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A Challenge Of Olympic Proportions | We Tried To Learn Five Olympic Sports In Five Days

How much training goes into being an Olympian? Lou Boyd meets the people behind the Games....

Words: Lou Boyd

For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt slightly detached from the Olympics.

I have a strange kind of appreciation from afar. I can acknowledge the effort and I’m aware of the major moments in each Games, but I’m never really engaged.

Even when the Olympics came to London four years ago it didn’t really change my outlook, the opening ceremony was pretty impressive, yet from that point on my attention wandered onto other things, only to wander back for the final results and closing ceremony.

Recently however, the Olympics have begun to feel like a chore I keep indefinitely putting off, an imaginary P.E teacher with a tight bun and hockey socks at the back of my head handing me a shot put and saying that I really must try harder.

With this year’s Games upon us, I decided this time I would dive into some Olympic sports. Not just watching them, but headfirst into doing them for myself, with the hope that learning how much the athletes really give to be there will unlock the secret to Olympic appreciation.

The average Olympian starts practicing their sport from before the age of ten and specifically trains for each Games for four years previous to the event. Hours upon hours of single-minded, obsessive practice go towards what will ultimately become a matter of minutes or seconds in the stadium.

I love running and surfing a whole lot, but I would never be prepared to give them that level of commitment, so it intrigues me as to what kind of people love a sport enough to give their whole life to it. I envisage them as highly strung, ambitious types, but really I have no real idea.

To get an idea of the people behind the sports, I’ve picked a wide range of disciplines. To try to get a tiny glimpse of the physical strain they go through, I’m doing them one after another with no rest.

Five days and five different groups of people, to get a peek behind the curtain of the Olympics. Judo, Gymnastic Trampolining, Sprinting, Boxing and Archery.


Day 1

Travelling to South London, I visit trampoline park Flip Out to give trampolining my best shot. This new park is not only used for straight gymnasts, it’s also becoming one of the best indoor spaces for free running in the capital. A huge room of trampolines of many different sizes and elevation, this looks less like the school gym I was imagining and more like theme park.

Around me I see no lycra leotards and scraped back hair, everyone is in trackies and looks – well – very cool. It’s a room of South London hipsters that just happen to do a great 720 degree flip.

“Trampolining comes from the core,” I’m told by Chima, Flip Out’s free running ambassador. “If you don’t have a good core, when you hit the trampoline with your feet, you’ll go in any direction and have no control.”

Attempting my first few jumps, I see what he means, every time I hit the trampoline it bounces me much higher than intended and I bounce in all directions. Forwards, backwards, onto my neighbour’s trampoline, I really have no say.

Ten minutes in and I’ve got my bouncing under control and I try a few basic tricks. Actually fairly quick to master them, I’m feeling good.

“Ok,” laughs Chima. “But now I’m going to teach you to do do a standing flip….”

Throwing myself forward I realise I’ve waited too long to whip my body underneath and I see the trampoline coming towards me as I smash face onto it. Instead of stopping, Chima gets me to do it again and again, until finally I’ve gone from car crash to landing a flip on my feet.

We go higher and harder with the tricks and by the end of the two hours my legs feel like jelly. The others around me at the trampoline park continue long after I’ve left.

Bouncing high and showing each other crazier and crazier tricks into the foam pit, this is a grownup play area, not a training session. These guys are not competing in this year’s Olympics, so the pressure isn’t on, but they’re committed athletes with a future Games in their sights. They just happen to be committed athletes with a sense of humour and a hipster hat on.

One sport in and my expectations are already coming apart.

Day 2

Waking up the next morning I instantly feel my the ache in my thighs from the hours of bouncing the night before and on sitting up I feel an ache in my arms also.  As I look over at my schedule, I can’t help but laugh. It’s my boxing day.

I’m going for my try out in the middle of my work day in central London, which means going to my first ever inner city gym. Walking across the city on a blazing hot afternoon, I realise that I’ve not taken a moment to consider what Fight City Gym will be like. I imagine aggressive brokers, taking out their workday stress in the ring, before grabbing a sandwich from Pret and heading back to the office, sore knuckles, anger vented…

Leaving the bright sunshine behind and walking down some dark stairs into the gym, I think I could well be right. It smells distinctly of school P.E changing rooms and there are big men in ripped vests walking around. In the corner I see one woman pounding it impressively on a treadmill, but apart from her it’s testosterone city.

“The guys who go to the Olympics train for years and years, it’s a culture that you enter into”

Just as I begin to wonder what I’ve put myself in for, a smiley man bounds over to me, hand outstretched.

“Lou? Hi I’m Leon, give me one second to get changed and we’ll get started.” He turns on a massive fan in the corner and bounds off into the changing rooms.

He sets me up with gloves and we get into the ring. “I’ll give you a few basics and then teach you some patterns,” he says. Five minutes spent learning feet and keeping your hands at your temples and we’re off.

Left, right, down, up, jab and hook – this is not the aggressive experience I was expecting. I can’t stop laughing and I’m having a great time learning, memorising and carrying out the different routines. At one point I get over excited and nearly hit Leon for real. “Help!” he shouts to the photographer Jack, as we get back into position.

“I only started boxing a few years ago” says Leon at the end of the session, but the guys who go to the Olympics train for years and years. It’s a culture that you enter into, whether you’re coming for an hour at lunch or spending all your time on.”

Walking back through the gym I take a look at the vested men again, wondering if they’ve transformed now through my own boxing experience.

Huge, sweaty and punching hard – they have not. I grab my bag and run back up into the sun. I don’t think I’d want to them in the Olympic boxing training ring anytime soon…

Day 3

Everything hurts…

…But most of all my arms. After the session yesterday I found my arms so shaky that I could hardly type for the rest of the day. Luckily I think, today I’m training for the sprint.

I’m feeling pretty confident. Although I don’t sprint, I do run about 35 kilometres every week and can hold my own. Arriving at the group that confidence slips slightly as I see the seriousness in their composure. There’s some hardcore running gear around me, but no conversation. These guys mean business.

“I go in my head from angry to teary and can feel myself emotionally regressing into a strop”

As we warm up I ready myself for the run, however the leader has other plans. Making a circle around her we spend the next forty minutes doing weighted squats, lunges and dips. To say it’s intense would be an understatement.

After yesterday’s boxing my arms can hardly hold my own weight during push ups and I can feel myself getting more and more worked up. As the exercises seemingly go on forever, I go in my head from angry to teary and can feel myself emotionally regressing into a strop. I keep my face down and pray for a miracle.

We finally finish, but before I can pass out, the racing begins. Lining up in four lanes we take turns sprinting against each other before returning to the end of the line. The first time I take my position I feel my cheeks burning at the idea of being so much slower than they rest. The whistle sounds and I run as hard as I can, managing joint last with the guy next to me.

At the end of the two hours everyone collects their stuff and goes separate ways, while I lay whimpering on the field. The pros on the Olympic track must be superhuman – sprinting is not for me.

Day 4

It’s archery day and I’m seriously excited, if a little worried I won’t be able to lift the lightest bow.

Traveling to Archery Fit in Greenwich, I’m imagining green space, brown nets, possibly a shed with targets in it, but when I get there I’m faced with something totally different.

Archery Fit is achingly cool. Bright yellow containers full of bean bags, biscuits and magazines make up the reception space, and there’s a big concrete room out back with targets at one end, sofas at the other and a graffiti garden at the side.

The Archers themselves I imagined to be forty-something men wearing cargo pants, but wrong again. As I look at the bows, Kristina, a tiny, pretty woman with long brown hair and amazingly tattooed arms in a Black Sabbath t-shirt greets me.

“Are you ready to pick your bow?” she asks in a slight Russian accent before leading me into the store room. It’s meticulously organised and looks amazing, with hundreds of bows and arrows laid out.

“All the bows are different, for different power and skill level,” she explains. “We label them through superheroes. You’re new, which means you’re a Captain America, if you keep coming you’ll quickly move onto Dynamo.”

What kind of bow do you use? I ask, looking at the huge array in front of me. “I’m a barebow archer,” she says. “It suits me best and I’m actually doing a Medieval History PhD on the ‘Revival of Archery Practice in the 18th Century Britain”, it really is my life.”

Walking into the room she turns on the speakers, a loud metal band blasts across the room. “It’s got to be done,” she grins.

“Huge bows in their hands, they fire quicker than I have ever seen any actor to do in a film”

I’m rubbish. Although Kristina has the patience of a saint and the kindness to subtly move the target closer when she thinks I’m not looking, I can’t hit squat. An hour and a half later I finally hit the balloon I’ve been aiming for on the target and the session is over.

As I get my stuff I watch the pros practicing through the window. Metal blasting through the speakers, espressos on the table behind them and huge bows in their hands, they fire quicker than I have ever seen any actor to do in a film and get the bullseye nearly every time. Archery might not be for me, but the people who do it are awesome, I’ve definitely found a sport to tune into this year….

Day 5

It’s my final day! While it’s been fun for the last few days, I can’t wait to wake up tomorrow and just stay in bed. But before that I have my last sport – Judo.

If I’m totally honest, I don’t really know what Judo is. I’m aware that it’s part of the martial arts family of sports, but my knowledge ends there. Instead of researching beforehand I decide to turn up blind and see what happens.

Arriving at Budokwai I’m given a Judo suit and pointed to the room upstairs for the class. Putting on my suit, I set down my bags and step into a bright room.

“OUT,” shouts a loud voice from the other end of the room. I see fifteen men in similar Judo suits and one woman with her hair in a tight bun. “NO SHOES, OUT,” she shouts again, coming towards me.

I dart back out the room and kick off my trainers, before timidly sticking my head back round the door.

“I’d kick you out for that normally, but today I’ll let it slide,” says the woman in a cockney accent, shaking my hand. “I’m Jacqui, have you done Judo before?”

“Regardless of her short stature, no taller than 5”2, she commands the respect of more than a dozen big burly men”

Not even a little bit, I say, will I be able to keep up? She smiles, seemingly amused and enjoying my nervousness. “We’ve just finished the warm up, you might have some problems from now on.”

She runs back into the middle of the room and gathers the men around her, I can’t help but smile at how regardless of her short stature, no taller than 5”2, she commands the respect (and clearly terrifies) more than a dozen big burly men.

I quickly realise through the demonstration that Judo is nothing like the Karate class I was expecting, rolling around on the floor, it seems to consist mainly of cuddling your opponent and trying to bend their arms.

As I watch quietly from the side, Jacqui walks over. “Ok, get on all fours, I’ll be your partner.”

Getting on the floor, she put one arm through the underneath of my body, holding the other on my chest and other my shoulder and flips me over.

“You see the move?” she asks, I definitely don’t but with her weight on me and my face against hers I smile and nod. “OK, then you flip me….”

An hour later and I feel like I know Jacqui very closely – and not only from being pushed together on the floor constantly. She’s been practicing Judo for years and has a passion about it that you can’t help but be inspired by.

“The moves are about helping each other so no one gets injured” she says. “Everything that exists out of this building disappears as you walk in, that’s what the white suits represent. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are or who you are, the village brings up the individual. That’s how we work.”

“Tear pieces out of each other on the mat, but don’t injure, help each other grow. Then go buy each other a pint after class.” There’s a lovely simplicity to what she’s saying.

While I don’t think that I’ll enter a Judo hall again myself, I know that I’ll be able to watch it and follow what the bodies on the floor are doing. I definitely will do as well, if only to see the short woman from London shouting on the sidelines….

It’s over! Day six and I wake up achy and relieved. Jacqui said that Judo is like a ‘slow car crash’ on your body and to expect pain. She wasn’t wrong.

Over the last five days I’ve learned five new sports, some of which I’ve loved and some I’m already trying to repress (sprinting, I’m looking at you), but as it turns out, it’s not the sports themselves I’ll remember.

I thought that people who practiced Olympic sports on such a committed level would be spiky and single-focused, but I’ve been invited to a different fun clubhouse everyday. In the last week I’ve discovered so many different London gangs that you’d never usually meet.

From the South London hipsters, joined through their amazing gymnastic abilities, to the inner city boxers, choosing the ring over a lunchtime pint, to Russian superhero- loving, heavy metal archers and the matriarchal Judo club in Kensington.

It’s mind-boggling to think of how many of these little groups exist all over the UK and how they all feed up to the ultimate goal of those Olympic Games medals.

So this year I’m watching all of the sports I tried, not because I now understand the Olympics themselves, but because I know all those people that gave me their time and invited me into their gang are watching and I want to cheer along with them.

Not the sprinting though…. Don’t talk to me about the sprinting.


Read more from the Olympic Issue here  or follow the latest Olympic news here.

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