You may think I am being a bit pedantic after reading this column. But I am going to get into a variety of details that go around managing an athlete’s life and performance at the Olympics. Underestimating the small things is to misunderstand the psychology of sport.
Most world class athletes end up being extremely sensitive people, especially during competition when they are highly wired. Detail is everything. It is the foundation of victory.
Sport already has enough of chance for anything additional to be left to chance. Athletes and teams are almost painfully fastidious in their methods. Tactically they might gamble, but in preparation they are precise.
Travel itinerary requires a lot of thought. The cheapest option is not what determines choice. From departure and arrival timings, which could help reduce jet lag, to the shortest connections are important. A few years ago the German Olympic team had its flight time changed by four hours in an effort to reduce the effects of long distance travel. Did it make any difference? Who knows? Perhaps 0.001%, but it all adds up.
Visas and other arrangements are made weeks in advance to avoid hectic last-minute activity. In India sometimes athletes are rushing to embassies a day before departure when they should have been conserving energy. The competition is probably lost even before you got to the airport.
It’s not luxury, what athletes need is a clean environment. Top teams book hotels close to venues up to a year in advance. Cutting down travel time between hotel and venue has a huge impact on rest and recovery. A few years ago I know of an Indian team which had its hotel far away from the venue and spent three hours every day in the bus travelling.
A good gym is a basic requirement. A lot of teams even opt to stay out of the Village to save on travel time.
At the Beijing Olympics, the Americans spent millions to set up a makeshift high performance centre for their athletes at the Beijing Normal University. At London 2012, the Dutch set up a high performance centre on the roof of the Westfield Shopping Mall close to the Olympic Village.
Nutrition plays a huge role. I know the Italians always travel with their favourite pasta and make arrangements with a local Italian restaurant. The Chinese travel with a chef and carton loads of food. I remember their food supply was once confiscated by Australian customs. The Chinese embassy promptly made arrangements and their makeshift kitchen was up and running at the venue the next day! The Chinese even travel with tents, so that their athletes can rest at the venue between competitions. Not that I am suggesting that Indian food is the healthiest athletic fuel, but we would do well in taking care of our athletes’ palettes.
Supplements (the legal kind) play a key role in some disciplines. It is specific to the individual and training intensity. The Swiss have a lab which profiles each athlete’s blood and then produces customised supplements for the individual. This helps on the road when your meal timings get erratic.
Correct support and administrative staff should travel with athletes. Apart from the best coaches, physiotherapists and psychologists, it is crucial to surround athletes with positive people. Athletes are in an extremely sensitive mood generally due to pressures of competition. They need people around who they can fully trust. Sometimes even an inappropriate word spoken innocently can be enough to ruin an athlete’s psyche. Many athletes often have personal coaches. Top teams make great efforts to accommodate them so that the athletes are best supported.
In India coaches who often travel with teams are not even coaches. We would do well in ensuring a professional group of individuals, tasked with specific jobs, travel with our teams.
Clothing and Olympic kits
Playing well often comes from feeling good. Even, sometimes, from looking good. Teams take huge pride in their Olympic uniforms. Olympic Village life often ends up in conversation about who has the best kits. Giorgio Armani designed Italy’s uniforms and Ralph Lauren for the Americans. Great attention to detail is given while preparing kits. The Dutch Olympic team had more than a 100 items in their kits!
Walking out in shabby uniforms is embarrassing and makes you feel second class. It’s a small psychological thing which has an impact. A lot of effort goes into designing performance clothing. Nanotechnology is now being used which actually manipulates matter at the atomic level to produce the optimum textile. Compression clothing which is popular for endurance sports provides different compression levels to different muscles depending on the need of the athlete.
Top teams prepare years in advance. Chef de missions are appointed close to three years prior to the Games and they coordinate every detail with the host organising committee. Things like getting the most convenient building block allotted to the team, is one of them. Olympic Villages are very large so being close to the dining hall and transport areas just makes it convenient.
Many teams set up national houses in the city where their athletes can go and relax and meet up with family and friends. Life at the Village can often be like living in a pressure cooker and just going out and relaxing in an environment where you know you will not be bothered is welcome.
Such detail is what separate athletes, what helps them find that extra centimetre in a jump, cut off 0.001 of a second in a race and people go to extraordinary lengths to find it. In India we would do well to get the simple and basic things right. I have no doubt that would show in the performance of our athletes.
(India’s only individual Olympic gold medallist writes exclusively for HT every fortnight)