Team GB football preparation: ‘We trialled six pillows and bought every player one with a cooling cover’

Physical performance manager Dawn Scott explains the surprising ways National Lottery players have helped Team GB’s meticulous preparation for success

When guessing how National Lottery funding has helped Team GB’s women’s football players in their quest for glory, personalised cooling pillows, equipment that determines how much sodium players sweat, and dozens of bottles of ginger shots might not be the first things that come to mind.

But these are some of the more surprising examples of how Hege Riise’s squad has been supported. It is in these tiny details, and tailoring preparation and nutrition to individual players, where the all-important marginal gains are achieved, according to Dawn Scott, the FA’s physical performance manager for England Women who is operating in the same role for Team GB this summer.

“When you go into a major tournament, it’s those little bits and being prepared for every single outcome that can make the difference,” she says. “The National Lottery’s support is a game-changer. It has enabled the work the High Performance team have done around the physical and medical preparation, buying extra bits of equipment, shipping out additional nutrition, and more.

“If you add all those things together, when you have to play six matches in 17 days if you do reach the final, it gives you a better chance of success. So it’s amazing to have that support, and we all owe huge thanks to The National Lottery and the players who, through buying tickets, have helped us.”

The South Shields-born sports scientist, who jumped at the chance to be involved with Team GB, knows what it takes to reign supreme. She moved from US Soccer to the English FA shortly after playing a pivotal role in the USA’s World Cup win in 2019, four years after she had a hand in the country’s previous triumph.

Scott has experienced eight major tournaments but considering that this summer Team GB players were gathered from across the Home Nations and met at Loughborough University for two intense, 10-day camps, with just three days in between, before flying out to Japan – plus the fact that the one pre-competition match against Zambia was cancelled because of coronavirus worries – it is fair to say that preparation has not been typical.

It is why she is incredibly grateful for The National Lottery’s support, which helped buy the squad a customised gym – “with brand-new equipment” – in a Covid-secure marquee, replete with “individual plastic greenhouses” at the Loughborough camp. And, away from the weights and machines, an acclimatisation zone was installed at the other end of the marquee. 

With temperatures at the Games expected to reach 35°C and humidity hitting 95%, Scott says the heat chamber was essential for the players. “It was the first thing I asked for,” she grins. “The players had one hour in there a day and, by using a Wattbike, we raised and then maintained their core temperature above 38°C. 

“Again thanks to The National Lottery’s support, we were able to do sweat analysis and use precision hydration. We identified players who were more comfortable in the heat, and could refine their hydration strategies. For example, those who are salty sweaters, with high sodium levels, need more electrolyte drinks, plus a more detailed cooling strategy.”

Coronavirus restrictions have added a sweat-inducing layer of complication for Scott and her team. For instance, where an ice bath might have been sufficient as a cooling strategy, now every player has a “cooling vest” that is kept chilled between practices and matches thanks to “an army of small igloos” – all made possible by The National Lottery. “The logistics and planning are harder than implementing the training,” she jokes.

Cuisine also plays a vital role for the team, and has to cater for the players’ menstrual cycles. “The players need antioxidant, anti-inflammatory foods – oily fish, berries, smoothies – at certain times,” says Scott, who reveals she travelled to Japan with 70 bottles of ginger shots so the players can have their daily doses. 

Disrupted sleep caused by discomfort and inflammation around the joints can impact performance, making “sleep hygiene” important. Hence, the need for blackout blinds, a cool bedroom environment, and National Lottery-funded pillows.

“We trialled six pillows in Loughborough and bought every player one with a cooling cover,” explains Scott. “They have wearables so we can track their sleep and core temperature.”

Team GB’s women’s football has seemingly left no pillow unturned in their pursuit of glory in Japan. Scott is very much focused on taking one game at a time, but admits winning would “equal everything” in her glittering career. Win, lose or draw, National Lottery players will have provided the squad with the best preparation, down to the very smallest detail.

This article, sponsored by Camelot, operators of the National Lottery, was first published on http://www.Telegraph.co.uk in July 2021

Dame Katherine Grainger: ‘We’ve always been blessed with brilliance – but National Lottery players changed everything overnight’

Dame Katherine Grainger, Great Britain’s joint most decorated female Olympian and now Chair of UK Sport, tells the story of seismic change for all athletes over the past 20 years

Hand on heart, it is difficult to put into words how genuinely grateful countless British athletes are for National Lottery support, which began in 1997 – the year I first made the rowing team, coincidentally. It has made such a striking and transformational difference to the country’s sporting fortunes.

I was lucky to be funded by the National Lottery throughout my 20 years as an athlete. But when I joined the team, ahead of Sydney 2000, every other member was either holding down a job or had an overdraft or loan.

If you wanted to be the best in the world back then and even have a chance against the more prominent, well-funded nations, you had to beg, borrow, or steal to train and compete properly. Because there wasn’t access to top facilities, coaching and medical support. It’s unrecognisable to the standard of support we have today, thankfully.

Indeed, on the eve of Sydney, we all felt as though we were in great shape but wouldn’t be doing this were it not for help from the National Lottery, thanks to John Major’s instigation. It was an absolute game-changer.

Britain has always been blessed with brilliant athletes who have a burning desire to succeed. But without a structure and enough support, we were at a disadvantage – until National Lottery support improved everything almost overnight.

What is especially important to athletes, and makes us try even harder, is that the money comes via members of the public who have played the National Lottery. So there is a lovely link – a collaboration between top sportspeople and National Lottery players – and you want to do them proud.

Anyone who buys tickets – as I do – wants to win a life-changing amount of money, primarily, but in a way, even if your numbers don’t come up, you are helping to fulfil someone else’s dream.

It’s incredible to consider how much evolution Team GB’s athletes have undergone in just over two decades, thanks to National Lottery support. It is easy to take it for granted now, with every athlete surrounded by coaches, medical teams, nutritionists and so on, but we have taken tremendous strides.

Amazingly, the women’s rowing team first had a full-time coach in the run-up to Sydney, and before then, there had not been a centralised programme. I recall how teammates would tell me that, before I joined, because there was not a physiotherapist to see, they would be advised to lie down for a fortnight if they suffered a back injury.

However, by the time I was training, if you felt your back going on the river, you would be seen by a physio within 30 minutes and referred to an on-site doctor, if necessary. Suddenly, injuries were manageable and didn’t set athletes back. It was wholly reassuring to know you were in good hands, and that bred confidence when you were training and competing.

The coaching and the central base were part of the obvious initial upgrade. Other elements have been added over the years, building on those early gains. Before Athens 2004, for instance, many institutes of sports were established. And while great investment was first made in the physical preparation of the athletes, now there is also a focus on the mental side.

As Chair of UK Sport, I don’t know what we would do without National Lottery support, which has provided 60 per cent (£204 million) of the £340 million we have allocated for the Tokyo cycle. It has been critical to supporting the athletes and the institutes of sport in these uncertain times; I doubt many of the latter would have survived if not for the National Lottery.

Athletes have been delayed by a year, of course, and the coronavirus restrictions have added another significant cost to training and competition. Thanks again to National Lottery support, though, the Team GB athletes can be assured that they will have had the best preparation, so I’m quietly confident and have high hopes that we will perform well.

If the support suddenly stopped, it would be a massive loss and I fear it would transform sport in Britain, in a hugely debilitating way. So the thought of it continuing, and having the wonderful public support and backing, is fantastic. While it propelled our success in 2012 and 2016, every new wave of athletes is keen to make their mark. I firmly believe there are still so many memorable moments to come, and that’s essentially thanks to National Lottery support.

Dame Katherine Grainger is Great Britain’s joint most decorated female Olympian – the former rower has one gold and four silver medals – and is now Chair of UK Sport, the government agency responsible for investing in Olympic and Paralympic sport. 

This ghostwritten article, sponsored by Camelot, operators of the National Lottery, was first published on http://www.Telegraph.co.uk in July 2021

How The National Lottery has inspired nearly three million women and girls to be more active

Oliver Pickup hears how The National Lottery has helped This Girl Can get almost three million women and girls in the UK more active already, and what’s next for the inspirational campaign

A faceless lady with a proudly untoned, unfiltered body strides towards a swimming pool. Nearing the water, she confidently twangs her bikini bottoms, springing to life Missy Elliot’s hit Get Ur Freak On. A few seconds later – during a montage depicting happy, sweaty, unknown women and girls boxing, running, playing football, among other sports – an on-screen caption reads: “I jiggle; therefore I am.” And so begins the first, iconic This Girl Can video from 2015, when Sport England’s National Lottery-funded, award-winning campaign designed to encourage more females to exercise was established. 

Since launching seven years ago, This Girl Can has persuaded almost three million women and girls in the UK (2.9m at the last count) to get more active, according to campaign lead Kate Dale. None of it would have been possible without the support of The National Lottery. 

“I’m hugely proud of what This Girl Can has achieved, in terms of celebrating active women who are doing their thing no matter how they do it, how they look, or how sweaty they get,” she says. 

“The original vision for This Girl Can was, having identified the gender gap, to help women get active – and not to use the word ‘sport’ in the title, because it carries negative memories from school days for some people. Maybe the shutters came down in their minds because they felt they weren’t good at sport, and didn’t feel invited to an exclusive club.

“We wanted to build something that women could be part of, and they could define what it meant for them. It’s not caring about how they look, how good they are – or aren’t – or understanding that it’s important to fit activity into their days no matter how many other priorities they have in the day. We found women with young children felt guilty spending time away from their little ones, but a) their lives are just as important as their children’s, and b) this activity helps them to be better parents as it makes them role models and recharges their batteries.”

Praising The National Lottery’s ongoing commitment, Dale continues: “I am often approached by women telling me how seeing that advert changed their lives, and it has encouraged them to go running or set up a football team, and so on. And it is all down to The National Lottery funding – it has been critical, especially for long-term planning and infrastructure investment. It has enabled us to make decisions for the next few years and not around shorter funding cycles.”

Dale joined Sport England in January 2004, the same year the Active Lives surveys began. The latest figures, published in April 2021, indicate that 61.5% of women in the UK did at least 150 minutes of exercise a week in November 2019 compared with 65.3% of men on the eve of the coronavirus crisis. 

She says confirmation in 2005 that London would host the Olympic Games in 2012 helped inspire women – and men – to be more active, and The National Lottery-funded campaigns like This Girl Can serve to build on that momentum. Indeed, the increased visibility of female pundits at the recent Euro 2020 serves as an example of how the gender gap has been narrowed in other ways, and it can be traced back to This Girl Can.

“Before the pandemic, the participation numbers for both genders had increased steadily over the last decade and more,” says Dale. “It is so important for people to be active for all sorts of reasons – and you don’t have to be sporty to be active. Team sport isn’t for everyone, and the funding has enabled Sport England to invest right across and understand, support and develop all sorts of physical activities. But our work is far from over.”

Looking at the post-pandemic world, she adds: “As we build back as a society, the role of The National Lottery in helping us recover from the last 18 months is going to be vital. Everyone’s lives have changed, but there is so much to do now to help women and girls get back into physical activity. We have a crucial couple of years coming up, and having The National Lottery’s support and investment is just what we need.”

This article, sponsored by Camelot, operators of the National Lottery, was first published on http://www.Telegraph.co.uk in July 2021

How National Lottery players helped prepare Hege Riise’s football team for Tokyo

GB women’s football team leader David Faulkner explains how funds from The National Lottery paid for acclimatisation equipment to help Team GB cope with Japan’s 35° heat

Team GB women’s football team will make history on Wednesday July 21 by playing its first competitive overseas match, against Chile in Sapporo. The only other occasion a British women’s team has played at the Games was at London 2012, when Hope Powell’s side suffered a 2-0 defeat to Canada at the quarter-final stage. 

David Faulkner, Team Leader of GB women’s football, says that Hege Riise’s squad is primed and feeling optimistic about a medal-winning run. But he stresses that adequate preparation would have been impossible without National Lottery support. 

“Bringing together a GB women’s football team for the first time has been a long time in the making,” says Faulkner from the Yokohama camp. He was awarded an MBE for services to sport in the Queen’s Birthday Honours earlier this year, and says National Lottery support means “the team is in the best place possible to compete against the world’s best as Great Britain, which is in itself unique”.

“The team arrived in Japan with a high level of confidence after completing a demanding schedule at Loughborough University, while evolving the team culture as part of ‘One Team GB’ – much like the British and Irish Lions.”

Before flying to the Japanese capital on July 7, the women underwent a gruelling three-week training camp. With temperatures in Japan expected to reach 35°C and humidity hitting 95%, the team used an acclimatisation chamber at Loughborough University, thanks to Lottery funding.

The chamber is a cross between a sauna and steam room, and the players were forced to exercise daily on Wattbikes with the temperature turned up, replicating the hot and humid environment expected. The physical and mental demands of the acclimatisation sessions should pay off when the competition kicks off, says Faulkner.

“There is no question that without The National Lottery’s support we would not be in a position to have the dedicated accommodation, food, gym, and an acclimation area and training pitch,” Faulkner says. “We cannot thank those that play The National Lottery enough for the funds that have provided the team with the best preparation possible for the Tokyo Games.

“Not only did it provide a high-performance environment for such intense preparation, we were also able to make it Covid-safe with our protocols and testing. We are extremely grateful for the support that has enabled us to set up such a unique performance environment where every additional percentage gained will have such an impact with delivery in Japan.”

On the extra costs required due to coronavirus precautions, the 58-year old continues: “Covid places many more demands on players and staff, such as testing every day in game time, wearing masks and social distancing at all times. However, the funding has ensured there remains a performance focus across the elements of technical, tactical, physical and psychologically.”

Nigel Railton, Chief Executive of The National Lottery operator, acknowledges the role of those who play The National Lottery in helping Team GB’s Olympians and Paralympians this summer. “Every day, National Lottery players make a huge difference to communities across the UK. Their support has a real impact on a sport and in boosting the chances in Tokyo.”

Former hockey full-back Faulkner, who earned 225 international caps, captaining both England and Great Britain, knows what it takes to achieve, having won at Seoul 1988. “To win a medal you must ensure you reach the semi-finals,” he says. 

Following the first Group E match against Chile, Riise’s side takes on hosts Japan on Saturday July 24 and Canada next Tuesday July 27.

“The players and staff are highly motivated, relishing the challenge ahead and ensuring every element of performance that can make a difference to delivery on match day is covered,” says Faulkner. “A podium finish would be a fantastic achievement for this group – but they have the energy, depth and talent to finish at the peak.”

Whatever happens, Faulkner is thankful for The National Lottery funding, which has been supporting Team GB since 1998 – two years after the Atlanta Games when Great Britain won only one big prize.

“Quite simply, the funding has provided the opportunity for more athletes across more sports to be the best they possibly can be at the pinnacle level of sport,” adds Faulkner. “At the same time, the investment has helped develop a performance system that is the envy of other sporting nations, which has resulted in consistent medal-winning performances at every Games since 1996. This, in turn, continues to inspire the next generation of Olympians, which is the true legacy of the funding.”

This article, sponsored by Camelot, first appeared in The Telegraph in July 2021

Sport’s biggest cheats: 10 instances of notorious unsporting behaviour

When 9.79*, a film about the ill-fated men’s 100-metre final at the 1988 Olympics, sprinted into cinemas, Oliver Pickup selected his 10 most dastardly cheats

Ben Johnson 

In August 2013, the British Board of Film Classification certified that the film 9.79* – a 83-minute documentary about the infamous men’s 100-metres final at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, featuring interviews with all eight runners – would be classified as PG, meaning it would require parental guidance, as it “contains mild language and references to performance-enhancing drugs”. 

Ironically, the BBFC added that “this work was passed uncut”, which is more than can be said for the chief protagonist, a Jamaican-born sprinter who moved to Ontario as a teenager, and his colleagues when they took to the starting blocks in South Korea in what would be dubbed “the dirtiest race in history”.

With his yellow, bulging eyes and increasingly bizarre behaviour leading up to the showdown it was – in hindsight – no surprise that the adopted Canadian was wired and, three days after breaking his own world record (reaching a peak speed of 27mph), was disqualified after his urine samples contained stanozolol, an anabolic steroid. Canada were forced to hand back their first-ever gold medal.

But it seems that Johnson was not alone, and Carl Lewis – the 26-year-old’s biggest rival then, and the man named ‘Olympian of the Century’ by Sports Illustrated – was later found to be one of 10 men in the 20-strong list of quickest-ever 100-metre runners to be scratched off through gobbling performance enhancers. Some 25 years ago the outing of Johnson’s betrayal shook the sporting world – it would be the equivalent of Usain Bolt being busted now – and subsequently the event has been tainted with suspicion ever since.

Fred Lorz 

The marathon at the 1904 St Louis Olympic Games was held on a sweltering afternoon – the mercury on thermometers rose to 90 degrees Fahrenheit – and followed a challenging, mountainous course; the combination meant that just 14 of the 32 starters completed the race. 

First back was New Yorker Lorz, who staggered home in three hours and 13 minutes. Having been congratulated by – and photographed with – Alice Roosevelt, the President’s daughter, Lorz was just about to receive the gold medal when it became apparent that he had covered 11 of the 26.2 miles as a car passenger. The crowd’s acclaim immediately turned to anger and abuse, and Lorz was handed a lifetime ban which was later lifted. 

The controversy was not to stop there, however. British-born Thomas Hicks, the American who was subsequently handed the gold medal, was aided by a heady mix of strychnine sulfate (a common rat poison) and brandy – a fusion which would not have been allowed in later years. Even though he was supported by his trainers, who had administered the potion to help him complete the course, when he crossed the finish, he was still considered the victor. Rather ingloriously Hicks needed to be carried off the track, and might have died there in the St Louis stadium, had he not been immediately treated by several doctors.

Andy Haden 

On Nov 11, 1978, the mighty New Zealand All Black rugby team faced Wales at Cardiff Arms Park and, trailing 12-10 with seconds ticking down on what would have been their first defeat of the tour, resorted to dirty tactics. 

The All Blacks won a lineout deep in the opposition half and as the ball was thrown in, lock Haden – hardly the most flimsy character at at 6ft 6in and 250lbs – fell away from the set-piece as though illegally shoved. The conned referee awarded a penalty to the visitors, which full-back Brian McKechnie duly converted (although the dual international would get his comeuppance – see below). 

Although the All Blacks went on to win the game and the grand slam that year, the incident became known as “the great dive to victory”, and followed Haden, winner of 117 international caps, throughout his career. 

Neil Back 

In the closing minutes of the 2002 Heineken Cup final at the Millennium Stadium, Leicester Tigers, up 15-9, were looking to hold on to their slender lead against a powerful Munster team. Facing an opposition scrum on their own five-metre line and under tumultuous pressure, the England back-row forward, on the blindside of the referee, illegally nudged the ball out of Munster scrum-half, Peter Stringer’s hands, and back into the scrum on Leicester’s side. 

The official missed the incident and Leicester gleefully punted the ball clear and won the game, leaving the Irish club fuming. In ironic reference to Diego Maradona’s own misdeeds against England’s football team in 1986 the moment became known as ‘Hand of Back’.

Michel Pollentier 

Forget the recent revelations about Lance Armstrong and his rivals, when it came to cheating in the Tour de France this Belgian rider literally took the piss. After scaling Alpe d’Huez and gaining the famous yellow jersey in the 1978 Tour, the race leader failed his post-stage drug test – not because anything illegal had been found in his urine sample, but because the urine sample wasn’t his. 

Officials organising the post-stage test became suspicious when he “began pumping his elbow in and out as if playing a set of bagpipes”, conjuring up a scene from Withnail and I which remained on the cutting floor. 

When ordered to lift his top, Pollentier did so to uncover a complex plumbing system running from a rubber, urine-filled bulb under his arm to the test tube. 

David Robertson 

In the 1985 qualifying round for the Open at Deal, Kent, the former Scottish boys champion took advantage of golf’s culture of honesty and self-regulation. After 14 holes Robertson’s playing companions called an official who disqualified him for repeatedly replacing his ball incorrectly on the greens. 

By arriving on the green first Robertson would appear to mark his ball before surreptitiously moving it closer to the hole. The shamed golfer was fined £20,000 and banned from the PGA European Tour for 20 years. 

Sylvester Carmouche 

On a very foggy day in January 1990, at Louisiana’s Delta Downs track, Carmouche aroused the suspicions of the stewards by riding home 23-1 outsider Landing Officer by 24 lengths in just a second over the course record. 

It transpired that Carmouche, who initially protested his innocence, had dropped out of the one-mile race as soon as he was out of view, only to rejoin it just before the rest of the field came round on the second lap. He finally admitted what he had done and served a ban for eight years. 

Michelle Smith de Bruin 

She was the darling of Ireland after winning three swimming gold medals at Atlanta 1996 – the only gold medals Ireland had ever been awarded* – and one bronze. Suspicions of foul play were voiced by rivals, however, and the fact that her husband and coach – the former Dutch discus-thrower Erik de Bruin – had served a four-year ban for testing positive for illegal levels of testosterone, only elevated those rumours. 

Two years after the success at Atlanta the swimmer was banned for four years, not for testing positive, but for switching her urine sample. After laboratory analysis the sample, which had “a very strong whiskey odour” was found to contain traces of the golden nectar. 

Although Smith de Bruin was not stripped of her medals – as only samples subsequent to her Olympic involvement tested positive – she became a hate figure among Irish people and, at 28, realised that her time in the pool was over, so now practices law as a barrister.

*Ireland did also win a gold medal at Athens 2004 in show jumping, only for the horse to fail a drugs test, therefore the medal was lost. 

Boris Onischenko 

Representing Ukraine in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the respected pentathlete was looking to improve on the silver medal he had been awarded four years previously in Munich. 

In his desire to win, Onischenko bent the rules by using a crooked sword. Having wired a switch into the handle of his épée he was able him to claim an electronic ‘hit’ even when he missed. When Great Britain’s Adrian Parker and then countryman Jim Fox reported their doubts over the authenticity of Onischenko’s victories, his weapon was replaced, and he was eventually disqualified. Fencing rules were subsequently changed so that grips that could hide wires or switches were banned. 

Trevor Chappell 

The Australian did not cheat as such, but his actions simply weren’t cricket, in gentlemanly terms; his unsporting behaviour caused the rules of the game to change.

On Feb 1, 1981, New Zealand were chasing Australia’s 235 in the third final of the 1980-81 Benson & Hedges World Cup Series. With one over left to bowl New Zealand required 15 runs to seal an unlikely victory. Aussie captain Greg Chappell called his youngest brother, Trevor, on to bowl. 

Off the first five balls nine runs were scored and two wickets fell, leaving the new batsman Brian McKechnie (see above) with one ball to score a six to win the game. Chappell senior ordered his brother to bowl the remaining ball underarm, crown green bowling style. 

Trevor executed his captain and brother’s plan, to the disgust of McKechnie, who threw his bat to the ground after defending the ball, and the dismay of his Australian team-mates. 

Due to the ensuing uproar, which almost caused an international incident, underarm bowling was promptly banned and Chappell has never been forgiven by New Zealand or Australian cricket fans alike.

This article first appeared in The Telegraph in August 2013

Introducing Rufus the hawk: the official bird scarer of the Wimbledon Championships

There was a time when ‘birds stopped play’ was a legitimate reason for downing rackets at Wimbledon. That was before Rufus the hawk, official bird scarer, was drafted in to ensure avian invasions are kept to a minimum.

The sky’s the limit for young players at Wimbledon, where a good performance can see their careers take off. But one star of the show will be flying higher than most at the prestigious venue with a vital job to do: Rufus the Harris Hawk.

Rufus is the tournament’s official bird scarer, tasked with frightening pigeons away from the courts. ‘‘Bird stops play’’ used to be a regular problem at Wimbledon, but since 2000 Avian Environmental Consultants Ltd, based in Northamptonshire, has provided hawks to eliminate the problem.

Rufus, who has been working at Wimbledon since 2007, is a celebrity in the tennis world. He regularly poses for pictures during the tournament, has earned a Blue Peter badge and has more than 9,000 followers on Twitter.

Imogen Davis, his handler (and social media manager) since 2012 and director of Avian Environmental Consultants, says: “Pigeons don’t know the difference between eating grass seed when the tennis is on and when there is no play, and that can cause big interruptions. As a player concentration is crucial, so we do our bit to limit that disruption.

“There is an intensive training process, and it is all food-motivated. Harris hawks are not quite like a pet – they don’t just follow you around because they love you – and are one of the few birds in the world that hunt socially; they associate the handlers with food and consider us part of their pack.

“When a pigeon or another bird spots Rufus it’s all about fight or flight, and when a huge Harris hawk with sizeable talons is flying at them they would be daft to choose the first option. The most important part of my job is to monitor his weight.

“His optimum flying weight is 1lb 6oz, so if he is at that weight I know that he is going to be keen enough to chase any birds away but not so keen that he is going to grab it and fill himself up on a pigeon.”

In preparation for The Championships, Rufus, whose kidnapping in June 2012 triggered global interest (he was found three days after being stolen from the back of Ms Davis’s car), visits the venue most weeks of the year to encourage local birds to roost away from the grounds.

During the competition he is flown from 5am, before the gates open. Ms Davis says that the Wimbledon fortnight is “incredibly tiring” and adds: “I am up from 4am and we are working at The Championships until about 10am every morning. There are some benefits – we get to see some incredible sunrises and meet celebrities, including Andy Murray and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall – but by the time most of the public have entered we have gone, because it’s our job to make sure all the birds are out of the way before the matches start.

“Rufus will not be flying that whole time; he knows all of the pigeons’ favourite spots to hang out, and he checks them to see there is nothing that might cause any trouble. As we bought Rufus when he was 16 weeks he trained at Wimbledon – it’s basically his playground, and he loves it here.”

This article, sponsored by Jaguar, was first published by The Telegraph in July 2017

Colin Jackson: ‘When things open up again, I’ll be in the front row’

Athlete Colin Jackson is desperate to attend live sporting events, hear the roar of the crowd, and also get his skates back on following his star turn on Dancing on Ice

As someone whose life has centred around sport – and athletics in particular – for more than half a century, I am utterly desperate to attend live sporting events again, once lockdown restrictions finally ease.

The pandemic has tested everyone, but has been especially tough on elite sportspeople, who have had to perform in empty stadia, if at all. Perhaps I am biased, given my passion, but I believe athletes have suffered more than most. Top-tier athletics is truly global, and without being able to travel, meaningful competition is pretty much impossible.

That’s why I’m looking forward to heading to Switzerland in September and watching Weltklasse Zürich – as a fan rather than a commentator, crucially. The annual invitation-only world-class track-and-field meeting was established in 1928, and in 2021 it will serve as the sole final of the Diamond League competition. The audience members are always so knowledgeable, and it will be a joy to mingle and learn without work pressures.

It’s hard to put into words the critical role spectators play for top sportspeople, as is also the case with actors, musicians and dancers. If you’re underperforming, a roar from the home crowd has the magical ability to lift your game by an extra percentage point, and gives you the oomph needed to push you across the line. Without a live, in-person audience, I can imagine it just feels like glorified practice.

I want the real deal, the whole package of live, atmospheric sport. I crave the moments of silence – before the starting pistol is fired, for example, or the hushed seconds ahead of a vital penalty kick in rugby union – and the spine-tingling bellows as glory is secured.

Cheering on the Six Nations champions from the sofa

I’ve watched plenty of sport from my sofa throughout lockdown, including tennis, golf, cricket, and – being a proud Welshman – rugby union. I always tune in for the Six Nations, and I was delighted when the unfancied Wales team was crowned champion this spring. I loved that most people wrote the Welsh off, but the players stayed cool and took the title again.

While the Six Nations was on, I performed in Dancing on Ice, and would dash back from training to catch the games, wearing the red of my country – and I’m glad I did. Before the coronavirus crisis, I would never have predicted in a million years that I would learn how to ice skate.

It was one of the most unique and enjoyable experiences of my life, genuinely. Finishing third in the competition was beyond my wildest dreams. I had so much fun, and when the ice rinks open again, I’ll be getting my skates on once more.

I’ve also tried to keep abreast of all the athletics news during lockdown, and tuned into events all over the world. Thanks to technology, I’ve been able to catch most meetings of interest, no matter how small. On one occasion, I contacted some Italian athletes on social media to ask them about an event, and they live-streamed it, basically just for me. I don’t know how we would have coped without the advanced tech we take for granted.

Sport has been forced to innovate – and that’s good for the future

In a way, the situation caused by the pandemic has been good because it has forced all elite sports to reflect on what benefits they provide for spectators. It has sparked innovations – though not always successfully, as the many people who rallied angrily against football’s proposed European Super League can testify.

However, having to think outside the box has been a useful exercise for all sports. For instance, I was proud of athletics when, last July, the Weltklasse Zürich was transformed into the inaugural Inspiration Games: a live, 90-minute virtual competition. Thirty top track-and-field athletes started their races simultaneously, from their tracks all over the world, and fans enjoyed the live event despite the coronavirus restrictions.

Ultimately, every single sport has had to look at reinventing itself, to an extent. It has been essential to sustaining interest in sport as a vehicle for entertainment, and I firmly believe that most sports will come out of the pandemic stronger. One thing is for sure: when things do open up again, I’ll be in the front row, roaring on the action.

This article, sponsored by American Express, was first published by The Telegraph in June 2021

Catalans Dragons supporters warmed by blaze of glory at Wembley

In August 2007, the French rugby league club tackled St Helens in the Challenge Cup final – and although they didn’t win, their loyal fans didn’t mind too much

At midday yesterday, under the gaze of Big Ben in Westminster, a throng festooned with red-and-yellow flags met to begin their pilgrimage to Wembley. Against the backdrop of the Houses of Parliament, these proud supporters of the Catalan Dragons, in their traditional colours of sang et or (blood and gold), were something of an incongruity, but it was hard not to be taken in by their good humour.

Trumpets sounded, Catalan songs were sung and alcohol consumed as they snaked their merry way to North-West London. For them, as the first French team in the final, and with this being the first time in eight years that Wembley has hosted the final, this was a dream – the score would not matter.

“I don’t care if it’s 50-50,” beamed Robert Pelissier, a season-ticket holder at Stade Gilbert Brutus back in Perpignan. Despite the great expense, he flew his family to London for the weekend for the match against St Helens, the current Super League, World Club Cup and Challenge Cup champions.

“We’ve been to Cardiff, and last year Twickenham, but never to Wembley, the temple of league,” Robert’s wife, Magali, covered in the Catalans’ uniform, offered.

In only their second Super League season, the French team had surpassed their wildest expectations by making the final. To the purists, however, wiping ale from their silvered whiskers, a final between the two rugby league super powers – Wigan and St Helens – would have been fitting for the occasion. Wigan’s 37-24 defeat to the Dragons in the semi-final caused many of the former’s fans to hand back their Wembley tickets.

Craig Spence, the RFL’s communications manager, was pleased that the 73,000 tickets allocated to them were all sold, and conceded that demand for final tickets was insatiable. “It has been the most in-demand cup final in recent memory,” he said. The 17,000 Club Wembley seats were one problem, but a marketing campaign, enlightening these supposed mostly football fans on the delights of rugby league in order that they would attend, seemed to have worked, as the crowd reached 84,241.

The estimated 5,000 Catalan supporters, who made the trip, by plane, train and car, were outnumbered five to one by St Helens’ fans. The Dragons laid on coaches and chartered three planes in an attempt to transport as many Catalans across the channel, however, at a cost. A VIP ticket cost €1,000 – “The equivalent of one month’s wages,” suggested Magali – prompting many to seek alternative routes.

As the underdogs, the Dragons gained the support of the neutral. As it was, the final score of 30-8 was fair, but far from the mauling that many expected. The chairman of St Helens, Eamonn McManus, claimed that after their third Challenge Cup victory in four years, St Helens have “to be up there as one of the greatest sides in history”.

In the press box, it was clear how important Les Catalans’ appearance in the Challenge Cup final was to the French. As well as being covered by national channels Canal+, France 2 and Stade 2, and regional stations TV 3, France 3, and Televisió de Catalunya, Australian and New Zealand stations were also in attendance.

Further, the mayor of Perpignan, the regional president and the minister for sport, Roselyne Bachelot, were present. “Having The Catalans in the final was fantastic for the development of rugby league in Europe,” suggested Spence. “We have been able to market the game to a much wider audience.”

The Catalans’ owner Bernard Guasch – a handy scrum-half for XIII Catalan in his prime – was certain his team’s appearance will help develop rugby league in France. “This is the rebirth of rugby league in France,” he said. “Today is a fantastic day for French rugby league. Today we learned a lot and we will come back stronger and better.”

Guasch’s money has afforded the skills of many Australasian backs, with the idea being that these experienced internationals will nurture the French through their teething troubles in the professional era, until such time native youngsters will replace them.

Robert Pelissier summed matters up: “The fact we played the best team in the game, and at Wembley, must be an inspiration and motivation to French youngsters.”

This article was first published in The Observer in August 2007

FT Masterclass: Commando course with Brian Adcock

A former Royal Marine shows how to make it through an obstacle course

I’m waist-deep in thick, malodorous sludge. But right now the pong is the very least of my worries: a 6ft 4in former Royal Marine is bellowing at me from the riverbank.

“Spread out your body so there’s more surface area,” Brian Adcock orders, “then I can haul you in when you’re within range.” This sluggish, squelchy wading towards safety is the result of a failed, and deeply inelegant, attempt at a suspended commando crawl on an obstacle rather menacingly named The Chasm.

After losing balance, I had flipped off a horizontal rope two metres above the swamp-like waters. Following what seems an age, I manage to heave my body — heavier due to the now-sodden combat uniform I’ve been issued with — back on terra firma.

The dreaded sheep dip (Tom Jamieson)

“Well done, good effort,” says Adcock, clapping my back with his spade-like hand. “You can take a chuck up for that.” Seeing my confused expression — even between the streaks of camouflage paint daubed on my face — the 45-year-old explains: “In Royal Marine parlance, that means give yourself a round of applause.”

Even though I am soaked through and stinky, the 6km obstacle course, studded with 15 challenges, is proving fun. Adcock explains that to master the commando crawl, my vertically pointed left leg should be more relaxed, “acting as a keel” while I shuffle along the rope with my hooked right leg pumping, piston-like, in unison with my arms.

Our lesson is taking place in the grounds of Hever Castle in Kent, where Adcock is holding an obstacle course event called Commando Series. It is a picturesque setting — the estate was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn — but with the dreaded Sheep Dip and a 12ft wall still to overcome, this is no time to lose my head.

Obstacle course racing (OCR) is a fast-growing sport. While there are no official figures for the UK, there were 1,370 events in the US last year, with about five million participants — up from 354 events in 2012. The second annual world championships took place in Ohio last month, encompassing eight miles of hellish competition for the most hardy.

Adcock, who is used to organising mass participation events after being event director for the Millennium Youth Games and establishing the popular Castle Triathlon Series in 2009, says the UK can add something unique to the sport. “It may sound a bit arrogant but Royal Marines generally do it better than most. After all, assault courses were — and still are — used to prepare elite soldiers for battle.”

The obstacles are based on those that the original British commandos used at Spean Bridge, a godforsaken place in the Highlands near Fort William, during the second world war. Winston Churchill had seen Boer commandos using guerrilla warfare against British troops when he was a young war correspondent. After Dunkirk, he copied those tactics and mobilised an elite group of soldiers to boost morale by creating little pockets of chaos in occupied Europe.

“Ultimately, from a commando perspective, obstacle courses make sure that your bloke is in good shape when it comes to pulling the trigger, so he can best take aim and kill somebody,” explains Adcock. “That’s the root of OCR. Of course, we are not going around with a weapon and a 30kg pack on our backs but it’s fun and brings out the kid in a lot of people.”

Adcock himself endured 14 months of gruelling training at the Royal Marines’ commando training centre in Lympstone, Devon, in what he calls a “seminal” period of his life. He then served in the marines for seven years, latterly as a helicopter pilot, though he isn’t allowed to divulge any details. For two years he held the record for the notorious Tarzan assault course at Lympstone. (It starts with a death slide, concludes with a rope climb up a 30ft near-vertical wall, and should be completed in “full fighting order” — ie, all the kit.)

As we approach the monkey bars, I eye the horizontal ladder above our heads with trepidation. Adcock barks instructions as I clumsily swing across the bars with more sludge below. “Keep your lower body as still as possible,” he suggests. I obey, and find it quicker to power from pole to pole.

I’m relieved at getting this far, having prevailed over another commando favourite, the Smarty Tubes, by pulling myself along with my thrusting elbows. I’ve survived the Catacombs of Doom, and conquered Peter’s Pool — a 30m-wide clay pit — neck deep in chilly, murky water.

I have slid, slipped and sloshed my way round the course. Occasionally we have come “under fire”, with smoke bombs, explosions and replica gun shots. Ultimately, obstacle courses make sure your bloke is in good shape when it comes to pulling the trigger Nonetheless, I still feel daunted as I face the last two obstacles.

The Sheep Dip is a liquid filled, trough-like structure similar to the ones used to remove sheep’s parasites and contains a two-metre long, submerged drainage pipe. As I tentatively enter the water, Adcock tells me to put my hands, thumbs up, at the top of tunnel I’m about to dive through. That, and not to kick when horizontal in the water so that the commando to my rear can shove me to the other side. I dive on the count of three, whizzing along the narrow pipe. At the other end an instructor yanks me to the surface and orientates me.

The final obstacle is a 12ft wall. “It’s actually 13½ft,” says Adcock looking ahead. “Use the vertical rope, and the netting, leaning your body close to the face.” A 20-second, temple‑bulging clamber later, I’m on top of the wall, and feeling on top of the world. Gleeful yet weary, I can’t help but exhale a loud cheer.

As a reward for completing the route, Adcock hands me a cap comforter, an item worn by those second world war commandos. Not quite a green beret, but still symbolic of my achievement. Grinning, he adds: “You can take a chuck up.”

This article was first published in the Financial Times Weekend in November 2015

Stuart Broad: talking wine and women with England’s ‘Enforcer’

Stuart Broad is blushing a vivid scarlet. For the first time in our lengthy interview England cricket’s chief aggressor is stumped. As the quick bowler is being repositioned for Square Mile’s cover shot, a playful snipe from the slips enquiring about his rumoured assignations with The Saturdays’ singer Mollie King, whose previous boyfriend was British supermodel David Gandy, has rendered him momentarily flustered. A wolfish grin curls on his lips before he regains his cool and replies: “You read the gossip pages, then?”

With his statuesque physique combined with his sky-blue eyes, flaxen hair and charming bonhomie, it’s easy to see why Broad is venerated like a pop star by a legion of female admirers. He is regularly sent postcards from fans telling him about their holidays – “quite interesting, really” – and on Twitter there are two appreciation accounts following his every tweet and turn: @TheBroadettes8 (1,500 followers and counting) and @Broady4evafans. Gamely, he even agreed to meet founder of The Broadettes, a 20-something Canadian named Jay Geeganage, at Lord’s last summer. “She was overcome by nerves,” smiles Broad – you suppose he gets that a lot.

Those who don’t become giddy when talking to the 6ft 6in Broad would find him to be charismatic and urbane, with an epicurean enthusiasm for food, wine, fast cars and luxury timepieces. “I have a weakness for watches,” he reveals. “I buy myself them as treats, when I think I deserve it. I’ve been given a £35,000 gold watch by my sponsors, Jean-Mairet & Gillman, and I bought a Franck Muller when we won the Ashes in 2009, but I’ve always dreamt of having an Audemars.”

After turning 27 last month, Broad is in the prime of his cricketing life, and with Australia visiting this summer England need their paceman running like clockwork and dialling up the pressure on the pitch as they attempt to retain the precious Ashes urn. Earlier in his career he earned the moniker ‘The Enforcer’, thanks to his rough-house bowling tactics, and even now he admits he finds it hard to shy away from confrontation.

“It’s a competitive mindset I’ve always had, even at school,” he says. “As soon as I cross the white line I change. That nickname – ‘The Enforcer’ – was coined by the media, and it was a time when I was thrown the ball to try and rough batsmen up. I like to have that string to my bow. I’d like to think that I’m more of a line and length bowler now, but there will still be occasions when I’m tossed the ball and told: ‘Right, let’s hit this guy on the head for 20 minutes.’  

“I’m not a verbal bowler, but I think you always have to have a presence: stand tall and look the batsman in the eye, let him know you are coming for him. A look can be more dangerous than a word.”

Sometimes Broad’s aggression has boiled over, and twice it has cost him half of his match fee. He claims to be able to control himself now, though, with the guidance of England team psychologist Mark Bawden. “Up to the age of about 24 I had a few disciplinary issues where I got a bit too hot headed,” he continues. “So now I work with Mark on what I call a ‘warrior’ mode. 

“On a graph you have one side where you are not in the battle enough, you are not fired up enough and not bowling well enough. In warrior mode, in the middle, you are perfect. You find the right emotional level and you are in the batsman’s face but in full control. And then there is the other side where your emotions have taken over from logic.”

England supporters will hope that the Nottinghamshire bowler can harness and master his inner warrior against Australia, from the moment the five-Test Ashes series begins on July 10 at his home ground, Trent Bridge. One of sport’s most-celebrated battles, the loosely biennial contest has been fought between England and the Baggy Greens since 1882, and for Broad the Ashes punctuates his life more than most. Indeed, it’s in his blood.

“Six months after I was born my old man went Down Under and won there,” he says proudly. His father, Chris, opened the batting for England in 25 Tests, and that 1986-7 campaign he was at the very pinnacle of his powers. In the five matches he managed 487 runs and was named man of the series. Following that defeat Australia enjoyed an 18-year dominance over England, until 2005. A year later Broad Jr. made his international bow, for the Twenty20 team – which he now captains and with whom he won the World Cup in 2010 – aged just 20.

His Test debut followed in late 2007, but it was a spell of bowling in the 2009 Ashes which catapulted him cricketing stardom. On the second day in the decisive fifth Test at The Oval Broad took five wickets for 37 runs and was later named man of the match, following England’s victory. Looking back at the game which launched his international career he says now: “It’s scary that it’s four years ago. I remember the next morning, walking down the players’ steps, I was asked to sign the front page of a newspaper which had a picture of me on it. I knew then that it was pretty special.”

In August 2010 Broad knocked a century on the hallowed Lord’s wicket – a feat which his father never achieved. “It was a great feeling to score a ton at that special ground, but it was more that I surpassed my dad’s best-ever score for England, 162,” he smiles, remembering his 169 against Pakistan. 

Later that year England travelled Down Under and managed to win their first series there since the heroics of Chris Broad and his teammates 24 years before. For the younger Broad it was deeply disappointing, though, as he was forced to withdraw from the tour following a stomach-muscle tear after only two Tests. 

And that was after he became Peter Siddle’s final hat-trick victim in the opening clash at The Gabba in Brisbane. Recalling the intensity Broad says: “There were 42,000 people and the ground was shaking, bouncing. There was a kind of tribal element to it, as though they were shouting ‘kill, kill, kill’. I showed weakness to be intimated by their attempts to disintegrate me mentally, and it provided a learning curve. I’ve never slumped to that mindset since.”

The agony of flying back to England prematurely, shortly afterwards, was the nadir of his career. “While bowling in Adelaide I felt this inner explosion – I could hardly breathe. I walked off, and lifted my shirt off and there was blood underneath the skin. That was the only time I’ve ever cried in sport,” he admits. “My emotions completely overwhelmed me. Test match losses are pretty painful – five days is a long time to work your arse off any get nothing – but injuries are the lowest point as a sportsman.”

Broad used his recuperation time well, however, teaching himself how to cook. He believes that in a special England cricket team edition of Come Dine With Me he would wow the others. “I’d start with prawn cocktail and salmon sashimi, and accompany it with a lovely glass of Cloudy Bay,” he enthuses, hinting at his oenological leanings. Indeed, he’s partial to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, recommends Meerlust Rubicon from Stellenbosch, and – showing a thoughtful benevolence – sets down a decent bottle on every birthday anniversary of England teammate Matthew Prior’s four-year-old boy Jonathan.

“I’d then serve up a slow-cooked lamb shank with a Pinot noir, followed by a hot chocolate fondant with vanilla ice cream,” he continues, before adding with a twinkle: “and then I’d bring out a selection of teas before smashing it all out of the way and plonking a big bottle of Jägermeister on the table. That would win some votes, I reckon.”

Prior, the team’s wicketkeeper, would certainly not win any culinary awards, according to Broad. “Once I went round to his house and I was waiting 40 minutes before he handed me oven-cooked cheese on toast, as he couldn’t find the switch for the grill,” he recalls. “It tasted horrible, too. But it just goes to show what can happen to men who are away from home for ages and have their food sorted out for them.”

The team can be abroad for up to 10 weeks at a time, so hobbies and interests are important to ward off homesickness and ennui. Some read – captain Alastair Cook “gets through a lot of books” – others play music. For instance, Joe Root (whose team sobriquet is ‘Wireless’, as in router) is a mean ukulele player while Swann used to take his guitar away but once forgot it when England began an unbeaten streak and now leaves it at home out of superstition.

The competitive edge which has elevated Broad and the rest of the England team to international level is always present, as evidenced by the tense atmosphere during poker games and Jonathan Trott’s behaviour on the Xbox. “He is completely ruthless,” says Broad. “He won’t tell you cheat buttons and he takes great pleasure in absolutely destroying opponents. It’s a bit like the way he bats – he won’t give it up for anything. I’ve been in his room winning 2-0 in a football game after 50 minutes and he will turn it off and tell me to get out.”

While abroad, if Broad is ever missing his life in the UK he goes for dinner with his elder sister, Gemma – the team’s performance analyst. “She was in the England set up before me,” he says, “and there are no niggles.” In fact he credits his sibling for helping improving his bowling in the recent series in New Zealand. “I was struggling a little bit with my alinement, so I got Gemma to look up my wickets for the past three years. I had them rolling on my iPad, and I could see my position at the crease changing,” Broad continues. “From there I worked out a technical issue which has helped me bowl better since. I’ve always been a cricket geek – I love the side of analysis and stats.”

When asked what he would be if he were not a cricketer Broad quickly answers: “A Top Gear presenter. Well, I would like to be a Formula One driver – I’m absolutely fascinated by all the analysis, and I’ve been to a few Grands Prix and met Sebastian Vettel through Red Bull (another sponsor) – but I think I’m too tall, and perhaps not as fearless as those guys.” His ideal car? “It’s got to be a 1963 Aston Martin DB5 – like the one seen in Skyfall,” Broad grins, those blue eyes sparkling. 

If England’s enforcer revs up his engine to burn off the Aussies and secure the Ashes urn this summer perhaps he will even treat himself to that dream Audermas watch he has coveted for so long. He certainly won’t be blushing then.

This article first appeared in Square Mile in June 2013

Sand aliens and heel flicks: introducing England’s beach soccer team

NB This article was originally published in The Sabotage Times in September 2013

In mid-September Tahiti will host the Beach Soccer World Cup and, as one might expect, Brazil are the hot favourites. At the last count in 2007, the South American country had 2,097 beaches – easily more than any other nation – and it’s little surprise, then, that they have been crowned the best on the globe a staggering 13 times since they hosted the inaugural tournament in 1995.

Indeed, the first World Cup to be hosted outside Brazil – and away from its birthplace, Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro – was in 2008 when the French hotspot for the sport Marseille enjoyed the responsibility; that was in part down to the charisma of Eric Cantona, in charge of Les Bleus then.

However, the defending champions for this edition in Tahiti – the economic, cultural and political centre of French Polynesia, famed for its black sand beaches – are not the boys in yellow and green, but Russia.

To the uninitiated, that the Eastern European powerhouse are champions of the five-a-side, 36-minute beach format, may be a shock. If you dig a little deeper in the sand, though, you’ll learn of the money the Russians have thrown at developing the sport. There are dozens of indoor beaches, their professional national league is in rude health, the Rubles on offer are astronomical, and that’s down to the status the sport is starting to command.

It’s the second-most popular form of football – behind the 11-a-side grass version, of course – and big business. The stats at the last World Cup, held at the marina in Ravenna, Italy, illustrate its attraction. In the 31 games played 269 goals (most of them outrageous flicks and bicycle kicks) were scored at an average of 8.41 per 36-minute match, and the average crowd was 3,730; for Russia’s 12-8 victory over Brazil there were 5,500 in attendance. With the game on the rise it’s easy to understand how the world’s best players can earn upwards of £200,000 a season.

Brazilian André, who netted Six goals in the final in Italy and won the golden boot with 14, is one of the most highly rated stars at the moment, and countryman Venícius Ribeiro Mariane Fambre, a defender better known as Buru, is another star.

The game’s fading genius is João Victor Saraiva, aka Madjer. The Angola-born Portuguese turned 36 in January, won the golden boot at the 2005, 2006 and 2008 World Cups and can name his price to take to the sand. He has almost the perfect physique for a beach soccer star – balletic, tall and streamlined with strong legs and feet that can run and turn in the sand with ease. (Wayne Rooney, I’m informed, would not make a good player on the beach.)

Then there’s Ramiro Figueiras Amarelle, a Spanish forward who plays for FC Barcelona – yes, Lionel Messi and friends have an affiliated beach soccer side – who regularly wins the most-valuable player gongs, while 23-year-old El Salvador attacker Frank Velasquez is the coming man.

“Those guys are like sand aliens,” says John Hawkins, who almost single-handedly established the England beach soccer side a dozen years ago. “They float across the beach. They don’t stop running for 36 minutes, they are so acrobatic and they can use both feet. You just look at them and it’s a goal. They have training camps, play all the year round across the globe, getting better and better … and we have postmen, painters and Black Cab drivers.”

beach soccer  3

Earlier this year, with the Tahiti World Cup approaching, I was keen to find out whether the English had a chance of qualifying – I was rather taken by the idea of covering the Three Lions on an exotic, volcanic island with a population of less than 200,000. And if Russia could win the sport’s greatest prize England had every chance, right?

The initial signs were not good. The national team’s website was very basic, and it took some scratching around to track down Hawkins, who was in charge from the early noughties and stepped away in December, after 12 years of dedicated service.

It quickly became apparent that England had no chance of advancing to the finals. As it transpired they were trounced at a qualifying tournament in Moscow in July last year and only four teams, the semi-finalists – Spain, Russia, Ukraine and the Netherlands – moved on. Disappointment that the Three Lions are currently way behind a raft of other nations in Europe, never mind on the global stage, quickly transformed to an odd pride, however, as I unearthed a much more heart-warming story; a Don Quixote of modern times, if you will.

Hawkins, now 42, returned to his beloved Isle of Wight in 2000 after he had endured a spell in London, and bought Small Hope Beach in Shanklin. The young entrepreneur, a keen footballer and decent cricketer in his youthful pomp, had a background in events and marketing and set about promoting his new acquisition. He soon organised a beach soccer tournament “as a bit of fun and a way of launching the beach”. It was an instant hit. That small-time competition kick-started the English beach soccer revolution.

“The uptake was incredible, it was really quite shocking,” remembers Hawkins. Sports marketing company Octagon, who at that time had the rights to the sport in England, soon approached him in the hope he would do the leg work for them. He agreed and soon took over all of the responsibility.

“It just steam rolled,” he smiles. “It went from me and a friend, Joe Redstone, building a set of wooden goals out of timber, painting them yellow – to make them look professional – and Superglueing them together, to being asked by Octagon, less than a year later, whether I wanted to take over the England team.”

His ebullient personality propelled the interest in beach soccer but, after taking charge and then becoming manager in 2005, he found it an increasingly pricey hobby. “For about four or five years we were the only people actively promoting beach soccer in England and we approached the Football Association and tried to make the sport credible,” he says. “They took a while to agree to us wearing the Three Lions badge and the FA logo but wouldn’t back us financially. It was a lot of fun, but it was becoming very expensive.”

The lack of funding was in part down to the FA’s promotion of Futsal, a technical, indoor five-a-side game which uses a smaller football and, most importantly perhaps, unaffected by inclement conditions. Reading between the lines there was also reluctance because the powers that be deemed beach soccer as FIFA’s play thing, and with relations icy at best with the game’s leading authority, the FA were always cool on the idea.

That the FA’s purse strings were drawn taut did not curb Hawkins’ enthusiasm initially, although last summer’s qualifying proved a fatal disappointment. In the first qualifying game England were narrowly defeated by Azerbaijan – and that contest served to highlight the main issues facing the England side.

beach soccer 1

“You tell people walking along the street that England were knocked out by Azerbaijan and they just mock you,” continues Hawkins. “What they don’t understand is that the Azerbaijan beach soccer team is basically the national football team. They are all fully professional players, and all they do is play beach soccer, they have everything funded. They were on a £10,000 win bonus each to beat us – that was more money than we had generated that year to fund our season – and we lost 4-3.

“Our players then were juggling playing beach football around their jobs and families and with next to no money. We would have to put together £8,000 or so to fly the team off to an event, and it has been really, really tough. We usually punch well above our weight, but as we normally don’t win then it’s not newsworthy, and it does not resonate.”

In spite of that England have produced a number of decent players in the last decade, including current manager Terry Bowes. Until his early 20s he was mates with Ashley Cole and a promising left-midfielder on Arsenal’s books. Now, aside from managing the national team, he is a London Black Cab driver.

Then there is GC Giancovich, a former spear fisherman and a chef, who became England’s first-ever professional player in 2008 when he signed for Serie A side Cervia. And Mitch Day, who plies his trade in the tough Swiss league for Grasshopper Club Zurich, is another star performer, while postman Jamie O’Rourke has to ask Royal Mail for special permission to play for England and Isle of Wight painter Matt Evans is the new great hope.

There are signs of improvement in the infrastructure, too. Regions have now been chalked up and footballers across the land have access to beach soccer, at least in theory. Hawkins has moved on, but did so with a final, selfless flourish: he won the right to design and build five of the six Olympic legacy beaches for London 2012, and had the sport he has devoted so much time, effort and money to in mind, naturally.

His successor, David Jones, has been involved in the England set up since 2007 and he is determined to develop the game. “It’s a great small-sided version of football that should be being played by far more people in England,” he says. “I want to help to change that.

“John had a massive hill to climb when he first took over. He’s achieved an awful lot in his time and most people won’t appreciate just how difficult it has been. I plan to move the sport forward, especially into urban areas. We need more players, more teams and move activated regions.”

Another goal for Jones is promotion to Europe’s Group A, which comprises of the top eight nations. England, currently one rung below, will host an annual National Championship event, says Jones, in the hope of increasing the talent pool.

He even believes that the FA can be won round, and their cheque books opened – “I’m sure their interest in the sport will increase once more people are playing the game” – and has targeted a second World Cup final appearance (after the third-placed finish in the eight-nation inaugural tournament, before the professional era).

“It is much harder for a European nation to qualify as we only have four places and Russia, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Switzerland will always be strong contenders,” Jones adds. “Ukraine and Belarus are emerging fast and then you have Poland and Romania. However, if Holland can qualify, as they have done for Tahiti, then with some improvement there is no reason why England can’t.”

While I’ll not be in Tahiti when the World Cup kicks off in September, to watch Russia defend their World Cup or the Brazilian sand aliens, with a favourable wind England, with a bit of luck and a lot of investment, may soon be at beach soccer’s top table once more.

This article was originally published in The Sabotage Times in September 2013

I raced in the Brompton World Championships and survived!

After a brief lesson in how to unfold a Brompton bicycle, Oliver Pickup negotiates the crashes and carnage of the 2015 Brompton World Championships alongside pro racers such as David Millar

Wearing a tartan bow tie, a ruffled tuxedo shirt, a charcoal suit jacket, Superman socks and knee-length rusty shorts, I’m poised for action on The Mall with a clear road to Buckingham Palace.

My competition stands alongside me in similarly natty attire. There is a ninja, Napoleon, a wig-wearing high-court judge, and hundreds of other folk in mirth-inducing costumes, including a couple of brides (one female, the other a rather alarmingly craggy-faced, hairy-legged male). Harris Tweed is everywhere – which is not ideal, considering the fire-up-the-barbecue conditions.I see a rider hit the road with a thump, remaining motionless as others take emergency evasive action.Oliver Pickup

Oh, and in addition, way ahead of me in ‘Wave A’ (I’m in ‘D’), there is a raft of athletes with serious peddle power, such as Tour de France stalwart David Millar, who only retired last year. They are also bedecked, cap-à-pie, in fancy dress (after all, there is a no-Lycra rule and celebrity stylist William Gilchrist has been asked to select and reward the most sartorially impressive).

We 500 or so, pricked with nervous tension, are ready to take part in the Brompton World Championship. It’s a big one: the tenth, fittingly held in the 40th year since Andrew Ritchie, a Cambridge University-educated engineer, invented the prototype of the iconic folding bicycle.

And in this edition, for the first time, the wacky race makes up part of Prudential RideLondon, with elite women riders charging along the same route, a 2.15km circuit which loops around St James’s Park, shortly after the conclusion of our event.

Indeed, this is the quintessence of Britain at its incongruous, batty and bonkers best. That fact, in turn, seems to attract others; I spoke with Germans, Australians, Spaniards and Japanese who had come over in hordes especially to indulge in this Brompton bizarreness – and that was only within my helmet-swinging distance.

The start of the 17.2km race is marked by the dropped Union flag. We dash, elbows out, to our folded bikes; a start-line scene reminiscent of historic Le Mans races. After scuttling across to our vehicles, we have to unfold the contraptions, which is not easy, especially if you have not afforded yourself much time to practice. Ahem.

My pre-race practice had not gone to schedule. After jumping at the opportunity to participate in my first (and possibly last) world championship of any kind, courtesy of RideLondon sponsors Prudential, I’d been furnished with kit by Brompton, Le Col and Hoy Vulpine. Feeling content with my ‘progress’, I’d then done almost precisely zero physical preparation, instead relying on the briefest of morning practices with my bike to see me through (I got my ‘unfold time’ down from 30 seconds to 15 – still some way off the unofficial world record of 5.2 secs).

Oliver Pickup races down The Mall in the 2015 Brompton World Championships
Oliver Pickup races down The Mall in the 2015 Brompton World Championships CREDIT: Photo: Prudential / Jonathan Ord

So, before heading out on to the track, I decide to seek guidance and tips from veterans.

Michael Hutchinson, winner of the World Championship in 2011, 2012 and 2013 tells me his average time to unfold the bike is “seven or eight seconds” and acknowledges that in a race which only lasts around 25 minutes, those marginal gains are even more important.

He should know, having come second to three-time Vuelta a España winner Roberto Heras when he first attempted the race, back in 2010. On that occasion, despite going “50mph on a downhill bit – pretty interesting on a Brompton”, he missed out by half a second. Afterwards, he even took out the lining in his green jacket, which he has worn for every one of these races, so as to become quicker (and less sweaty).

Last year, Belfast-born Hutchinson missed the Brompton World Championship because he was competing in the Commonwealth Games – he finished 12th in the individual time trial in Glasgow; not bad for a 40-year-old.

I ask what attracted him to the Brompton World Championship in the first place. “It’s hilarious,” he grins. “Have you seen it? I don’t even approach it as a serious bike race. I’m lucky enough to be a decent rider so I can get towards the sharp end. But it is really just a laugh. They are great wee bikes and it is great fun to get out and race them. It’s really just for the hell of it.”

And tips? “They are pretty simple to ride, the Bromptons. You can get fairly low, and aerodynamic on them. Today it will be staying out of trouble because there will be a lot of people on the circuit. Keeping your wits about you, not crashing in to anyone else and trying to avoid anyone coming in to you will be quite a lot of the mission.”

How apposite Hutchinson’s words of warning prove to be.

Having clicked and screwed my bike in place and wheeled away along the straight towards Her Majesty’s palace, I weave through the packed field, taking a left down Spur Road before a second straight, Birdcage Walk. Another left takes me around Horse Guards Road and one more brings the finish line back on The Mall – where the cheering crowds are five-rows deep – in view.

One lap down, seven more to go – although that’s not quite correct, as it’s a criterium event which means when the winner wins the race is over for everyone else, after their lap, thankfully.

The second time I swing on to Birdcage Walk I hear a shout from behind, something about the leaders. And sure enough a swarm – a topical word, but appropriate in this sense, given the menacing whirr of peddles – of riders, with noses to their handlebars and bums above their shoulders (I realise at this point my seat is far too low, but don’t want to stop to alter it lest I add vital seconds to my time) boom past, like a thunder clap, with Hutchinson’s green jacket flashing by.

It’s awesome, and frightening, and belittling. And it spooks an Italian rider 100 metres in front of me. I see her look behind her right shoulder at the advancing group, and lose control of her bike. It jackknives and she hits the road with a thump, remaining motionless as the riders take emergency evasive action. Not all come through unscathed.

Fun it may be, but at Hutchinson’s “sharp end” it is certainly competitive. I watch the peloton fly away – they lap me once more, on my fourth time around – and marvel at their efforts, as I pick off more modest targets.

Photo:Prudential / Jonathan Ord

After 30 minutes and 14 seconds, and six laps – two behind the winners – the chequered flag is waved for me, and it’s all over. My bum and thighs sting, my back is sweaty and my suit jacket sticky and damp. Later I discover my finishing position: 290th, out of 332, in the male category, and over a minute ahead of Brompton inventor Ritchie (aged 69). Let me write that again: I am the 290th best Brompton rider in the world, officially. Well, this year, at least.

I feel a great sense of pride and achievement, even buying a poster to commemorate the event. And it’s washed down by a complementary G&T. How bloody lovely.

Afterwards, I wander over to Hutchinson to see how he fared. “Out of the last corner I was where I wanted to be, I just didn’t have the legs for the sprint,” the Northern Irishman, who ended 12th in the standings, tells me, ruefully. “It was a big-bunch gallop, and I’ve never really been a sprinter.

“It was always going to come down to a sprint on this circuit. I attacked a couple of times but I am always going to be a marked rider in this race, so they chased me down.”

Millar, it seems, failed to burst out of the blocks quick enough; he ended 62nd. The winner was 2014 champion Mark Emsley, from Team ASL360, who successfully defended his title by a wheel-length, ahead of Yavor Mitev, of Brompton’s own Factory Racing Team, and Eduardo Gomes. The top 17 finished within four seconds of the victor.

Next year, with actual practice, cutting out the lining of my jacket and a sub-10 unfold, I reckon I can crack the top 150. Or perhaps I should just be happy with my tremendously fun experience; for certain, the Brompton World Championship is a one-off.

This article first appeared in The Telegraph in August 2015

The transformative impact 5G will have on the sport sector

Most sports business leaders say the changes brought about by fifth-generation technology will be key to future success on the field and off it

More than three-quarters of leading business decision-makers in the sport sector believe that the fifth generation of cellular network technology (5G) will be key to future success, according to new research published by telecommunications giant Vodafone.

Compared with 4G, 5G promises faster response times (latency), superior reliability and resilience, and download speeds that are up to 10 times quicker.

And the research, released in early October to coincide with the opening of the Vodafone Business Lounge at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry – home of Wasps’ rugby and netball clubs – is compelling.

Seventy-six per cent confirmed their sports organisation will use 5G as a platform for innovation with four out of five respondents (80 per cent) saying they are confident 5G will underpin the way they run their organisations in the near future.

However, while the research shows that while 78 per cent believe the sports sector drives incredible innovation, 70 per cent think it lags behind other industry sectors in adopting new technology – and Anne Sheehan, director of Vodafone Business UK, says this is where 5G can dramatically alter the sporting landscape.

“Sport is an area where 5G technology will have a huge impact,” she says. “This technology is a game-changer for business, the economy and the UK as a whole. It has the potential to transform the fan experience, change the way sports organisations operate, open up new revenue opportunities and help athletes improve their fitness and training programmes.”

Kevin Hasley, head of product at RootMetrics, a performance benchmarking firm, said 5G will boost the capabilities of elite athletes, whether through more rapid data-driven decisions, or improved virtual and augmented-reality applications, and even better injury prevention and rehabilitation. “Professional teams are already tracking their players,” he says.  “But greater 5G data speeds will enhance performance tracking even more.”

Notably, the Vodafone research shows that 75 per cent of respondents think that player performance will only improve if 5G is applied effectively to tracking.

“For team-based sports, where digital communications channels exist throughout an event such as a Formula One race, 5G could be the difference between first and second,” Mr Hasley adds. “Whether you’re a racing driver, jockey, sailor or golfer, 5G will enable athletes to train virtually under more realistic settings, meaning professionals can continue to refine their skills despite the bad weather that may have previously prevented them from training outside.

“The greater data speeds and increased connectivity that 5G brings with existing VR equipment will allow zero-latency training and uninterrupted practice which mimics the conditions of a course or track.”

Mak Sharma, a professor in computer science at Birmingham City University, agrees that the teams, athletes and coaches that embrace 5G will accelerate their chances of success.

“It will be possible to ‘wire up’ athletes with multiple tiny sensors that will transmit physiological body signs, micro-movements of joints, limbs, and so on, as well as acceleration, speed and altitude,” he says.

“These can be modelled in real-time using artificial intelligence (AI) and deep-learning techniques to inform coaches to help provide nuanced changes to provide competitive edge. This is only possible by an ultrafast streaming data connection that 5G can provide.”

Prof Sharma points to the current Rugby World Cup in Japan where, he says, the top countries are using 5G. “With the data that can be exchanged simultaneously with players on the field of play and the back-office fitness team, it is possible to have a virtual and even a holographic representation of the last tackle or scrum. This enables coaches and medics can walk round the images, so that that near-real-time decisions can be used to inform players on how to approach the next play.”

But how will 5G, which was switched on in seven cities across the UK by Vodafone in early July, ‘underpin’ the way in which sports organisations operate?

“We’re seeing more sports teams and rights-holders shifting to become entertainment companies, first and foremost,” says Mark Lloyd, Planner at Dark Horses, a sports-focused marketing agency. “As consumption of video content rises in line with 5G adoption, this will only intensify. Teams and rights-holders will be able to seek more innovative ways to capture and distribute content to their fans.”

Alan Stewart-Brown, vice-president of EMEA at global computer network technology company Opengear, says: “Sports venues have an interest in making their venues more ‘sticky’ – meaning that fans stay longer at the venue and therefore spend more money – and I predict 5G-enabled stadia will be rolled out more widely over the next two years.”

Another sporting revolution is brewing – and 5G is at the heart of it.

This article was first published in The Telegraph in November 2019

Scott Fardy: when the tsunami hit, I remember saying, ‘Rugby people stay and help’

Scott Fardy is remembered for his heroics for Australia at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but less well known is the unstinting care he showed for the devastated population of Kamaishi in the wake of the horrific 2011 earthquake in Japan

At 2.46pm on March 11, 2011, Scott Fardy was participating in pre-season training for his Japanese club Kamaishi Seawaves when the world’s fourth most powerful earthquake, since records began in 1900, struck the nearby coast. Lasting six minutes, it measured 9.0-9.1 on the moment magnitude scale and the impact triggered tsunami waves reaching over 40 metres to decimate larges swathes of civilisation in eastern Japan, in a trice.

The most recent official statistics confirmed that the Great East Japan Earthquake – as it has been named – caused 15,896 deaths across 20 prefectures. Kamaishi was one of the hardest-hit cities, with the tally of fatalities exceeding 1,250 – almost 5 per cent of the local population – and three schools were inundated.Rugby people don’t turn their back when things are tough

The Australian embassy contacted Fardy and offered him a flight back to his homeland, but there was no way he was flying away from the danger zone – it is not in his caring character. “‘We can’t just leave now,’ I remember saying,” he tells the Telegraph and Dove Men+Care. “It’s part of the ethos of rugby: it’s a team effort, and rugby people are like that; they don’t turn their back when things are tough.”

Fardy, the 6ft 6in Leinster forward, will be recalled fondly in sporting history as one of the brightest stars of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. He shone as a tirelessly heroic backrower, helping Australia power to the Twickenham final, where they were ultimately bettered 34-17 by New Zealand.

In the 61st minute the Sydney-born blindside flanker was replaced, with the game finely balanced at 21-10, having given his all to the cause. Such a tournament of selflessness and bravery would have been of no surprise to anyone who witnessed his reaction when faced with that very different challenge in Japan four years earlier.

Fardy – then 26 – and his team-mates, still wearing Seawaves training kit, sped to the frontline of the disaster area, where the dead and displaced were being accounted for and the infrastructure lay in ruins, and “tried to help out where we could”. Displaying great maturity for his age, he led from the front, unloading essential supplies from trucks, and earned the highest respect from his colleagues and the wider Kamaishi community.

Former New Zealand international Pita Alatini, a centre at the club, recalls Fardy’s outstanding contribution in the face of such colossal crisis. “His compassionate side was huge, in terms of how he was just able to make sure he provided for others rather than himself,” he says. “A really caring and soft side came out [of Fardy] at that time.”It will be incredibly special and something the locals will always remember

Understandably, the experience hit the Fardy hard. “It wasn’t about making a personal sacrifice,” he says. “At the time I had a decision to make – whether to help or not – and it was an easy one. I just got on with it. The disaster has taught me about the fragility of life, and how lucky I am. I saw people’s whole livelihoods gone in an instant, families were torn apart.”

Amazingly, despite the disaster and upheaval, the Seawaves played a full part in the Japanese league that season. “Trying to get back to normal as quick as people could was important, and the team playing maybe signified that,” says Fardy, who moved to the Brumbies in Australia the following season and earned his first Wallabies cap a year later. “The team became a symbol of recovery. It was emotional.”

Emotions will be running high for Fardy when, next autumn, at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the rebuilt Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium hosts two tournament games. It will be “incredibly special” and something the locals “will always remember”, the 34-year-old suggests.

The new-look 16,187-capacity venue has been built on the grounds of a school that was flattened by the tsunami. “It has a story behind it,” adds Fardy, once again showing a caring side perhaps not normally associated with top international flankers. “Not many sporting grounds around the world have that. It creates a soul, and they will be emotional games … for so many people.”

This article was first published in The Telegraph in September 2018

Dave Buckler’s story: ‘I’m chief medical officer for the Everest Marathon’

David Buckler’s job to ensure that every participant gets to realise their dream — and lives to tell the tale

For those of an adventurous disposition, tackling the Everest Marathon is the ultimate challenge. And, as chief medical officer, it’s my job to ensure that every participant gets to realise their dream — and lives to tell the tale. 

The biennial race, which has raised more than £600,000 for Nepalese charities since it began in 1987, is recognised by Guinness World Records as the highest marathon in the world. The starting point is Gorak Shep, a frozen, sand-covered lake bed in Nepal, at an altitude of 17,010ft. At that height the views are sublime. However, the rarefied air provides just 50 per cent of the oxygen available at sea level. Those who fail to adapt properly will be in serious trouble, and could perish on the mountain if untreated. 

My five-strong medical team and I — all volunteers, though subsidised by the race organisers — have a duty to make sure the 80 or so runners are sufficiently acclimatised and in good health at the start line. The course undulates but it is mostly downhill. We end at the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar, at 11,300ft, so if you are feeling all right at Gorak Shep, you will probably reach the finish line. 

David Buckler: ‘I’m proud to say no one has died on my watch’ (James Cannon)

I’m proud to say no one has died on my watch, and in the past two events everyone who signed up — and paid the £3,000 entry fee — managed to finish. There have been a few scary moments, though, and in the past we have needed to airlift sick people down the mountain.

My preparation for the race starts about a year out. I gather together a medical team who are compatible with one another, and who can survive without creature comforts for four weeks. Together, we carry the medical supplies required for every eventuality, so that 100 people will be safe for a month away from civilisation. There is no budget for drugs, so we have to beg, borrow and steal to get them.

Three weeks before the race, the group flies to Kathmandu. Then we take a tiny plane to Lukla, one of the world’s most dangerous airports, and the site of many air tragedies. It is carved out of the mountain and has a landing strip of just a few hundred metres. Next follows a two-day trek to Namche Bazaar, the starting point for nearly every Everest expedition in the past 50 years. Gradually we increase altitude, and spend four or five days trekking up to 18,000ft — so as to be fully acclimatised — before dropping down to rest. We then hike to a different valley for the actual run.

Related article Rise of the runners Running in the clouds: a new ultra-marathon in the Alps It’s vital to “stress” bodies — that is, to introduce them to an environment where there is significantly less oxygen, so they naturally make the necessary changes. The body concentrates the blood, squeezing more of it from the bone marrow. This also makes you pee a lot.

The secret to acclimatising is to move up the mountain slowly enough that the body adapts. The two main potential problems are swelling of the brain (cerebral oedema) and fluid in the lungs (pulmonary oedema). The tell-tale signs of these include shortness of breath, an unwillingness to do anything and headaches. 

We employ a buddy system, so you can dob in your tent mate if they are looking peaky and might be too macho to flag up their discomfort. It takes 10 hours for altitude sickness to reach its maximum, and it’s not ideal to treat someone at 3am, when it’s pitch black and -10C.

As a rule of thumb, the Everest Marathon takes twice as long to complete as a road marathon. Because I sweep up the stragglers, I usually register a time of 10 hours or more, and complete the race in darkness, guided only by a head torch and instinct. I’m particularly looking forward to the race next November, because my wife Jennie is taking part for the first time. Completing the world’s highest marathon alongside her will make it an extra special experience; the pinnacle, you might say.

This article was first published in The Financial Times Weekend Magazine in December 2016

John McAvoy’s story: ‘I broke world rowing records while in jail’

I was 26 years old and serving a life sentence for conspiracy to commit armed robbery, with a minimum of five years. It was my second stint in prison and initially I was totally remorseless — even open to breaking out.

But that all changed when I learnt that my best mate from childhood had died in a high-speed police chase in Holland, where he’d been robbing banks. His death hit me like a ton of bricks. I recall looking up in my cell, realising I had spent my late teens and most of my twenties in jail. What had I ever achieved in my life, what did I have to show for it? Nothing. I’d only caused suffering and anguish for my mum. My outlook was completely altered from that precise moment. The problem was I had at least four years left to serve.

To spend less time rotting away in my cell, I used to go to the gym, and soon discovered that I had a gift for rowing. Perhaps because I was so focused on rebuilding my life, I found I was progressing much quicker than other inmates. My talent was spotted by Darren Davis, a PE instructor at the prison I was in — HMP Lowdham Grange in Nottinghamshire. Without my asking, he researched world records for indoor rowing, and I was confident that I could better them.

John McAvoy took up rowing after the death of a good friend changed his perspective (Charlie Bibby)

The training regime was very unstructured at the start. It was a case of simply sitting on the rowing machine and rowing lots of metres, and my body just adapted. Training got harder once I read some fitness books in the library. I hardly ate the prison food as it was like slop and tasted disgusting, so I lived off porridge, tuna and nuts, which I bought at the prison canteen.

In the end, I set three indoor world records (which have since been broken), and seven British records, from within the confines of that poky jail gym. My mum has all the various trophies on her mantelpiece. The first world best was a 24-hour rowing record that I set in 2009. I registered more than 163 miles on the rowing machine.

Darren was an incredible help and showed amazing faith in me. It was only down to him that I was afforded special dispensation to be out of my cell for so long for my 24-hour record attempt. Usually the guards would be reluctant to let you leave your cell at night even if you were dying, thinking you were up to something. But Darren agreed to come in and supervise me through the night on his day off. He ended up staying with me for the full 24 hours.

When I returned to my cell, physically shattered but a world-record holder, it was like something out of a movie. As I walked up I was applauded by most of the inmates. The respect I so craved as a criminal was being earned instead as a sportsman.

I was originally attracted to crime by those around me. My uncle Micky was involved in the infamous Brink’s-Mat heist in the 1980s.

I obtained my first firearm, a shotgun, at the age of 16. I had the links and I’d earned respect. But I was in HM Prison Belmarsh at 18 — in a special segregation unit because I was deemed too dangerous for a young offenders’ institution.

I’ve not seen or even spoken to my old friends and family with criminal ties since I chose to go straight. When I was finally released from prison two years ago, I moved to Putney to be near London Rowing Club. Serco, the company that runs HMP Lowdham Grange, still supports me with sponsorship. I regret not having had the opportunity to try out rowing, and lots of other things, when I was younger but I hope my experiences can influence others in a similar situation.

At over 30, I’m too old to develop into a world-class rower but I’ve now turned my attention to Ironman endurance racing, and am competing in the European championships next July, with the dream of ultimately becoming a professional sportsman.

This article was first published in The Financial Times Weekend Magazine in January 2016

Why England rugby star Jack Nowell cares so much about the RNLI

The England wing explains that because the RNLI has braved the high seas to come to the rescue of generations of fishermen in his family, he feels compelled to give something back

Jack Nowell is lionised for his bravery and determination on the rugby field, yet his on-pitch courage pales in comparison to that shown by the many of his family members and childhood friends who put themselves in danger at sea on a daily basis.

The England winger, 25, was born and raised in Newlyn, a small seaside town in south-west Cornwall, and the Nowell family has been a central part of the caring, tight-knit fishing community for centuries. “We have always been fishermen, generation after generation, for as long as can be traced back,” he says. “I’m actually the first one to have not followed that career path.”The tiny Penlee Lifeboat Station has always been a big part of my life

Nowell recalls that when he was a child, his father Mike would be forced to spend week-long stints out on the water to earn his living and care for the family. “He and his brother – my uncle – would come back with lobster, monkfish, sole, crab, and other fish, and that would be our food for the next week,” he continues. “I probably overdid the fish eating when I was younger. Now I tend to choose a burger over lobster if I’m at a fancy restaurant.”

A video, taken on Mike’s phone, made a big impression on Jack as a youngster. “Waves were coming over the front of his boat and the whole vessel was being swallowed up,” he says. “It was scary but Dad had to do that. He showed great mental toughness to go out in all conditions to provide for us. I could never compare that to what I do on the rugby field.

Jack’s admiration for his father’s job is as deep as the gratitude he has for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), whose members have rescued Mike on numerous occasions – most recently in November when, in the early hours, his trawler’s motor failed 23 miles out to sea.

“I’ve worked with the RNLI for a couple of years now and I am delighted to support the charity because I feel like I’m giving back something for all the care they have provided to my family and friends in Newlyn,” Jack says en route to his home town to shoot a film, showcasing this special relationship, for the Telegraph and Dove+ Men Care. “It is special for me to support things where I come from and the tiny Penlee Lifeboat Station has always been a big part of my life. When I was offered the chance to get involved with them I bit their hand off.

“Our house is just up from the station and I remember as kids me and my brothers would watch crew running across the bridge and the RNLI boat rushing off into the sea. It was exciting to see and we would wonder what was happening, whether it was really serious, or not.

“I was brought up on the water and made well aware of the dangers. I know all the RNLI guys because everyone knows everyone here in Newlyn, and they chuck themselves in the water to save people, putting their own lives at risk.”

Indeed, RNLI Penlee Lifeboat Station is synonymous with bravery and its crews have been garlanded with close to 50 awards for gallantry in a history stretching back to 1803. There have been tragedies, though, with the worst happening one December night in 1981, a dozen years before Nowell was born, when all eight RNLI crew perished in an attempted rescue.

“That happened a couple of miles from our house,” Nowell says. “The weather was awful and unfortunately they lost their lives, but every single RNLI crew member is aware that could happen – and they are still willing to go out and do it.”

To show his appreciation for the RNLI’s selfless and risky work, Nowell has fronted a number of awareness campaigns. Last year he produced a traditional English Pale Ale, with the help of the nearby St Austell Brewery. Five pence from the sale of every pint of Cousin Jack during the 2017 RBS Six Nations Championship, in which Nowell featured in and England won, went to the RNLI. More than 100,000 pints were bought. “I think most of them were poured in Newlyn,” he jokes.

Jack’s relatives have displayed their thanks to the RNLI for their care too. In April his mother, Louisa, and her sister raised more than £5,000 by running the London marathon. Bravery, it seems, runs in the Nowell family. This England star has the strength and desire to support the RNLI, whose care has kept his father and Newlyn fishing community safe for more than two centuries.

This article was first published in The Telegraph in May 2018

What it’s like to play against champion poker stars

As the 2014 World Series of Poker begins, amateur poker player Oliver Pickup takes top tips from Jake Cody before pitting his wits against the pros

The World Series of Poker, held annually in Las Vegas, is the mecca for professional players – and those who have enough money and confidence to give it a shot at the big time. Legends are created and dreams destroyed as millions of dollars exchange hands during 10 unbelievably debauched weeks in Sin City. Forget The Hangover, this is the real thing.

The 45th edition begins this week. Jake Cody, a baseball-cap wearing 25-year-old multi-millionaire from Rochdale, will be in attendance, along with his two-month-old daughter Arianna and partner Alex. Vegas holds many great memories for Cody – and some he would rather forget.

Four years ago, Cody became only the third (and youngest, aged 22) person to complete poker’s holy grail: the ‘triple crown’. In January 2010 he won a European Poker Tour event in Normandy (€857,000, merci), before taking £273,783 in the main event of the World Poker Tour event in London that August. Then in Vegas he won his first WSOP Bracelet, and $851,192, to round off his remarkable trinity. It’s little wonder that he wears a sparkling, five-figure Hublot wristwatch.

“Yeah, it’s probably a little too flashy,” he concedes with a winsome grin when I point it out, as we enjoy a game of Heads-Up – playing for pride only, thankfully – ahead of a UK and Ireland Poker Tour event in Nottingham (at the suitably named casino Dusk Till Dawn) earlier in May. “It was one of the first things I bought when I won my first major.”

As we are dealt another hand each, Cody admits that he struggled to keep up with the hedonism on his first trip to Vegas in 2010. “Me and four guy friends – all professional poker players – shared a house for the 10 weeks, though I had to leave midway through as it was an actual nightmare,” he recalls.

I playfully suggest champagne, dwarfs and girls in the Jacuzzi. Cody’s eyes widen. “It really was not far away from that,” he admits. “It was our first year in Vegas, so there were a lot of distractions. There was a lot of partying and basically no one cleaned the house. Cockroaches started appearing but it was when I saw a rat in the pool I moved out. I needed to get out of there.”

Cody, now sponsored by PokerStars, serves a fascinating example of what can be achieved in the game, and also provides a frank and breezy assessment of its evolution. He folded his studies aged 17 when he realised he had a talent and had made £55,000 (tax free, of course) by the end of his first year. It was at that point when his mother stopped insisting he do low-level jobs to make ends meet.

“I was always into games and very competitive. I guess I have quite an addictive personality and when I got into poker I got obsessed with trying to be good,” he continues. “I would play day and night, waking up and logging on. There was a period when I would play for 16 hours straight. It was probably not great for other aspects of my life, but looking back now that dedication and practice has helped me no end.

“For the older generation, poker is viewed as something that happens in a smokey back room with dangerous people; a game in which you could lose your house. In reality it is really mainstream and well regulated. Anyone can play and there is no discrimination. In fact, it’s the only sport in the world in which you can play at the top tables against the world’s best, if you have the money. It’s not as if you can tee off with Tiger Woods, for instance.”

Good point, I suggest, as I steal a few chips off Cody with a successful bluff. Stories of occassional fist fights still do the rounds, as do tales of hotel rooms being broken into and booty swiped, though Cody insists all that seldom happens. Instead, poker is increasingly urbane and popular. When Victoria Coren Mitchell became the first ever two-time winner of the European Poker in April it gained the game even more exposure.

Like so many others, Cody fed his early poker curiosity online. “I’ve played an online game for about 24 hours,” he says. “I know some people who have played for three days straight – I’m not sure how you function after that, though.” Online poker has boomed in the last decade; according to Christiansen Capital Advisors, worldwide revenue from online poker grew from $82.7 million in 2001 to $2.4 billion in 2005.

“A lot of it is down to Chris Moneymaker,” suggests Cody. He’s referring to the aptly named 39-year-old former accountant from Atlanta who became an overnight star after winning the 2003 World Series of Poker main event – claiming the gold bracelet and prize money of $2,500,000 – a victory which is said to have revolutionised the game, as he was the first person to be crowned the best on the planet after qualifying through an online poker site’s $86 satellite.

Moneymaker single-handedly proved to fellow online poker players that there was no restriction to becoming the world champion. “Everyone was like: ‘Wow, I can do this.’ It exploded after that,” says my opponent. The avalanche of interest in the game that followed is what’s known as the ‘Moneymaker Effect’.

Consequently, that collective confidence has bred a species of more savvy poker players – online and at live tables – making it harder for people to catch an edge. Ironically enough, Moneymaker arrived the day after my conversation with Cody in Nottingham and crashed out of the tournament at the first hurdle, highlighting the point that to reach the final stages of these events Lady Luck needs to be cozy on your lap.

Cody, who starts to pay more attention after I win my fourth hand in a row, recalls how his fortunes flipped for the good en route to his first major final in Deauville in what proved to be a career-defining moment. “It was the first EPT I played,” he says with his eyes firmly locked on the three-card flop presented in our game. “It was a €5,000 buy in and it was huge for me. I’d been doing really well all tournament and I made it to the last 15 and things were getting tense. The payouts were starting to become the size of houses.

“There was a French player called Hugo Lamaire, and we had been warring all day. I made a huge bluff on him with a 10-4 off suit before the cards came out and he had a pair of kings and called. And I somehow made a straight, became the chip leader and went on to win it. If I had lost that hand I would have been out, and who knows what would have happened. It was a life-changing hand for me, for sure.”

As Cody begins to win chips back from me, I ask him for some advice that I can put into practice later on that evening, when playing for real with 125 others looking to be parachuted into the main UKIPT event in Nottingham towards the back end of the week.

“You have to be one step ahead of your opponents,” he starts. “If they are playing lots of hands and going crazy you should be doing the opposite, playing your hands selectively. And if everyone is playing really timidly then you can start raising and you will be able to steal a lot of hands. You have to go in to it open minded and adjust to your opponents.

“People who have less experience will act terribly. If they have a horrible decision they will let our a huge sigh. Sometimes you will give things away subconsciously. It’s like in films you might see someone scratch their nose, or it might be the nervous way they put their chips in.

“The more you break it down, the more layers there are to it. The more you play poker, the more you realise how complex it is.”

By now Cody has managed to claw back all of his own chips, and also a number of mine. I tell him that my own fears are of being overawed by superior players, and meekly limping in and out of hands.

“You want to be aggressive when you are entering the pot,” he says. “I won’t call too much, because it means the blinds get to see the flop for free if you check. And you want to make people pay. I would play quite selectively, but come in raising. Play tight and aggressive and give yourself a chance of winning the pot. The worst thing you can do is not be confident. Don’t worry about feeling stupid, just go with your gut. You have to trust your instincts. Go for it.”

The pep talk emboldens me, and with a rush of blood I go ‘all in’, shoving my chips across the blue baize towards the dealer, having struck two pair on the river. “It’s suddenly got serious,” says Cody, flashing an assassin’s smile. He produces a pair of aces, matching the two already overturned. “What a great hand: quads! That is pretty sick. That’s how you win, make quads!”

I feel sick, embarrassed and sucker-punch winded. It’s a feeling anyone who has played poker will be familiar with: the adrenaline-pumping excitement of calling ‘all in’, the thoughts of conquering and glory, which are then brutally swept away to leave you raw. It’s then your humiliating duty to stumble, while stunned, away from the table. “Hitting the rail,” the jargon has it.

On this occasion I’ve lost no money, only a little pride. I shake hands after our eye-opening and educating hour, and wish the affable Cody all the best for his tournament. From here on, we’re rivals. I have four hours to plot my strategy before the tournament begins.

From boom to bust in Dusk Till Dawn

In the taxi from my central Nottingham hotel to Dusk Till Dawn – an out-of-city casino hosting May’s UK and Ireland Poker Tour event with a record-breaking price pool of £1,223,000 – I rapidly remind myself of the order of winning hands, scrolling Wikipedia on my phone.

Wikipedia being what it is, I’m soon distracted by other information. Conventional wisdom, I learn, posits that poker is likely to have originated from a French game called poque and, in turn, that name may have descended from the German pochen – literally “to knock”, meaning to brag as a bluff. I ponder whether there might be scope for a George Gershwin gag at the table later (“I Loves you Poque …”). Maybe not.

Night has fallen and the casino has taken on a slightly sinister complexion, akin to the 1996 cult vampire-film staring a gun-wielding George Clooney, from which it surely takes its name. Outside From Dusk Till Dawn, there’s not a free space to be spied for vehicles. Mean-coloured cars with blacked-out windows dominate. My pulse begins to quicken as I spot a gold Porsche, and then a black Lamborghini that boasts the rather pugnacious numberplate PI0KER. I silently muse whether it might be missing the letter N in the middle.

Inside, the casino is a whirr of activity. Hundreds of people are crowded around dozens of blue-baize tables. The sounds of clinking glasses and card chatter fills the air.

Snapping out of a temporary paralysis, I make my way to my tournament place – only to find that someone is already plonked on seat number four, my allocated stool. Not the suave entrance I was hoping for. I apologise, as the game is already underway, and settle in to seat seven. The dealer hands me a cluster of chips of varying values. All in, they amount to 5,000 (the initial buy in is £50).

Taking a moment to calm myself, I eye my fellow eight competitors. All blokes, most unshaven, and some already nursing imposing stacks of chips. I try to remind myself of the knowledge and advice Cody had imparted on me earlier that day: “The worst thing you can do is not be confident … You want to be aggressive when you are entering the pot.”

Steeled, I call ‘all in’ on my third go. I have jack-king off suit, which is much better than the ‘computer hand’ (queen-seven off suit, representing the average winning set; in theory your chances of success diminish with less potent combinations). My sudden guilt of foolhardiness at the risk of going out so soon are assuaged when I conclude with a full house – three kings over jacks. I double up my chips and breathe a little easier. On the outside I’m cool; inside a flame is lit.

Next I am dealt a pair of sixes and, in a delightful twist, after hitting ‘quads’ – four sixes – I knock out the chap who is sitting in my rightful chair, number four. Delightful revenge. Only he’s not knocked out, because he reaches inside his deep pockets and shovels another £50 to the dealer for more chips. He’s buying back in – the cheat! As someone with no intention of purchasing more chips I’m suddenly filled with dread. It’s going to be a long night.

Indeed, by the time we reach the first break – two hours later – I’m pretty much the only person at the table who hasn’t bought back in, and rather proud of that fact. Cody’s words of wisdom have served me well, and as I keep making ignorant mistakes (like re-raising my bets in an ungentlemanly fashion, and missing my blinds) few view me as a serious threat; rather, a clueless chancer who has been lucky to be leading the table with 25,000 chips. Some have already thrown hundreds of pounds at the dealer, hoping to catch the cards that will take them to the latter stages of the tournament. They need their fix.

During the interval, I speak to my fellow competitors about their poker lives. A common theme begins to emerge: these people depend on poker, for competition, for comradeship, for vaguely attainable glory, if the cards are kind. It’s a heady prospect, and as with all things intoxicating, it can be addictive. Here, and on the other fifty or more tables, the players are settling in for the evening. All things being well, they won’t depart until the fag end, around 4am.

With a train to catch at 7am and little genuine chance of reaching the final 20 (which is rewarded with a place at the main UKIPT event later in the week), I begin to play recklessly. For an hour it works wonders, forcing everyone else at the table to buy back in. Then, as the clock ticks to midnight I call ‘all in’ with a pair of eights, heart thumping. I lose to triple aces. The sense of competitive failure is overwhelming. “Rush of blood,” says Alan, a cheery medical consultant to my right.

Extinguished, chastened and shaking, I resist the huge urge to buy back in, hop down from my stool, and awkwardly make my way past the throng of whispering watchers surrounding the table. No longer warmed by the jocular badinage of the poker table, I now feel cold and lonely.

Outside, I notice that the gold Porsche and PI0KER are unmoved. I wait for my taxi, and think about the long train ride home.

All of poker’s world had been on show at the Dusk Till Dawn theatre: its late nights, its characters, its esculating sums of money, its fix. In the face of such a circus of addiction, moderation is key. You can’t win a top event without selfishly sacrificing everyone and everything else, I theorize pompously later that morning as I sit on the train back to London, before dozing off to dream about driving a gold Porsche to a Gershwin score.

The next day I drop Alan a line to see how he had progressed. Neither he nor the rest of our group had made it to the final 20. Out of the 1,223 who entered – including most of the top professional poker players, such as Victoria Coren Mitchell and my mentor Jake Cody – the winner of the whole competition, trousering £202,372, was a 50-year-old bricklayer from Corby.

While the top 183 earned a payout (with Cody just finishing inside that number, and gaining £1,770, tax free) Duncan McLellan, after six days of poker, blew away the final table, scorching to victory in the fastest UKIPT finish so far in three hours and 49 minutes.

In his victory speech he perfectly and beautifully disproved my neat theory. “I want to go out to Vegas and play the main event,” he starts with a grin, “but I’ll be back on the scaffold tomorrow.”

This article was first published in The Telegraph in May 2014

Sevens’ Olympic moment: Rio de Janeiro ready for the Games

Like almost every Brazilian, André Luiz Nascimento Muniz da Silva’s greatest childhood ambition was to become a professional footballer. This August, he will run out for his nation in Rio de Janeiro with an oval ball in his hand, as rugby sevens makes its bow at the Olympics.

‘Boy’, as the 28 year old is known on the sevens circuit, grew up in “humble” conditions in São Paulo, and used to blag free bus rides to football trials, ducking the barrier and winking at the conductor. He showed promise as a speedy right winger – at 15 he could run the 100 metres in just over 11 seconds – yet failed to convince any of the top clubs in Brazil’s most populous city to take a punt on him. Aged 16, he accepted that his football dream was over. Boy was disconsolate.

When he first tried out rugby union at São Paulo Athletic Club, he expected it to be American football. His pace opened doors, and his talent for sevens was spotted in 2011, and he soon became a regular on the wing for Brazil. Now, on the biggest stage of all – in the land where the round ball is king, to boot – Boy and his rugby sevens teammates will be transformed from sporting minnows to stars, albeit fleetingly.

It could be their breakout opportunity, and the sport’s. Sevens has often operated in the shadow of rugby union, which has transitioned into a professional game over the past two decades, emerging as a commercial force, albeit only in a cluster of playing nations. The Olympics, however, means a potential TV audience of hundreds of millions and rugby sevens will be the first team gold up for grabs.

He still works five days a week at a bureau de change in São Paulo to supplement his meagre income from rugby.

“Not even when I wanted to be a footballer did I imagine I would have a chance to play at the Olympics,” da Silva tells Raconteur. “It’s hard to understand even now; it seems like such a big deal. I can’t get my head around it.”

He still works five days a week at a bureau de change in São Paulo to supplement his meagre income from rugby. The Brazilian sevens players effectively operate as semi-professionals, and many have juggled jobs to survive.

With funding from the Confederação Brasileira de Rugby tight – and just 16,000 registered rugby players countrywide – it is little surprise that they will have to overcome a yawning chasm in quality, compared with the other 11 competing sides, to reach the Olympic medal podium. It promises to be a modern-day Cool Runnings, set to samba.

A long road

In May, the Brazilians played in London in the final leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. At a squad lunch in a hotel adjoining Chelsea Football Club’s Stanford Bridge stadium, the team ate underneath a photo of Chelsea’s Brazilians: Oscar, who earns a reported £90,000 per week, and Willian, on £85,000.

By contrast, Juliano Fiori, a tough-tackling forward for Brazil’s sevens team, is burning through his own personal cash reserves to play at the Games. The 31-year-old forward, who has a masters degree in international relations from Cambridge University, moved from London – where he was raised – to Rio in March, in order to focus on his Olympic quest.

“I’m living off my savings; my rugby salary doesn’t even cover the rent,” Fiori, currently taking a sabbatical as head of humanitarian affairs at the charity Save the Children UK, says, looking up from his plate of pasta with a rueful grin. “But I am hugely proud to represent my country and focus on the Olympics. That opportunity is priceless.”

Tanque
“We will do our best to win games, but we also know there is a responsibility to use this moment to spread rugby,” says Tanque

The enormity of Brazil’s task was laid bare in London. The side lost all five of their matches over the weekend, bookended by heavy defeats to New Zealand (31-0) and Kenya (38-5). In all, the Brazilians featured in three of the ten-stop HSBC Sevens Series tournaments this term; their end-of-season record reads: played 15 games; lost 15.

“Over the last few years there has been a lot of progress made in terms of the technical side of the game, the skills of individual players, and also the understanding of the game, but there is a lot more for us to do,” da Silva concedes. “In the past there used to be a tendency to panic when a team put us under pressure and now we can deal with those situations better. In Rio…”

The team’s captain, Lucas Rodrigues Duque, cuts in across the table, gesticulating with a knife.

“Nobody owns the Olympic medals,” says the 32 year old, a qualified doctor whose sobriquet ‘Tanque’ (Tank) belies his now-toned physique. “It’s a clean slate. However, we are realistic about what our role is at the Olympics, and where our profile sits with this group of teams. Our objective is not to simply focus on medals, though. We will do our best to win games, but we also know there is a responsibility to use this moment to spread rugby and to make sure that young people in Brazil understand that this sport provides another opportunity; it’s not just all about the round ball.”

Sevens’ moment?

Just how big can sevens become? Legends of the full-squad game have been queuing up in recent months to predict that the abridged version, elevated by the Olympic platform, is poised to become a global phenomenon sooner, rather than later.

The former Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll, the most-capped international in the northern hemisphere, even says that sevens could overtake the game in which he made his name within a decade.

“I see no reason why, in ten years’ time, sevens can’t be on a par with the fifteens game, or even supersede it,” O’Driscoll says. “If you can inspire nations to take up sevens and create excitement around the brand of rugby, as we’ve seen in the HSBC Sevens Series, I think the game can grow exponentially after the Olympics.”

There is certainly new money in the game. HSBC signed up to sponsor the Sevens Series in 2010, a year after the International Olympic Committee decreed that the sport would feature at Rio 2016. With that investment, sevens is reaching and gaining traction in areas of the globe in which its elder sibling has little presence.

Sevens is blissfully easy to grasp, thrilling to watch, and requires little concentration.

The traditional format is restrictive, with complex and constantly evolving rules that even international players sometimes struggle to comprehend. As such, it can seem arcane to the uninitiated. Furthermore, the top tier seems impregnable to those below. Out of the last eight world cups, New Zealand have won three, South Africa and Australia two apiece and England one.

It can also be a fairly slow game — in May’s European Cup final between England’s Saracens and the French club Racing Metro, neither side scored a try.

Sevens, by comparison, is blissfully easy to grasp, thrilling to watch, and requires little concentration. With seven players on a wide pitch, and seven-minute halves, it is a fast and open game. Reigning Sevens Series champions and Olympic favourites Fiji scored 213 tries in their 48 matches.

In many ways, sevens is the perfect 21st-century sport; each 14-minute match generating endless snippets of action, perfect for sharing on social media.

 Jason Robinson of England on his way to scoring a try during the England Legends against Australia Legends match at Twickenham Stoop on (Photo by Tom Shaw - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)
Jason Robinson of England on his way to scoring a try during the England Legends against Australia Legends match at Twickenham Stoop on (Photo by Tom Shaw – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Former England star and World Cup winner Jason Robinson predicts that with a fusion of simplicity and entertainment sevens will hit the sweet spot at the Games. “No one really knows what will happen, but I’m convinced that the players will deliver and the world will take rugby to heart,” he says. “That’s because it such a simple game; the viewers won’t need to know about resetting scrums, and so on.

“I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to watch live sport to get me off my seat. In XVs you might rise once each half if someone makes a ten-metre break. In sevens you are guaranteed that excitement, because it’s end-to-end sprinting action and there is so much space in which the players can express themselves.”

Sevens is increasingly competitive, too. In the 2015/16 season, six different teams won the ten events (USA, Kenya, Samoa and Scotland have all won competitions in the last 14 months). The series has also expanded its range, with tournaments taking place in Singapore, Vancouver, Las Vegas, Dubai, and Hong Kong, the sport’s spiritual home.

Last term was the most popular campaign to date, according to World Rugby’s figures, with 715,000 fans attending the events. Further, the action was broadcast to more than 100 territories for the first time, and the 61 million video views, on YouTube and other social media channels, represented a 250 per cent audience increase across all platforms.

“Now more than ever, there are massive opportunities for sevens to reach new fans in new ways,” says Alex Trickett, Twitter UK’s head of sport. “We’re already seeing players, teams and fans interacting around the Sevens Series on a regular basis on Twitter, and can’t wait to see how this live, public conversation develops post-Rio, because there are many creative possibilities.”

Little surprise there are whispers of further expansion to the Sevens Series, to take in another event in America – where sevens is the fastest-growing sport – and one in East Africa.

Marketing gold

Predictably, comparisons have been drawn between sevens and Twenty20, which has breathed new life – and money – into cricket. However, the shortened, more colourful version has significantly impacted upon Test cricket, whose audience numbers are further dwindling.

“Twenty20 was a complete marketing concoction to stop cricket dying,”  suggests Andrew Curry, director at consumer trends specialists Futures Company. “Sevens is not that for rugby, and has been around for 130 years. It’s an existing product.

“Twenty20 completely transformed the economics of sport – though a lot of that has come off the back of India’s involvement – and showed that you can create a lot of profile from a standalone tournament.

“Sevens can become its own thing, but there are limitations. Right now there is a pitifully small number of professional players. To build the base you need the emergence of equivalent national leagues. For it to really work we need to see that second layer of the pyramid being built, but fundamentally the festival model the Sevens Series uses is hard to sustain logistically.”

Jonathan Hill, global commercial director and head of Europe, Middle East and Africa at ESP Properties, says of the sport’s potential: “Rugby is a top-five sport on a global basis, and if World Rugby get the sevens right and continue to grow it carefully, it will be very persuasive from a commercial perspective. It may well be sevens which drives rugby into other markets, so that more countries take up the sport – many people within the industry believe that.

“Sevens is a great format for all age groups, and – crucially – both sexes, and lends itself to younger people, whether playing or watching. It’s a racier model of rugby, and the brands who sponsor the sport may reflect that. The opportunity is a good one for a range of categories and brands.”

The players, however, are not in it for the brand appeal. The Brazil team, now back at their training base in São José dos Campos, in an old Ericsson factory next to a busy highway on the outskirts of São Paulo, are hoping that they, too, can break into rugby’s top order by causing an upset in Rio.

Tickets for the men’s sevens are selling out fast, but the team knows that with the country’s economy in turmoil, funding could quickly dry up and the game could wither. With that in mind, they plan to make the most of their few hours in the spotlight.

“I’m not really sure what will happen,” Juliano Fiori says. “The economic situation is not great in Brazil, as you know, so all sports – not just sevens – are not sure what will happen. The tap could turn off the day after Rio. For now we are focused solely on doing our best at the Olympics.”

This article was first published in Raconteur in July 2016

Milla’s time: A profile of Cameroonian legend Roger Milla

Perhaps no image sums up Italia 90 as much as that of an impish, grinning, gap-toothed, pencil-moustachioed 38-year-old Cameroonian, dancing his jig at the corner flag. “Not quite a samba but an erotic dance in front of the flag, finishing with the hand down by the groin, just to show the virile way that the defence had been pierced,” suggested the novelist Eugène Ebode.

The heart-warming tale of Roger Milla, whose four goals propelled the unlikely Indomitable Lions to the quarter-final is as absurd as it is brilliant. Playing out the twilight of his career in a semi-professional league on an Indian Ocean island, Milla was brought back into the international fold by his country’s leader and lit up the imagination of countless football fans and young Africans. On the strength of only three hours of football in that tournament Milla was named African Player of the Year for 1990, 14 years after he first won the accolade, and, in 2006, he went on to be crowned the African player of the last century.

Albert Roger Mooh Miller was born on 20 May 1952, in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé, to a football-mad father who earned a modest wage working for the national railway network. Milla, like every other Cameroonian boy at the time, idolised the 1960s national hero Mbappe ‘Marshall’ Leppe, captain of Oryx Douala who had won the first African Champions Cup in 1965, and based his game on the wiry, skilful and strong striker. The young Milla, more interested in football than schoolwork, also collected newspaper cuttings of Pelé and taped them to his bedroom wall. He was six when Pelé shone in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, becoming the tournament’s youngest goalscorer at 17 years and 239 days). 36 years later, at USA 94, the Cameroonian would score against Russia to become the World Cup’s oldest scorer, aged 42 years and 39 days.

“When I was young, I loved playing football — it was the only thing I did,” Milla told me, the familiar grin causing his thin lips to curl. “Although we were poor, I was playing football purely as a passion and with a child’s eye — it meant that I was not as aware of any poverty around me. Football allowed me to lose myself; it was my everything. I never played football for the money, I simply loved being on the pitch.

“I remember when I was at school, my PE teacher used to take me to games on his motorbike. At the end of the game, he would be waiting for me to jump on his bike and he would take me to another match. I could play five games in a day with no problem.

“One day I forgot to do my homework, and in those days that meant a flogging from my teacher. I was scared and instead of going to school I hid somewhere in town. I was sad because we had an important match that day and not being at school meant I was going to miss it. My PE teacher sent my friends to look for me and promised that I was not going to be punished for not doing my homework and bunking off school. When I arrived at the pitch, everyone was chanting my name. I saved the match and we won. I was treated like a hero and that felt great!”

It was a feeling that Milla would become accustomed to. Moving from the countryside — where he fired at birds with his catapult and kicked oranges around with his friends — to Cameroon’s largest city, Douala, the 11-year-old Milla soon became renowned for his mesmeric dribbling. Turning out for local sides he earned pocket-money and signed his first playing license aged 13, on the instruction of a school teacher. “I didn’t go in to football to make money, but to do something that I thoroughly enjoyed doing, and it seemed so natural,” Milla insisted.

He was light on his feet, but also gifted with strong, powerful thighs. Indeed, he was the Cameroon schools’ high-jump champion at 17, two years after he had made his second-division debut for L’Eclair de Douala. Milla soon moved on to Léopard de Douala, where he netted 89 goals in 117 appearances between 1971 and 1974.

The German coach Peter Schnittger, in charge of Cameroon in the early 1970s, remembered how the Léopard’s starlet grabbed the attention of Africa. “He was very young still, and thin, not an ounce of fat on him,” he told Ian Hawkey in Feet of the Chameleon. “His legs were like chopsticks. He weighed maybe 60 kilos, but he was so fast. He had a great belief in himself even then.”

Playing a Champions Cup match against Hafia in the Guinean capital Conakry, in front of a number of heads of state including Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Milla starred. “At half-time, Hafia were 2-0 up,” continued Schnittger, “and in the second half we scored four. When Milla scored his first goal, he just exploded into life. He was like a gazelle, bounding around. He scored a hat-trick in the end. The next day, the team went on an official visit to the Guinean leader, SékouTouré and all his guests from the summit. Touré made a speech, saying ‘This was not just a victory for Cameroon, not the Léopards, it was a triumph for all the youth of Africa.’ People were just bowled over by Milla.”

Milla’s successes in Africa were achieved chiefly with Tonnerre Yaoundé, the team he moved to in 1974 from Léopard. Hescored 69 times in only 87 games and in 1976 he was named African Player of the Year. The award caused European sides to take note and the 25 year old moved to the French club Valenciennes the following year. He would go on to play in France for 13 years, turning out for AS Monaco, Bastia, Saint-Étienne and finally Montpellier.

“To have Milla in your team was to have a diamond,” said Claude Le Roy, who coached Cameroon in the late 1980s. “You could spend a week in training with him and he would not make a single technical mistake. Then he spent a long time in France and if you look at the clubs they may not always have been the very top clubs there, but they usually won something, a trophy or promotion: because they had Milla in the team.

“In terms of pure quality, Roger Milla really belongs among the greater players. If he had been playing in his era for Brazil, that fact would be properly recognised. This is a man who had an international career for 20 years. He is a force of nature. You could sometimes see that he was not a rational force. He often just could not understand why other players could not do the things he found so easy. That was part of his character.”

Milla’s prickly attitude on the pitch earned him the nickname ‘Gaddafi’, but it was exactly this bloody-mindedness and determination that made him stand out. In Spain in 1982, aged 30, he appeared in his first World Cup. Cameroon dropped out after drawing all three group games. Milla hit the post in the first match against Peru and had a goal chalked off for offside that he still insists should have stood. The goalkeeper Thomas Nkono made a rare mistake in their final game which led to Italy scoring; had Cameroon won, they would have gone through at the eventual world champions’ expense. It was a cruel campaign but only served to strengthen Milla’s resolve to shine on football’s greatest stage.

In 1989, after helping Cameroon winthe 1988 Cup of Nations, Milla signed for Jeunesse Sportive Saint-Pierroise in the French colonial outpost of Réunion, a tiny island off the coast of East Africa. There the 37yearold intended to wind down his career. “To finish my career that way seemed idyllic because the football there was African, technical, just like I played,” Milla said. He eased into Réunion life, allowed himself to lose his fitness, engaged in a spot of social tennis and enjoyed himself.

Just before Christmas 1989 Milla was asked to return to Cameroon by his good friend Théophile ‘Doctor’ Abega, another veteran of 1982, for his testimonial game in Douala. A huge crowd was once again under Milla’s spell as he cracked in two blistering goals. The next day the national papers speculated whether their greatest former player, unfit as he was, would be of more use at the upcoming World Cup in Italy than the other fringe players on offer.

Three months on Cameroon had a disastrous African Cup of Nations campaign in Algeria, beating only Kenya in their group. This listless showing caused Cameroon’s leader, Paul Biya, to demand that Milla go to Italy as part of the squad. “He signed a decree, which was brave of the president but a risk,” says Milla. “If I had not been up to standard, he would have taken some of the blame. I felt honoured to come and help my country, I felt on a mission. I knew I was old, but I agreed to participate in the World Cup to show that age is not an obstacle. I felt I could still play, I could still help my country.”

Three years after retiring from international football, the presence of a flabby Milla was not looked upon kindly by his teammates. He underwent an extensive training regime in a bid to lose the excess weight he had gained in Réunion. On the eve of the World Cup he once again showed his masterly touch, scoring twice in training game against Croatian side Hajduk Split.

Milla’s involvement in the opening victory over Argentina was limited, but he came on after an hour of the second match against Romania and, 15 minutes later, he laced a stunning left-footed drive to give the Indomitable Lions the lead. Overcome with delight Milla wheeled away to the corner flag and, all wiry limbs, performed a jig that would soon become familiar. Fans speculated whether or not the brilliant, gleeful celebration was premeditated, perhaps a hip-wiggling makossa, a traditional Cameroonian dance. “It’s not a real dance,” Milla said. “It was an instantaneous manifestation of my joy. It was not at all planned! I just felt like dancing each time I scored. It was the first time ever that I felt like doing that dance.”

Within 10 minutes he had more reason to dance as he notched an even more eye-catching goal with his right foot, ensuring his team’s passage to the knockout stages with a game to spare. They met Colombia in Naples in the next round and, with the scores deadlocked at 0-0 in extra time, the super-sub Milla struck again, out-foxing Andrés Escobar and arrowing a shot past René Higuita. As the flamboyant goalkeeper waved his teammates upfield to equalise, he received a pass near the halfway line and Milla picked his pocket before rolling the ball in to make it 2-0. The win sparked wild celebrations in Cameroon and across Africa — it was the first time a country from the continent had made it through to the last eight of the World Cup.

Against England, Milla entered the fray after Cameroon had gone a goal behind to David Platt’s header. He soon won a penalty, chopped down by Paul Gascoigne; Emmanuel Kunde converted. Then Milla was the wall in a one-two with Eugene Ekeke, who chipped Peter Shilton. But two Gary Lineker penalties turned the game back England’s way. “It was a very special tournament,” Milla said, “but it could have been even more special if luck had been on our side.”

Nonetheless, his achievements in those three weeks remain indelible. Cameroon didn’t just get to the quarter-final; they also made the world take African football seriously.

The article was first published by The Blizzard in June 2014