All roads lead to London for the world’s Olympic athletes, but those competing for Britain, no matter where they come from, cannot get there until they have been through Loughborough.
Every member of the biggest team at the Games, 542 athletes and 450 support staff, will have passed through the “Team GB experience” at Preparation Camp in this central English university town before the start of competition.
They will have been kitted out for every occasion, carting away bags of free clothing and equipment by the airport trolley load, had their hands and feet cast in plaster for posterity and signed a wall of fame destined for a new museum to open in the London Olympic Park in 2014.
The equipment list includes hoodies, sports bras for women and Bermudas for men, a red plastic duck bath toy with “I’m Squeaky Clean” on it — a reminder from UK anti-doping — an iPod pre-loaded with cheering, playing cards and flip-flops.
Most importantly, the five “One Team GB” core values of Performance, Respect, Unity, Responsibility and Pride, which cover everything from dress code to social media, will have been signed up to.
Loughborough — synonymous with elite sport in Britain and alma mater to London Games chairman and twice Olympic gold medalist Seb Coe — is where the hard kilometers and years of sacrifice suddenly translate into something very tangible.
“It’s been an absolutely amazing experience, probably one of the best experiences I’ve had as an athlete,” badminton mixed doubles player Chris Adcock said after being kitted out on a rainy Monday morning. “It makes me feel like part of Team GB ... this is where it really sinks in. It’s really hammered it home today that we’re close and we’re getting there.”
Where athletes were once just handed team clothing with a hope that it fitted, nothing is left to chance now.
Former rugby World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward has played a key role as director of elite performance at the British Olympic Association and preparations have been meticulous to ensure the team look and feel like one united whole at all times.
The message is clear from the moment an athlete walks through the door at Loughborough, with the key values painted in bold on the walls, along with inspirational phrases.
“Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen,” one said. “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much,” another reads.
“Respect is a lot more important, and a lot greater, than popularity,” yet another says.
Mike Hay, the Preparation Camp director, said athletes came in representing individual sports, but left feeling part of something much bigger.
Ben Hunt-Davis, a 2000 gold medalist who rowed in the Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney Games and is now working with Team GB, wished he had enjoyed such attention to detail during his competitive years.
“For Barcelona, the kitting out was in the back of the old BOA offices, in the garage. There were three wooden trestle tables and someone had stuck a suitcase on,” he said. “They asked you what size you were — I said extra large or XXL or whatever it was — and they’d go: ‘Here are three T-shirts, here’s a tracksuit and a long-sleeved top.’ It would get chucked in the suitcase ... and 15 minutes later job done.”
“And you’d then arrive and find that actually most of the stuff was the wrong size, didn’t fit and you’d got to try and swap it or spend your time walking around the village in effectively a crop-top or something,” he grinned.