You might have thought Team GB’s athletes deserved a bit of Usain Bolt-style r ‘n’ r after their remarkable exertions at the Rio Olympics. But they turned out in force yesterday for I Am Team GB, an open day at 2,500 sports centres from Aberdeen to Carickfergus, Cardiff to Colchester, aimed at engaging a new generation in sport. If grinning gamely through endless selfies were an Olympic event, gymnast Max Whitlock, rower Helen Glover, long jumper Greg Rutherford and the rest would surely take gold every time.
The event was organised by the National Lottery – which funds Team GB – and ITV, which symbolically shut down its channels for an hour from 9.30am yesterday, showing only the slogan: We’ve gone running… why don’t you join us? Gold medallist Whitlock performed the switch-off before heading to the Copper Box arena in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London’s Stratford, where members of the public were encouraged to try handball or test themselves on trampolines and rowing machines.
Helen Gregory joined fellow oarsmen and women at Reading Rowing Club. Max Rutherford invited members of Marshall Milton Keynes Athletics Club to use the homemade long jump pit in his garden. Gymnasts and cyclists led a sports day on the set of Coronation Street, while swimmers kicked off a duathlon around the set of Emmerdale. Big names like Bradley Wiggins, Laura Trott and Jessica Ennis-Hill may have been unable to attend, but Mo Farah’s endorsement of the event on Twitter saw the hashtag “>iamteamgb trending throughout the day.
At the Copper Box, apparent chaos masked a surprisingly well-run and precision-timed event. One half of the arena was given over to matches in the International Handball Cup. Around 400 people were watching Finland’s women’s team Grankulla IFK play Holland’s HV Ventura, in an unforgivingly cavernous space. But we only had 300 last year, said Marie Kerdoncuff – who is French but plays for London side GD Handball – brightly.
On the other side of the hall, families queued to hurl balls at a handball goal, or enlist their children in a match. Into this melee strode the tall, blonde and muscular Crista Cullen of Team GB’s Gold medal-winning hockey squad. She was immediately mobbed by fans brandishing phones or asking to have their free “>iamteamgb t-shirts signed. It’s all about creating a buzz about the sports that don’t get so much coverage, she said, eyeing the goal where she was due to take a turn. I’ve never played handball before. It looks pretty mad.
Some members of the public had come along by chance. Clinical scientist Emma Healy and her husband Mark, a research chemist, both 42, live and work in Boston, where they’d immersed themselves in the Olympic coverage from Rio as it was on the same time zone. Back in Britain for a two-week holiday with their children Ethan, 9, and Keira, 7, they’d simply Googled events at the Olympic Park the night before. Keira wants to swim at the Olympics in eight years’ time, said Mark. Maybe, Keira mumbled.
Others were more purposeful. Nicola Wawrzewski, a 34-year-old housewife from Lewisham was celebrating the fact that her daughter Abbey, 14, could finally have a go at handball, now that she is in remission from Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma following a stem cell transplant. Her younger son Joey, 7, and daughter Robby, 5, were also taking part, though her eldest Harry, couldn’t be bothered to get up. I suppose you can’t inspire every generation.
Upstairs, the gallery was ringed with activities – here a table tennis match, there a dancercise class, everywhere children exercise-biking, trampolining and jumping – but the biggest queues were for the Olympian photo-op stand. Here, equestrians Charlote Dujardin, Fiona Bigwood and Spencer Wilton were posing – a strange touch, this – with Alesha Dixon. Even if dressage isn’t the sort of event ordinary folk can take up, they were thronged.
The horseriders had taken over from Lutalo Muhammed, the Taekwondo fighter whose tearful speech after he was pipped to the gold medal was one of the defining moments of the Rio Olympics, and surely endeared him to the nation. I got his photo, the one who cried, said Vanessa Bennett, 36, who works for a school in East London, and was there with her daughter and an enormous extended brood of other children. I cried with him. I felt his pain. We came as a group because of Team GB and the stars.
While she might not have remembered his name, it’s undeniable that Muhammed’s tears have boosted his profile and that of his sport. The love I’ve had since I got off the plane has been shocking, said the charming 25-year-old. He pointed out that Britain’s Taekwondo team has gone from one bronze medal in Beijing to a gold, silver and bronze in Rio. And yes, he can now see the silver lining of being beaten in 0.01 of a second to gold himself. Interest in his sport, and others that once flew below the radar, is increasing. There are 1.7m more cyclists [who have joined clubs] since 2012, and hockey is up 40%, said Bill Sweeney, CEO of the British Olympic Association.
There was a kerfuffle by the main door. The clean-cut, melon-biceped Max Whitlock had arrived. Seeing him, a little girl quite literally jumped up and down for joy and he was soon surrounded by a crowd at least 50 strong. He posed for photos, signed shirts and Union Flags, and told me Rio was surreal, the way we outdid expectations – history-making. His gymnastics club, South Essex, had an 18-month waiting list before the Rio Olympics: goodness knows how big it is now.
Max has put gymnastics on the map as a cool sport, said his trainer Scott Hann. When I was a gymnast is was ‘a sport for girls’. He is such a lovely lad, very humble, and people warm to his personality. Whitlock chips in that, at the end of the month, he is heading off with about 40 members of his club to Portugal, for a nice and chilled holiday. If he inspired one person to get out and get active yesterday, on top of his two golds and a bronze from Rio, he’s surely earned it.
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