success of Dyer’s strategy. It’s clear that British Cycling and Team GB have mastered the art of periodised training. But make no mistake – it takes more than good timing to be an Olympic champion.

The Conversation

Candice Lingam-Willgoss, Lecturer in Sport & Fitness, The Open University

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