Friday 23 November 2012

Depression in sport: a sleeping giant awakes

Depression in sport is no longer a taboo subject
(picture courtesy of 3 0 d a g a r m e d a n a l h u s)
Andrew Flintoff is the latest sports star to admit to suffering from depression. Steven Perryman looks at a historically taboo subject in sport and how it’s finally ditching its stigma


The final bell sounds. The last ball is bowled. The finish line is crossed one last time. It’s the moment all elite sportsmen and women fear the most: the moment their career ends.

The routine is gone. The hours, days, months and years of a strict training and diet regime is no more. Nothing remains.

Nothing, except the rest of your life.

It’s not surprising that when facing this predicament many sportsmen get depressed and crave their former glories. If one in five people in the UK are affected by depression at some point in their lives, then it is not surprising that sports stars are prone to it too.

Thankfully, the stigma of depression and sport is finally coming out into the light where it should – and needs – to be.

Depression during your sporting career

This week Andrew Flintoff became the latest in a long line of sports stars to reveal the aching emptiness he felt when his sports career was cut short.

All that he had known since being a young lad peppering local houses around Lytham & St Anne’s Cricket Club with sixes was gone.

That Flintoff has found solace in a
boxing career – albeit with a TV crew in tow – suggests that it’s not that easy to let go of the training and diet routine. 
But Flintoff is only the latest elite sports star to admit to suffering depression. Marcus Trescothick, Neil Lennon, Stan Collymore, Frank Bruno
are just a few recent examples.

And this Saturday night another, boxer
Ricky Hatton, climbs through the ropes again, three years after being upended and left frighteningly motionless by Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas.

Many have questioned his desire to come back, and he has spoken of a devil on his shoulder telling him he let everyone down. Perhaps more concerning are tales of lying on the sofa, depressed with a kitchen knife in his hand ready to end it all.

Of course, the plights of Frank Bruno and Arturo Gatti show that boxing careers in particular rarely end with content. There are certainly far too many examples to mention of those who had one fight too many.

Success at a young age

Success at a young age is also a factor. In his biography out this month, swimmer Ian Thorpe admits to being treated for depression since he was a teenager, and that it led him to drink during the night in the lead-up to the 2004 Athens Olympics. He has also admitted that he hadn’t told his family about his problem until this year.

And that’s part of the problem. For too long depression has been seen as a taboo subject and burying feelings only compounds the issue. How would Thorpe had coped if he had counselling during his career? It’s hard to say, but it surely would have helped.

But sometimes it’s not as easy as that. Just ask Teresa Enke, the widow of Robert Enke, the Hannover 96 and Germany galkeeper who committed suicide in 2009.

She knew of his affliction throughout his whole career and tried to support him through the dark days.

It is a fight tragically but beautifully told in Ronald Reng’s
A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke. In Reng’s personal insight into Enke’s mind, we see a man struggling with the pressures of elite sport and in a profession which compounds his illness. It is a heart-breaking read.

When Enke committed suicide three years ago by jumping in front of a train, it shocked the world. But not Teresa. She had toyed with the grim possibility that the day would come for years. And tragically, on 10 November 2009, it did.

Sometimes, it seems, depression is too encompassing to be solved by a solution as simple as a counsellor.

The gender divide

One thing that instantly strikes you about the cases of depression in sport is that almost all the high profile cases appear to be men. Ian Maynard, professor of sport psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, says the fact that sportsmen are not naturally emotional does not help their cause.

‘They don't wear their heart on their sleeve because that can cause problems in competition, so they tend to be more buttoned-up and get a mentally tough exterior.’

Perhaps the answer is to treat the mind as a crucial part of the training process; as a necessity whether you are mentally fragile or not?

Possible solutions to depresion in sport

It’s something that has been used in golf for many years – although admittedly because of the mental nature of the sport, rather than as a solution to depression per se.

For example, when Ernie Els won The Open in 2002 who was the first person he spoke to before the play-off? Not his wife, coach or swing guru. It was his sports psychologist.

It’s also something that British Cycling has been inadvertently managing through its use of psychologist, Dr Steve Peters. Whilst there are no reported cases of depression amongst the cyclists, they do have access to Peters and complex, emotional characters like Bradley Wiggins and the now-retired Victoria Pendleton have reaped huge rewards from it, particularly this year.

Quite how many medals the emotionally-fragile Pendleton would have won without that help is an interesting proposition. It is no surprise that Pendleton has hired Peters to work with her on the current series of Strictly Come Dancing.  
Perhaps there is a solution in there somewhere. Anything which prevents another sorry tale like Robert Enke can only be a good thing.

Friday 12 October 2012

Lance Armstrong: my thoughts

Lance Armstrong: a story too good to be true
This week we finally got the USADA report into Lance Armstrong’s doping programme which saw him win seven Tour De France titles.

My feeling on the release is two-fold. Firstly, I am pleased that this is all coming into the public domain; that the dirty secrets that have been assumed for so many years are there for all to see (and read).

Secondly, it is with a heavy heart – heavy because Armstrong’s story was so good I wanted to believe it. As it turned out, it was just too good to be true.

Sunning myself on a Portugal beach a few weeks back I read Tyler Hamilton’s explosive account of life as one of Armstrong’s team-mates on the US Postal team. Bathed in glorious sunshine, I felt sick as I read.

Sick that athletes went to the sort of measures Hamilton outlines. From injecting the blood-boosting drug EPO, to transfusing blood when an EPO test was introduced to avoid detection.

The risk/reward of doing this was not even remotely 50-50 – these were potentially life-threatening actions that were being taken in order just to cross the finish line first. For a man who had flirted with death once – as Armstrong had – to take those risks beggars belief.

In all this, I do feel a tiny speck of sympathy for Armstrong. Team-mates have only ‘fessed up as a result of a safety-in-numbers safety net, reduced bans and having no other alternative.

They made serious money as a result of their cheating, but you don’t see them offering to give it back. All the talk of regret and redemption is a little hollow, and to act like the innocent victim is a little silly.

Armstrong’s biggest problem now, clearly, is one of response. How does he respond? It’s a fairly safe bet he will keep it buttoned. Of course, he should come clean. But he’s in too deep to do that.

Any admission would leave him at the mercy of perjury, bribery and all sorts of other legal proceedings which an admission would make him guaranteed of losing. And Armstrong doesn’t do losing.

And what of the UCI? It has its own case to answer. This story is far from over. In fact, it’s only just begun.

Friday 24 August 2012

Coffee size conundrum: when tall doesn’t mean large

Coffee conundrum: which one is 'tall'
‘A man in front of me in Starbucks ordered a tall, black, Americano – I thought: “is he ordering a President”?’ It’s a groan-worthy joke, but one which rings with truth at the absurd naming conventions coffee shops use.

Let’s get one thing straight: I like my coffee. I even have my own Gaggia machine at home and spend endless hours trying to perfect microfoam (I still haven’t).

I am also addicted not only to the caffeine, but also the shops that sell it. Maybe it’s the smell? The Matt Nathanson soundtrack they all seem to use? The lighting? I don’t really know, but I enjoy the experience of going in and watching a barista make my coffee (while also making notes on how you get that all-important microfoam).

There is, however, something that always perplexes me: the ludicrous descriptions of the drinks.

What size?

Now many people prefer to go in the same chain for their coffee day in, day out. If that’s the case, then you probably never encounter this problem. Me? I like to vary things up a bit.

The problem with that is, as I have found out to my cost, there is no uniform way of describing the size of a coffee across the main chains. Too often I walk in and order my preferred order from another chain out of habit to condemnation.

Ask for a Grande Skinny Caramel Latte (my Starbucks order) in Caffe Nero and you get a very large, wholly different drink with cream on top (as well as a perplexed look from the barista).

No, if you want that same drink in Caffe Nero, what you have to ask for is: ‘A regular skinny latte with a shot of caramel syrup’. You can barely say that in one breath. Wondering what I’m going on about? Then check out these descriptions of the ‘small’, ‘medium’ and ‘large’ sizes in the main high street chains:

Small – Tall
Medium – Grande
Large – Venti

Small – Unknown (not even listed on menu, even though it is available. Tut, tut)
Medium – Regular
Large – Grande

Costa Coffee
Small – Primo
Medium – Medio
Large – Assimo

Small – Flat White only
Medium – Small
Large – Big

Small – N/A
Medium – Tall
Large – Grande

Only one drink across all the chains is described the same: the large – or grande – coffee in Pret and Caffe Nero. For all the rest, it’s something different every time.

Perhaps the most perplexing is the ‘tall’ coffee – which in Starbucks means a ‘small’ and in Pret means a ‘medium’. Eh? Common sense would suggest that a tall coffee is the largest, right? Wrong. It is something that has got the big wigs at Plain English hot under their lexical collars, and rightly so.

There’s method in the madness of course – for the coffee sellers, anyway. Having these different naming conventions adds confusion and leads to the customer ordering the larger – and thus more profitable – drink. In Caffe Nero, for example, the small size isn’t even on the menu, but it does exist.

Can’t we just standardise all this and be done with it? Can’t medium mean medium and large mean large? I have personally given up. Now I just use ‘medium’ or ‘large’ and leave it to the barista to waggle the cup at me to confirm the size.

And I have a golden rule: never order a drink you can’t say in one breath. It’s actually harder than it sounds – especially if you have to end with ‘to take away’.

Do that, and maybe ordering Presidents will become a thing of the past.

Thursday 16 August 2012

London 2012 Olympics: an experience of a lifetime

The Olympic flame on 'Super Saturday'
Once in a lifetime.

It was probably the most used phrase in the British lexicon leading up to London 2012 and, by 27 July, had become a bit of cliché. Even five-year-old children were using it when interviewed by BBC News.

But, in the end, it seems the most apt way of describing the magical two weeks we have all just been a part of.

Now I am back at my day job, and have had a few days to reflect on my experience as a Games Maker, I am better placed to list out some of my highlights. So, here are three of mine

1. Opening ceremony
It may seem hard to believe now, but we had all feared the worst. After Beijing, how would we do this? Quite rightly, many were using the handover sequence from the Beijing closing ceremony as a template. If that was the case it was going to be an embarrassment.

One thing changed that: Danny Boyle. What Boyle offered up was a work of genius – compacting all that was great about Britain into three disparate, but equally enthralling, segments. The moment when the five rings were forged high above the stadium, dripping firework glitter onto the stadium below, gets me every time. It was beautiful.

The pacing was also spot on – the decision to get the Arctic Monkeys to play ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor’ straight after the lull of the athletes parade was a masterstroke.

Ultimately, though, the ceremony set the tone before a starting gun had been fired. While Beijing had spectacle, it didn’t have personality or soul. Ours did.

We all owe Boyle a debt for capturing us as a nation so magnificently. There were no dry eyes in my house that night – and they were tears of pride, and also of relief, that the world was seeing exactly who we were as a nation.

Me en route to another shift
 2. The Olympic Park
The Park was an amazing place to be every day. I never tired of walking out of Stratford and onto the Park – even with thousands of people to fight through to get to my shift.

People were just happy to be there. I lost count of the number of times I saw people posing for photographs with their tickets. The much-maligned ticketing process obviously making them feel like golden ones.

My lasting memory, however, will be walking across the Park on my way home each night and hearing the cacophony of roars from each venue as I went. It was electrifying.

3. Super Saturday
Back when I had got my Games Maker shifts I was given Saturday 4 August off. When I saw the athletics schedule – and realised that it was the second day of Jessica Ennis’s heptathlon – I knew I had to try and make it to one of the sessions.

Through endless perseverance, I ended up with tickets to both. I was very lucky. In the morning we were sat next to the flame – it was great seeing it so close up. The atmosphere was unbelievable as we watched Jess do her thing.

Probably my over-riding memory of that morning was of seeing Oscar Pistorius reduced to tears by the crowd reaction on his debut at the Olympics. Unforgettable in every way.

By the evening it was clear that, save an injury, Ennis would almost certainly win the heptathlon. This led to an excited crowd. After some heats of other events, we got to Jess.

When the gun went the crowd went ballistic and as she came into the home straight and took the lead the noise, coupled with a sea of union jacks around the whole stadium, was overwhelming. No wonder Jess burst into tears after winning. I think we all did.

In the melee the long jump competition was on-going and we had all missed that Greg Rutherford had extended his lead. This couldn’t be a second gold, could it? As we anxiously watched his competitors try to nick the gold in the last round, Mo Farah came out to warm up for the 10,000m.

At that point everywhere you looked in the stadium there was either adulation (Ennis on her victory lap), tension (long jump final round) or expectation (Farah warming up). It was a surreal experience.

The 10,000m started. Being a long race, we knew it was a good 30 minutes until the denouement, so we all focused on the long jump. Rutherford did it – and did a victory lap as Mo churned out the laps.

Again, we didn’t know where to look. Surely we couldn’t get three golds? I looked to my other half and said: ‘You know what, Mo’s gonna do this. I can just feel it’.

The bell signalled the final lap and Mo moved to the front. He held his position round the final bend, but looked under pressure. We were sat right at the start of the home straight and he had a small lead. The roar went up – deafening, suffocating. It felt like the wall of noise was actually pushing Mo along.

It worked. With 70m to go he opened up a gap we all knew couldn’t be breached. We all lost it. Big time. I have never jumped and cheered so loudly than I did when he crossed the line. Wow, just wow.

Those are just three of my highlights – there are many, many more. Jade Jones’s hat-throwing celebration after securing Britain’s first Taekwondo gold is one. Boxer Nicola Adams’s revelation that she would be celebrating gold by hitting Nando’s was another.

Once in a lifetime it was. And that’s probably the saddest thing of all.

Saturday 11 August 2012

London 2012 Games Maker: BMX-rated racing

Shanaze Reade in the lead of heat two.
That's as good as it got
After the unforgettable days in the pressure cooker of the velodrome, it was nice to move outside and onto the BMX competition. After the seeding runs on Wednesday, I had Thursday off so was back for the semi-finals and medal races.

As usual we had our briefing before heading to the mixed zone. It was agreed that we would split up between medals and broadcast/print areas. I was assigned getting both silver medalists in the print area.

This would provide its own problems. We would now have eight possible winners per final, meaning it was very hard to predict who would win what medal. The finals would also be run back-to-back meaning there was a possibility of both medalists coming through together.

After getting some quotes from David Herman (who failed to qualify for the final), I made my way into the scrum ready for the medal races. First up it was the women’s final. Shanaze Reade, Caroline Buchanan and Mariana Pajon had looked the most likely to do well based on the semi-final runs. Sadly, only one would live up to their reputation in the final.

When the race started both Reade and Buchanan seemed to get stuck in the start gate for a split second. That was enough to end their races. Then it was a bun-fight for silver and bronze with Pajon bossing things from the front.

As I had predicted following the test event last August, Sarah Walker of New Zealand made easy work of the third straight to take silver. Right, I thought, that’s my lady.

Whilst waiting for her to come through the mixed zone, I was so concentrated on getting Sarah that I didn’t make a note of who won silver in the men’s race. To compound the issue, the result had been taken off the big screen. After some deliberation, I realised that Sam Willoughby of Australia had won the silver.

Great, I thought, the Aussie hacks are at the other end of the mixed zone to the New Zealand ones. This was gonna take judgment, as well as eyes in the back of my head.

Sarah Walker chats to the press - and me!

Eventually Sarah Walker made it to us – I managed to get the mixed zone team member to hold my Dictaphone for me, saving me having to lean through a scrum of people. The slight issue now was that Sam Willoughby had walked through the mixed zone, past us and down to the Aussie press.

I had to make a judgment call. I decided that it was worth getting something of both rather than lots of Sarah, so hot-footed it down to get Sam’s quotes. Once I had both I ran back to the workroom to file the copy.

I was slightly disappointed that the team had lifted some quotes off of the broadcast interviews and filed them without waiting for mine. I think they could see I was disappointed so let me write them up and file them anyway.

And that was BMX done. I definitely preferred the test event – we were pretty much the only people in the mixed zone then and we had great fun chatting to the riders. This was very different.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

London 2012 Games Maker: tears of Hoy

Sir Chris Hoy with that magical sixth gold medal
I can’t take much more of this. What an emotional, crazy, surreal final day in the velodrome.

As there were three gold medals on offer – and a chance of British success in all three – the ONS team drafted in extra pairs of hands to make sure we got quotes from all the medallists.

At the daily briefing we were assigned our athletes. You can imagine my joy when I saw the following on the whiteboard: ‘Keirin. Gold. SP’. That meant, if all went to plan, I would be chasing Sir Chris Hoy around the mixed zone after winning an historic sixth gold medal. Blimey.

It was also good news as, according to the running order, the Men’s Keirin final was going to be last meaning I could watch all the other events before I had to do my bit.

The velodrome was heaving. Even the corporate seats were full for the first time, populated sporadically over the opening hour by Princess Anne, Boris, Sarah Ferguson and Seb Coe. Anyone who was anyone clearly wanted a piece of this action.

It started with a whimper. Needing to beat Sarah Hammer of USA in the Omnium Scratch Race, Laura Trott could only manage third behind Hammer, the winner of the race. That meant she would need a massive win in the final event, the 500m time trial.

Punctuating all that Sir Chris Hoy moved seamlessly into the Keirin final and Victoria Pendleton into the Women’s Sprint final, setting up a final race against her nemesis, Anna Mears of Australia.

Laura got things off to a great start, winning the time trial and ousting Hammer down to fourth, enough for the gold medal. The place erupted, Trott burst into tears, we all whooped with joy.

Then came the first round of the sprint. Vicky won, but was demoted for riding outside of the sprinters line. The crowd were not happy, and with good reason – Mears appeared to elbow her in the side, causing the swerve. Mears went on to take the second round and, with it, Pendleton’s last hurrah.

It was left to Sir Chris to end this amazing six days as it had begun: with a Hoy victory. He didn’t disappoint. Seemingly about to be edged out, he found an extra turn of pace and took the gold.

At this point I positioned myself in the broadcast pen ready for his interview. He did a brief interview which I couldn’t hear. Following the medal ceremony I went back to the BBC pen as apparently they were doing another interview.

Sir Steve, Sir Chris
- and my right shoulder!
That’s odd, I thought, they don’t normally do that. I was also confused by the guy that had now appeared in the BBC pen kneeling down. Frustratingly for me he was in my way, blocking my route to the camera. Just as I was about to enquire what he was doing I realised: it was Sir Steve Redgrave waiting to surprise Sir Chris in a second interview!

Again, I couldn’t get the quotes because of the noise (the Women’s Sprint medal ceremony was taking place) so retired to the agency pen. It took Sir Chris a good 30mins to reach us as he had to stop at 20 or so broadcasters and do interviews.

Whilst we were waiting Victoria Pendleton came through. She was distraught and in tears, but still managed to give us an interview. I will keep that interview on my Dictaphone as, in a way, it is a piece of history: her last post-race interview with the press.

Sir Chris doing one of his many
broadcast interviews
Finally, we got Sir Chris. He is such a gent and answered all our questions – despite being asked them all repeatedly for the past 30 mins. I then went back and filed his quotes onto the system and that was it – the velodrome was over.

I am sad it is over but, in all honestly, six days is enough in such a controlled, stressful environment. One hack described the mixed zone in the velodrome as a shantytown and I know exactly what he means.

I now move onto BMX today which should be great: we are outdoors, the sport is different and the riders are genuine characters.

It should be ‘awesome’. As long as it doesn’t rain.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

London 2012 Games Maker: another day, another gold

The velodrome: the scene of a magical
five days of action so far

Another day, another Great Britain gold.

Last night was another breathless day in the velodrome, although you couldn’t help feeling it was the canapé before tonight’s banquet.

Before the racing started we got the opportunity to go and check out the BMX track, as the riders are now training on the track ahead of competition on Wednesday.

Wow – it looks incredible. It has been transformed since I worked at the test event last August. Gone are the mounds of mud, dirt and gravel replaced with limestone, tarmac and grass. It looks stunning.

There is also a colossal sound system which will really pump the crowd up. The downside being our spot in the mixed zone is right by the speakers so we will have trouble hearing what the athletes say. Could be interesting.

The awesome BMX track ready
for competition on Wednesday
After that we were back to the velodrome for the evening session. I was assigned the fourth place rider in the Men’s Sprint. I was hoping it wasn’t Shane Perkins of Australia again, as I had to interview him after coming fourth in the Team Sprint on Thursday.

Luckily he won bronze which meant I had to get Phillip of Trinidad & Tobago. Unluckily for me someone else managed to get him in the broadcast area, so I was immediately tasked with getting anyone from the Women’s Omnium.

My experience was crucial here. Knowing that Laura Trott – the British rider – probably wouldn’t stop, I thought Sarah Hammer – the American – probably would and she was likely to be near the lead after day one.

I therefore positioned myself next to the American press attaché and the journalist from Sports Illustrated and waited. Fortunately for me she stopped where I had guessed and I managed to get some flash quotes from her.

Most other hacks, not realising she was stopping and where, missed her meaning that my ONS quotes were the only ones available. In the throes of all this Jason Kenny was winning the Men’s Sprint so we had the inevitable crowd noise to contend with too.

After filing those I went straight into the press conference for the Men’s Sprint. I was assigned getting the quotes from Jason Kenny of Great Britain. It is always stressful doing a media conference – you have to watch your Dictaphone the whole time to make sure it is recording, whilst making notes in case it isn’t. Being the British rider I felt under even more pressure.

It was an eventful press conference with Bauge looking perplexed at losing and actually asking Kenny some questions of his own. After the press conference finished I was straight off to type up the quotes and my day was done.

Today is the big one: Sir Chris Hoy in the Keirin, Victoria Pendleton in the Women’s Sprint and Laura Trott in the Omnium. It should be a fitting climax to a magical six days of action.