River Wissey Lovell Fuller

The Olympics 2000

January 2001

The account of the BBC's statistics man at the Sydney Olympic Games

Fortunate as I am to have attended big athletics meetings for 20 years, I can say that there is nothing like the Olympics. The Games are at least twice as big an experience as the biggest World Championships. The atmosphere is electric, you can sense the fact that four years or even a lifetime's work is at stake. When I arrived in Sydney on September 7, I knew I was in a place where something very special was going to happen. The Olympic trappings were in evidence as soon as I stepped from the plane. We were able to collect our accreditation badges BEFORE our luggage. This was a huge relief for all, as the process usually involves queueing for hours at some inconvenient time and place. It was an early sign of how well the Games were organised.

Arriving in my hotel was a great thrill because I found that my room - on the eighth floor - overlooked the Olympic Stadium. I could not see inside but I could view the seating on the top bend. Every evening I could see the sun set over the massive structure. Over the next days in the lead up to the opening ceremony, it was a bittersweet experience to look out of my window onto the futuristic setting of the Olympic Park. I wanted to go out and stroll among the revellers, whose number grew by the day. Instead I knew I had to spend most of the day at my keyboard updating information about 2000 athletes entered for the Games. For example, it took almost a whole day to process the Decathlon, and that was just one of 46 events! I was there to do a job just for athletics, so I passed up the chance to watch the opening ceremony, which meant I missed former Eurovision heroine Olivia Newton-John, quite a sacrifice for me. Yet I could view the Olympic flame rise into position from my room. Once the Games started, I could hear the cheers from the swimming stadium, but even though my pass would have got me in there for free I just could not afford the time.

Until the start of the athletics programme, a typical day saw me up at around 8:00 for breakfast. I would then go to pick up news and link up with colleagues in the main press centre. The route was lined with trees inhabited with brightly coloured parakeets. Then it was back to my room to work until the early hours. I survived on room service, which was excellent but expensive and somewhat repetitive after a fortnight. One advantage of my room-bound existence was that I could follow the games on local television and, in particular, radio. The coverage, however, was partisan. You would hear little about non-Australian success and I was lucky to see Britain's first gold, in the cycling, live on one of the TV feeds in the hotel reception. The local coverage featured a late-night satirical look at the day's events called "The Dream". A bit like "Fantasy Football League" for the Olympics, only quite funny. I faxed a request to a local radio station "Wave FM", who promptly rang me back and interviewed me on air. They wanted to know about my impressions of Australia. These were, of course, all good and I was rewarded with a track by Fleetwood Mac. The start of the athletics meant even longer hours for me in the cramped conditions of the stadium. I just about managed to deliver all the required statistics to the BBC Commentary Team headed by David Coleman, who was attending his 19th Games. I was forever looking ahead to the next day's events, but I was able to glimpse at the live finals, pointing out any interesting "stats" which emerged. My favourite of these was that the winning margin in the men's 10,000m was actually less than that in men's 100m.

Denise Lewis's heptathlon victory was much more dramatic than the commentaries suggested. Just before her 800m run, a rumour circulated in the TV tribune that she would have to pull out of the event due to injury, This was from a very reliable source, so we were all left feeling rather depressed. It was decided not to broadcast the news immediately, which was just as well; because of course she did start the race. Even so, we were all dreading to see her pull up lame. It was a huge relief when she did not. A quick check, by me, of the time gap between her and her closest opponent confirmed she was the champion. Her medal ceremony was held at the end of the evening without most of the 110,000 capacity crowd, but Denise stayed to thank seemingly each and every one of the remaining spectators. She even agreed to be photographed with yours truly, though tragically the final print was out of focus.

It was great to see not one but two British Olympic athletics golds; there were none in Atlanta. Jonathan Edwards's triple jump win came on "Monstrous Monday" (September 25), a day that was loaded with the most dramatic action in track and field, including Cathy Freeman's emotional victory at 400m. I was just as excited by the tantalising run in fourth place in that race of Donna Fraser, as she is someone we often see in Surrey athletics For me, the most exciting race in the stadium was the men's 400m hurdles, when Angelo Taylor never gave up and won with his very last stride from lane one. But the most exciting moment of the overall games for me was Britain's (Steve Redgrave's) win in the coxless four rowing. This event took place during the morning session of the first Sunday's athletics. The BBC kindly piped it through to all the screens of the commentators, so we were able to follow the race, with it's nail-biting finish, as it happened. It was bizarre when the British cheers rang out over an otherwise silent media stand. I did not train at all while at the Games, which coincided with the end of my season but I did sneak onto the track during the rest period on the final Friday. I walked round my favourite lane, seven. Into the final l00m I couldn't resist breaking into a trot, just to experience the sensation of running into the Olympic finishing straight. I tried to look cool, as if I was simply in a hurry, but at least one person spotted what I was up to.

As the games drew to a close my workload decreased and I realised how successful the Games had been in themselves and for Britain. I was even able to watch another sport. I had a choice of the men's football final or some wrestling preliminaries. The wrestling was fascinating because I saw a match between an Iranian and an American. Iranians love their wrestling and their spectators gave the poor American quite a hard time. He came back to within a point of victory in the closing seconds, but ultimately was the loser.

I wish I could say that the Olympic experience left me refreshed and inspired to start my winter training. Inspired, yes, but refreshed no. The effort of it all left me wanting to rest more than anything else; yet I never stopped remembering how lucky I am to have a job that gives me such an opportunity.

Mark Butler

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