EN Today: Upside Down – The dark side of the games

EN friend and blogger, and my personal hero Hamish Cargill returns today with an article exploring the other side of the Olympics–the part nobody wants to tell you about.  Be sure to follow Hamish @hamishcargill and you can Facebook stalk him here Coren, but you already know that I’m sure. Thanks a million for writing this Hamish and thank you for reading. –John

Hamish and Tiger, Samantha Clark photo

From Hamish:

A spot on a team for London is this year’s ultimate eventing ticket. Unfortunately there’s only a few of them to go around. In the meantime, the rest of us have to reassure ourselves that riding at the Olympics isn’t everything.

When you put your mind to it, there are so many reasons not to want to ride at the London Games that I’m surprised anyone is even putting their hand up for selection.

Team environments are notoriously unpleasant. Friends are scarce, competition is fierce and fun is a dirty word (right up there with ‘tendon’ and ‘damage’). What country are you from? It doesn’t matter. Team management can be as warm as an icy blanket, and you’d be under less pressure if you stuck a fire hose in your mouth. The word ‘intense’ doesn’t quite cover the experience of being in a team. ‘Hell’ may be going a little too far, but you get the idea.

Once you’re in a team, you can’t do anything on your own. You can bathe and dress yourself, but mess that up and your privacy’s shot. Trips to the WC (that’s English for toilet) are crowded – get used to peeing in a cup while a drug tester sizes you up. Speaking of which, the drug testing’s going to put an end to your recreational and performance enhancing habits. Drop the needle. Now.

Few people look good in team tracksuits. Originally intended for wear by children and criminals, they’re a curse on modern athletes. And official Olympic formal uniforms are always ugly. They’re designed by artistic types intent on extracting revenge on the cool, sporty kids who picked on them at school. Watch the opening ceremony – payback happens.

Hanging out with international riders is crap. You’re probably the most interesting person around, but you’ll suffer while they talk about themselves. Nothing’s more dull than listening to them drone on about their horse, and the only way you’ll survive is by imagining them falling off or having six rails down. Sportsmanship is a delightful concept in social tennis but no one’s under any illusions at the Games. It’s cutthroat.

The media are annoying. Be prepared to answer at least ten dumb questions per day. Go well – and god-forbid you win a gold medal – and you’re going to have to endure a round of studio interviews with people who think you can milk a horse and ride a cow. By the millionth time you get asked what eventing is and how it works, you’ll wish you competed in a simple sport. Like running.

It’s even more annoying if the media aren’t asking questions. That means you’re not going very well. This will become annoying for a whole lot of other reasons. If you do struggle to perform, no one’s going to write nice things about you. People expect a medal. Have a run-out or a fall and you’d better take a long trip home via Siberia. The equestrian media will feed your carcass to the lions before they move onto the next target – your team coach springs to mind.

The Greenwich course is built on the side of a mountain. That’s fine for the horses, but it’s going to mean a lot of walking uphill for riders. Sounds tiring. Isn’t there any flat ground in England?

The stables are temporary, so there’s no guarantee they’ll be in a good spot – or near a tap. With stabling in alphabetical country order, if you’re Australian chances are you’ll get stuck next to some humourless Austrian who looks like Rolfe from The Sound of Music. Don’t rely on him to lighten the mood on cross-country morning. He’ll have already scared your groom and your horse. I hope he doesn’t sing.

Just getting in to see your horse will be hard enough. Half the British military used in Northern Ireland will be defending the stables from terrorist attacks. Prepare to undress every day to get through security – you already know there’s no privacy. Depending on how trustworthy you look, they might snap on a rubber glove. Get there early before cross-country – things could get messy.

It rains a lot in England. And while London has lots of things to see and do, you’ll have to book a holiday and go back next year. With your focus on horse riding, all those cosy pubs, trendy restaurants and famous landmarks will be off limits.

There are a few things you can do. You could set your watch to Greenwich Mean Time at the Royal Observatory next door to the stables. Just remember, this isn’t the actual time at Greenwich, just the time in the Observatory – which means it’s not actually the time anywhere. You can occupy a day or two getting your head around this. Miss your dressage because you forget to adjust Greenwich-time for daylight-saving and you’ll feel like a right idiot.

You could visit the National Maritime Museum. It’s in the park at Greenwich. Shame it’s dead boring – you’d be better watching dressage, which is only half-dead boring.

If you’re lucky the Olympic Committee might give you some tickets to other sports. Enjoy your night at the synchronised swimming – I’ll catch it on TV.

The athlete’s village is boarding school – for fit people. The average age of an Olympic athlete is 25, so while the village isn’t quite a crèche for the physically gifted, it’s not far off. Some of those gymnasts were still breast-feeding when the Olympics were in Sydney. You remember the Sydney Olympics well don’t you? That’s because you’re old. As one of the oldest around, get used to being mistaken for the team physiotherapist. You’re an athlete? Really? At your age? They’ll assume you’re a sailor – most of them don’t even know they have horses in the Olympics.

Don’t think you’ll be getting much sleep – those athletes go all night. And even if that doesn’t distract you, sharing a room with a person who isn’t your partner will. Can’t stand snoring? You should have stayed at home.

English food is notoriously heavy – it’s possible you’ll return from the Olympics in worse shape than you left. Prepare for a diet of pork – if you don’t like bacon you’re going to be hungry.

English beer is sometimes served warm – they’re catching on to refrigeration but it takes time to undo over a thousand years of tepid culture. The beer might be chilled, but the soft drinks and water never will be. You’ll be so dehydrated by the end of the event they’ll have to put you on a drip – also served at room temperature.

The event is next to the river, but you won’t be taking any refreshing dips. I’d rather fall down a portaloo than jump in the Thames. Mind you, swimming down the river might be faster than battling the London traffic. Greenwich is wedged in a corner between the park and the river, so when you get back to the village it’ll be time to turn around and go back – for the next day.

When it all finishes, if you’ve done well you’d better get busy promoting the sport to the world. Photo shoots, press conferences, ticker tape parades – you’ll barely have time to scratch yourself. Actually, you should avoid scratching yourself – photos of you working that itch will go straight on the back page of the paper.

They say success is a two edged sword. It will be for you. Win a medal and you’re not going to be able to get out of bed without being hassled for your autograph. You’d better start thinking of some nice things to write on hats and program covers – those pesky kids are going to swarm you like ants on a toffee apple.

See your dentist before you go. A thousand photos of your coffee stained teeth biting into that medal and you’ll regret not doing it sooner. If you even live to regret it that is – you’ll probably die from a toxic poisoning from having that medal in your mouth so often.

Didn’t win a medal? Bugger. If you’ve come fourth you’d better lock yourself away in a room and plan your apology to the taxpayers who funded your trip.

Which makes me wonder, why do we all want to ride at the Olympics?

I guess you’ve just got to experience it for yourself.

See you somewhere out there.


A version of this article first appeared in The Eventer magazine, March 2012

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