Comment: What it takes to win in the world of sport…

22 January 2013

When people talk about winning, they talk about ‘wanting it’. Daley Thompson used to train twice on Christmas Day. He thought that if he was out training while his competition were putting their feet up and tucking into the turkey, he’d win. He was right, and he has two Olympic golds, three Commonwealth golds and numerous other championships to prove it. Daley Thompson wanted it.

These are things that often get obscured by the end result, the part which we see. The world watched in awe as Hoy, Pendleton and the rest of the British cycling team set world record after world record. The nation cheered at Mo Farah’s double triumph and Jessica Ennis’ majestic sweep to heptathlon victory. After that, my local gym started offering ‘abs like Ennis’ classes (and a good many magazines offered their own tips).

The thing was, these were all designed to last a few weeks. They provided a quick burst, fitted around the rest of your life, to give you the look without the sacrifice. Because that’s what ‘wanting it’ means – not just a mental desire on match day, but a willingness to make the necessary sacrifices every day of the season. Sacrifices of social life, of your body, sometimes even of your sanity and, for us students, of your degree.

Just ask the Blues rowers, if you can find one, that is – they seem to spend more time in Ely than Cambridge and, on top of all that training and travel, have to do their degrees. George Nash, now an Olympic bronze medallist, once said being a Blue was harder than Olympic training for exactly that reason. It can be hard enough to have a social life in Cambridge, but once you add serious training to the work, something has to go by the wayside, and it’s usually the beer.

And it gets worse. A season’s worth of work, all the training, all the sacrifice, can be blinked away in a few minutes, or even a few seconds, of a Varsity Match. That’s the disadvantage with having a season that effectively lasts for one day – sometimes, that day isn’t your day. With less than ten minutes to go at Twickenham last month, with Cambridge four points down, the ball was sent wide but the last man couldn’t quite gather the pass. The try went begging, and in a few seconds the chance to clinch the match, and the season, was gone.

That gamble is where the pain of losing comes from, especially for Cambridge players (and I should know, I’ve done enough of it). In the one game that matters, a few seconds can render the season’s sacrifice worthless. But all the work makes you want the win more, and makes any eventual victory even better. That’s why we do it and that’s why some of us followed Daley Thompson’s example and were doing conditioning on Christmas Day. Welcome back – I hope everyone’s had a productive break.

Chris McKeon is an African Studies student at Caius and a former Rugby League Blue.