Celebrating Olympic Day: A Glimpse of My Olympic Experiences

sharron and ruta 2012

I’m sure its right to say that the Olympics have shaped who I am. After forty years in international sport and ten games, it’s a four year cycle I’ve been going through for a very long time now.

Every one of my ten Olympic Games is unique. They each have their own character, personality, strengths and weaknesses. But all are The Olympics, where the best of the best come together to race and show off in front of the whole world, where you are together with like minded people who just love sport, and love to compete. You are in a magic bubble for 21 days, where dreams can come true, or hearts can be broken… but memories are made.

It’s a kind of festival of everything that is good, it brings the world together peacefully to share our love of sport and humanity. The atmosphere, shared ideals and targets make it a very special place to be.

You feel immense pride at being a member of your countries Olympic team, but also responsibility to those that have worked behind the scenes to get you there. It takes a team to do that, teachers, parents, coaches, team managers, physios, team mates, sponsors, doctors the list goes on. All making a sacrifice and a commitment to support you on your quest for glory, playing their part to help you get that one special performance that may only come once in a life time. There is nothing quite like that feeling, and very little ever matches it again. It also scares you half to death.

So what are my memories…well of course there are loads. But here are a couple for each of those 10 Games….

Montreal 1976

I was 13. I had scraped into the team and a lot of my first experiences were a whirl of new amazing things. I’d travelled of course but nothing like this. I’d watched Mark Spitz win 7 gold medals in Munich 4 years earlier and didn’t dare dream I’d be in Canada, but there I was. A big memory was the food hall; it was as big as four football fields. It was full of long tables and served 24 hour food from every conservable corner of the world…stuff I certainly had never seen or tried before. I was raised on fish and chips! It was where the world converged and I spent hours watching it happen. Athletes of every shape colour and size, wearing tracksuits of every type came in to eat and chat. It was a game deciding what they did, gymnast, weight lifter or basketball player, what would they eat, where did they came from? Spotting Olga Corbett I remember was a highlight. Our apartments were like huge pyramids with a kind of sun patio at the end of each floor, where you could chill, and I remember throwing over water bombs onto a rather large Geoff Capes, with a 15 year old friend, which in hindsite seems rather a crazy thing to do, but as I say I was only 13! It was an invaluable experience for me four years later and the start if something very special….


Moscow 1980

How different could two games be? We had had an impossible 6 months leading up to it, trying to train 6 hours a day not actually knowing if we would get there. Russian troops were in Afghanistan and Mrs.Thatcher was calling for a boycott. No restraint of trade of course but the athletes that had given years of unpaid hours to perfect their sport were expected to give up on their dreams for a political statement, that we knew would achieve nothing. Being in Moscow was always going to be a better way to make change happen than abstaining. I got glandular fever in 79’ and it was tough, tough, tough. There was now expectation after winning two gold’s at the commonwealth games, and I still had the mite of the eastern block to content with so no easy option for me. In fact I ended up being the only individual female medallist of the whole British team. Unlike London 2012 when we took 550 athletes we took a meagre 150, sponsors withdrew, there was no opening or closing ceremony for us, no union jack, no time to stay after and support fellow team mates, we flew home immediately. Russia was grey and seemed rather alien and sad but I was there and for that I will forever be thankful we at least had a choice. I won my medal and it’s my most valuable sporting possession.

Los Angeles 1984

I had retired after Moscow not because I wanted to, but because I had done a TV quiz show and had been paid £40, which apparently made me a professional on my return from an American university where I was studying briefly. Seb Coe and Steve Ovett were racing each other every weekend for appearance money on a track but they had trust funds, which in turn paid them a wage and their expenses, all good, but swimming did not! I have no issue with this of course, except I could never understand why two Olympic sports differed so much. So in LA I was working for the first time on the other side. It was weird and I did feel al ittle like a duck out of water (pun there). I felt I was in the wrong place, but my steep media learning curve had begun. The games were the first commercial success of modern Olympic history and set the pattern for all games that came afterwards. For the first time an Olympic games could actually be a financial winner as well as a sporting one. Sport wise there were no Eastern block, in a tit for tat action from Moscow, so I would have given my eye teeth to have been able to compete. I also have vivid memories of Daley whistling the national anthem! Funny what you remember…

Seoul 1988

Well for starters here I was about a foot taller than any Korean lady in history and was being bowed to politely every five yards… all very nice but odd. I was sharing a flat with the amazing Marty Peters whilst we both worked for the lovely chaps at New Zealand radio. The Berlin wall was coming down and sport was changing dramatically … Adrain Moorhouse won the 100 breast stroke with the tightest of margins… and Mary convinced me that life was too short to have What If’s! Trust funds came into UK swimming so after 8 years out of the water she convinced me to give it one more go. So for me although I remember the kymchee ( very hot Korean vegetables) and Itaiwan ( cheap copy goodies)..and one dollar, being the GB catch phrase when dealing in Itaiwan, it was Mary and her wise words of wisdom that I returned returning with from Seoul that set me back on Olympic track.

Barcelona 1992

Up until London the Barcelona Games were definitely my favourite. It put this beautiful city back on the world map, the sun shone, and the pool was outdoors, something we can’t do any more. Nelson Mandela came to watch the swimming and we bumped into each other briefly, someone I greatly admired. We had social networking in the village for the first time, on a kind of internal internet which quickly became the Olympic dating site. I loved these games because I was a grown up, at nearly 30, having done Montreal at 13 some 16 years earlier, making it my third Olympic appearance. I was old enough and wise enough to understand what a privilege it was to be there. I won no medals but I did come back with a husband who had one of those momentous Olympic historical moments track side when he pulled his hamstring and his dad came out of the crowd to help him over the line. Whenever I see that footage I’m transported back to Barcelona. Juan Antonio Sameranch was out going IOC president and was making it his swan song games. It felt a very personal intimate games somehow, and if I could do one all over it would be this one. We had our world championships in Barcelona last year and it was a real joy to go back up Montjuic and re live some special moments with my roomie Karen Pickering who now works for Five Live radio.

Atlanta 1996

Hot off the back of being a Gladiator (Amazon for those of you that have no idea) on ITV’s huge Saturday night show and presenting the Big Breakfast I was pool side in a very steamy Atlanta, loving every moment of chatting away to Des Lynham. I’d also helped him with the opening ceremony and he’s convinced Bill Clinton winked at me as he and a million body guards walked by out great TV presenting spot to declare the Games open in his home state. I like to think so as it’s a good after dinner story! It was in the days before BBC cut backs and we all; as team BBC, were in one lovely hotel down town so it was a social wonder as well as a treat to be reporting on a sport I love. The Irish swimmer Michelle Smith was winning gold’s from nowhere and it was hard for me to be as impartial as I was supposed to be when I interviewed her having trained with her a few years earlier in Canada. I knew she wasn’t an Olympic champion talented swimmer, more of a hard working terrier type and later when she was banned for tampering with a test we were all relieved to be proved right. Sadly like the East German saga I was sorry for at least three people who lost their moment due to her cheating. Budweiser and coke were everywhere and there was a small but scary bomb in the local park that went off just by our hotel, it hurt no one thank fully but I felt it from my room. I also remember GB won one solitary gold medal in rowing, God bless Sir Steve & Sir Matt. Divers were selling their kit to get training funds on an Atlanta street corner and it was then that at last we realised we have to support out Olympic athletes if we wanted success… lottery was born.

Sydney 2000

These were the green (and gold, another pun) games. The games that introduced games makers, who loved sport, being Australian of course, and never stopped smiling whilst searching bags and directing. Everything was recycled; it was a clean, purpose built games but if honest a bit lonely for me as we were in a hotel in Olympic park. Team BBC was spread out all over the place, many some 45 minutes away in down town Sydney, which was wonderful but I hardly saw. I remember having an exercise bike delivered to my room, for my three week stint, as all facilities had been hired out for corporate use, so no gym or restaurant. I was watching tv but listening through my open window which over looked the stadium to the roar of the crowd as Kathy Freemon won the 400m. She had the hopes of the whole of Australian pinned on her shoulders that night and she didn’t disappoint. Michel Phelps made his first Olympic debut at 15. Ian Thorpe dominated on home turf. GB swimmers didn’t win a single medal, the first time in some 40 years I think, but Team GB won more medals than we’d seen in decades and I got to travel home on the same BA jumbo that was bringing back our buoyant team which was a real treat for me to be able to personally say well done, and drink a proper cup of tea at the same time.

Athens 2004

This was the celebration of a 100 years of modern Olympiad.. and it seemed right it was back in Greece. However the work men in Athens weren’t quite so sure… and as we know it was a race to just get the venues finished in time. The pool was back outdoors and on my walk from the hotel to my mixed zone interview position I could see the Acropolis, looming over the city, it seemed so fitting. I have to say I rather liked these games, it was full of history and tradition, and kind of fly by your pants, but get it done management, and even though the Greeks lost their two big stars before the opening ceremony, all rather embarrassing with another drugs scandal (remember the bike fiasco) the games were a success and the new metro a wonder. I took my own union jack and draped it over my interview box, making sure it could be seen by very person that I stopped for a chat. I was getting a regular now poolside but sadly as those BBC cuts kicked in my spot was being demoted further down the line, making it ever harder to get the first reactions from the international winners. I was calling in favours. There was a lot more of Michael Phelps and the Thorpedo of course….. not to mention some daft home press about the skimpiness of my tops, well it was 95 degrees and a slow media summer obviously!

Beijing 2008

By now we knew we had won the bid for the 2012 games and really all us ex athletes working for the BBC, who had been part of that bid, could think of was how exciting it was going to be to share an Olympic games with everyone back at home in four years time. Usain Bolt and MP were the big stars and Boris, David Beckham and a red bus in the closing ceremony is forever etched on my memory. To me Beijing was a bit soleless. I thought it would be full of ancient Chinese tradition and charm but the strategy the government had was to portray a modern county that could rival the world with its amazing birdsnest stadium and cube swimming pool. It was a fallacy that local people were oppressed, although we didn’t see out of town much, of course we knew there was probably a lot we wouldn’t meant to see. The Olympics as with Moscow; happening in a communist country meant change would happen from within once the western ways were let in. Some colleagues found time to visit the Great Wall of China, not me sadly, still on my to do list. The locals I met were very excited and proud that the games had come to their country but the taxi drivers spoke no English and I often had to run to get to my spot in time before broadcasts, having been dropped miles away. I was again back staying in a beautiful but very new hotel in Olympic park and after two outings to towns, one to have the most amazing Peking duck I’ve ever tasted and the second to eat fried locust by accident I stayed close to the MacDonalds in the media village. There were some great parties but security was very tight and as with Russian not too many people wanting to make decisions, only follow rules so the flexibility (common sense) you some time need when dealing with the worlds press or Olympic athletes wasn’t there…. Making things a challenge. Of course Becky Adlington winning two gold’s reduced me to tears of joy and made me very proud to be able to wave that union jack flag again. She beat a world record that had stood for 17 years and I remember watching that being set…. so by now I’ve realising I’ve been around awhile! After watching Mark Sptiz when I was 10 win 7 gold medals I got to watch up close and personal as Michael Phelps won 8, super human. Team GB kept going from strength to strength, we achieved 4th place on the medal table which was our target for London already met.

London 2012

Well what can I say that you don’t already know. We took all the best bits of previous games I can think of and put them all together into ours. The creativity of the opening ceremonies, the amazing games makers, the armed forces who came to the aid of our security and made us all feel safe with their professional but jolly approach, the British crowds that brought the roof down for home athletes but also for wonderful performances from athletes around the world. The stories flowed about winners and losers. I though London showed the real human side to the games and I was immensely proud to be part of the BBC team and the British Olympic Associations Ambassadors program that helped to do that. We had 550 athletes, our biggest team in 100 years and for the first time that consisted of 50% woman. The sun shone and the world loved London 2012. I got to be in position Number 1 poolside as host broadcaster and when Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian in history with 18 gold medals I got to do the very first interview with him he did, as NBC were not broadcasting live. Thank you the lovely lady journo who let me do that from the U.S. I can say with my hand on my heart I was bursting with pride at how we as Brits welcomed the world and staged the games. We won 29 gold medals, 65 in total, putting us in third spot on the table and making us the most successful Olympic sporting nation per capita in the world. It sounds a cliché but it felt like the games had put the great back into Britain….a long way from one gold in 96’. Tokyo here we come I hope…. 10 and counting.

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