I am not a natural athlete. At school I was the last one picked for football, I was asthmatic and I often ‘forgot my uniform’ for gym. But here I am, reigning Olympic champion.
The Olympics may seem like a castle in the air to many, an exclusive club of super talented superheroes, but the truth is that Olympic glory is much more accessible than you might think.
As with anything in life, it’s all about finding your niche and getting started with it.
I’m not a natural athlete, but here I am as reigning Olympic champion for Great Britain
Nowhere is this ideal brought to life more clearly than in the Olympic Village. There you see extremes of every athletic body type and everything in between – for example the difference between an artistic gymnast and a heavyweight boxer. Everyone is ideally suited for their chosen task.
The message for many watching the Tokyo Olympics in the coming weeks is: yes, that could really be you. The emphasis is of course on ‘ability’.
If you’re an ambitious Olympian, how do you make sure this happens? And, perhaps more importantly, how can we do that in the right way?
Basic sport is your starting point, the basis of our country’s Olympic success.
It may seem like a castle in the air, but the truth is that Olympic glory is much more accessible than you might think
Despite being crap at gym, I loved grassroots sports, clubs and communities. Growing up, I roamed around with many—to the occasional annoyance of my parents—not only to find my niche, but to find my passion and a community that embraced me.
These first years of carefree and mutual enjoyment are crucial.
Helicopter parents, please step back. Yes, there are a few exceptions where those parents raised successful athletes. Yet in my experience, most Olympians have a natural love for their sport, nurtured by grassroots organizations and by parents who facilitated and encouraged their participation.
In short, if you lose your head with a referee, coach or kid, you’re doing it wrong.
Encouragement was a tactic my mother used often. Crucially, it wasn’t specific to one sport or even pastime. Her red line was that I couldn’t be a couch potato after school.
The message for many watching the Tokyo Olympics in the coming weeks is: yes, that could really be you
Everything – Scouts, dancing, sports, modeling. Basically, one day a week there had to be something on the agenda that wasn’t screen related. Finally, the cycling bug bit.
Cycling can be an expensive sport if you don’t have the money or the support. It requires entrepreneurship and independence; Understandably, because of my fleeting interest in multiple sports up to that point, my family was reluctant to invest in equipment.
It is crucial that the grassroots community cherish these ideals. Car-sharing, equipment loans, mate-rates, negotiations with senior riders to borrow their fast gear and the inevitable excuses if you break or damage it,
I loved it: independence, responsibility and the gift of chatter all backed by a community of fanatics.
Fanaticism is the appeal of the grassroots sport, PE is the game of a generalist. The volunteers who keep the grassroots sport alive are our most valuable asset.
My first coach, Allister Watson, knew everything there was to know and I idolized him.
However, cycling can be an expensive sport if you don’t have the money or the support
An introduction through a person with infectious enthusiasm is another common theme among Olympians. I met Allister with a curiosity about track cycling; I left with a passion for speed, skill and a firm belief that I could make it to the Olympics.
He is a man with a fantastic success rate; until recently he was more successful in nurturing the British cycling team athletes than Scottish cycling.
Getting noticed by British or Scottish cycling isn’t as complicated as you think. People assume that talent scouts roam the country and give you a cinematic tap on the shoulder when it’s time to make progress. The reality is simple: compete in the British Championships for your age category and the scouts more or less select the ones on the podium.
Although the system occasionally topples through mixed motives, the mantra is, the fastest is selected.
Cycling’s ‘fastest’ selection policy offers hope to those not born on the bike.
Chris Hoy retired at age 37; the former British Cycling Performance Director often said ‘he didn’t start winning until he was 28’.
Getting noticed by British or Scottish cycling isn’t as complicated as you might think
Katie Archibald didn’t compete for Great Britain until she was 19 and had never been a member of British Cycling’s development programs. The person who helped her get there? Allister and the grassroots community in Edinburgh.
We have a responsibility to make sure we don’t lose our grassroots community. In Edinburgh all is lost. Meadowbank Velodrome, Scotland’s most successful medal factory, no longer exists.
Bulldoized for biomass, sold by the municipality and now redeveloped into flats. Without a (repeatedly promised) replacement location, the community has died.
I am writing this on a table area made from the old Velodrome, a reminder of what used to be. I am working from home in my new career in e-commerce. It’s fitting that I brought a piece of Meadowbank. I didn’t just learn to be a cyclist. Grassroots sport has made me who I am today.