Fronting media takes its toll for top athletes

PHIL GIFFORD
Last updated 13:11 16/12/2012
Nick Willis
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ
TOUGH ASSIGNMENT: The media and team commitments may have got the better of New Zealand flagbearer Nick Willis in London.

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OPINION: Nick Willis was, for days, the face of the New Zealand team at the London Olympics. Sadly, the media blitz around him may have been one of the reasons he ran so far below his best in the 1500 metres final.

The Willis story should become a precautionary tale for the future, one of several lessons learnt from the 2012 Games.

Good-natured, intelligent and well-spoken, Willis was media gold in London, but in the process of accommodating journalists and team management, he may, as Wellington sports rehabilitation expert Gary Moller surmised, have been packing in "too much extra- curricular activity, and running on empty".

There's always grumbling from journalists about the cone of silence Valerie Adams pulls over herself in the lead-up to major competitions. One writer before London even suggested she didn't seem to care about promoting her sport.

But Adams has won two Olympic golds and three world championships after keeping her head down in the days before competing. Would we swap those titles for some feel-good footage on television?

By trying to oblige everyone, Willis may well have left some of his mojo in media conferences. You get the feeling the awful realisation may have dawned on him, too, when he said after the 1500 final: "I probably talked a bit much, which came back to bite me in the arse."

Please don't pull out the old cliches about today's athletes being pampered sooks who need cosseting and protection when all they have to do is answer a few questions before they do the business on the track.

When Peter Snell and Murray Halberg were beating the world in the 1960s, the total media squad at an Olympic Games wouldn't be as big as the camera crew for one television channel today. Nobody expected them to jump through journalistic hoops, just to get out there and run.

Willis was also the flag bearer at the opening ceremony in London, an honour that can come with hidden costs.

As the Games have become more and more grandiose, the opening ceremony gets longer and longer, to the point where anyone who is competing within the next day or two would be crazy to take part, much less carry the flag.

Willis had a decent break before his first 1500 metres heat, but here's an idea that takes away the secret disappointment some competitors have had in past Games, when they've decided to decline being the flag bearer because it might affect their event.

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Why not have past Olympic greats carry the flag? Would any of us feel robbed if Rob Waddell or Sarah Ulmer or Hamish Carter had been the flag bearer in London?

The current champions would know their day could come after retirement, and there'd be no tears before bedtime because a huge honour had to be reluctantly turned down.

On a totally positive note, the rowing squad provided what amounts to a blueprint for success.

They have great coaches, and Dick Tonks, as the prime example, would appear to be allowed to coach how he wants to without outside advice.

They have a staggering work ethic, and have developed the perfect balance between training out of the public eye at Karapiro, and sharpening up in competition in Europe.

An Olympic hopeful in most other sports (I'm not sure that a shooter would benefit) could do worse than beg a chance to be a fly on the wall and soak up the rowing way.

The biggest blunder in London was, of course, the failure to enter Adams in the women's shot put. Anyone who has ever filled out a cheque and forgotten to sign it will know how easily a detail in paperwork, even a vital one, can be overlooked.

From now on New Zealand will operate a system where a second person will check entries. A failsafe entry system may seem tedious and fussy, but, like insurance when your house burns down, when you need it, you really, really need it.

- Sunday Star Times

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