You’ll have heard the term “game face.” This is not just the ridiculous mug a lot of people pull when engaged in physical activity – it’s a mental state of affairs. Game face means being concerned with nothing but what you came to do. When I arrived at the Athletes’ Village, I was all game face and so for me as an athlete, the scale of the Olympics was something I never really saw until my competition was over. From the moment I arrived to the moment I finished competing, I was so focused on getting everything right for my performance that I was blinkered to everything else going on around me. The Games became a series of functional venues for me; the accommodation, the dining hall, the training track and the stadium. Unlike the setup for London 2012, the Athletes’ Village in Athens was a distance from the stadium, so for me, a trip to the stadium complex meant it was time to go to work – everything else was preparation.
The dining halls were fantastic. I’m a man who enjoys his food and while I was sprinting, I was burning such a huge amount of calories that I could (within reason) eat to my heart’s content. The dining halls put on a full spread of meals with selections from around the world. Add to that the ubiquitous 24/7 free McDonalds in the main dining hall and as many energy drinks as you can carry and the careful athlete can fulfil all their dietary requirements with relative luxury.
In the fabled Athletes’ Village, the atmosphere is very strange. In Athens this was particularly true because the construction had not been finished and where there was meant to be grass there was only dust that blew through the streets like some desolation scene from a Western. Nations are housed together then split into teams by sport. An army the size of TeamGB took up a few blocks and so we had a good mini-village feel going on. But the Village during competition time is a quiet, quiet place. It is not a party scene, not yet. It’s the only place the competitors can go to get away from it all – unfortunately it’s the very heart of everything that’s going on. It’s the lifeblood. Walking to the dining halls you’ll see your competitors passing you in the streets, picking up that chicken wing before yours in the queues, snagging the last copy of the newspaper you wanted. On one hand it gets you used to seeing the people you’ve maybe only watched on TV or whose names you’ve seen printed by their phenomenal results. Handled well, this can elevate you to size of the occasion at hand. One the other hand, it leaves very little place for sanctuary. Handled poorly you can exhaust yourself and your nerves by walking around flooded with adrenaline at all times.
The only true space of peace is within the closed doors of your apartment. You have a say in who you share a room with and there will be a few rooms per apartment. Athletes in these situations watch a lot of DVDs. Movies give you the perfect relaxation tool – there is no physical energy spent, and your mind can relocate, away from the furnace of your dreams and into whatever pap is unfolding on the screen.
After that and conversation with the friends you have in the team, the only break is sleep. And if you can sleep well going into your event then you’re either ice cool or you just don’t know the magnitude of what’s going on.
So it was food, quarters, training track and stadium. That was it. If this sounds detached and clinical, that’s because it is; as I mentioned in the beginning, Games Time is game face time. It wasn’t until I had finished competing that I opened my eyes to the true spectacle of the Games. And what a spectacle it was! I will come to that another time, but the business end of things is just that; business. You’re trying to condense the entire benefit of your career’s experience into handling the atmosphere of the biggest event you may ever be a part of, for who know where you’ll be in 4 years’ time? You have to strike now! Time waits for nothing and no one, least of all those who chase it down the track. The key is to manage the adrenaline, contain the excitement, so that you can channel it under the hot stage lights in the cauldron of the stadium, not waste it by getting your pulse up every time you see a legend strolling around the Village. This might be your only shot – you can take your game face off and see the other side of the Olympics once the business is done.