Among so many dazzlingly happy memories of this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games one stands out for me. Though I was based at the Equestrian Games, I managed to slip away to Woolwich to watch the archery. 148 competitors had fired their arrows and no one had yet achieved three perfect tens. In the first match a one legged and one armed Briton aimed from his wheelchair and achieved perfection, only to see his opponent, also with one arm and one leg, do the same. I thought at first the American was kissing his bow for luck, when I suddenly noticed a string attached to the middle of his bow-string. He caught it in his mouth, pulled back, opened his mouth, and the arrow hit the bull’s eye. In the final shoot-off he did it again to win by a point, the men embraced and I had witnessed the greatest feat I have known in nearly seventy years of sport. That moment encapsulated for me all the expertise, courage and sportsmanship that so exemplified those wonderful Olympic weeks.
It all began with an invitation to be interviewed for the anti-doping section. A charming Indian lady told me she was also a volunteer and I was her very first candidate. Half way through she interrupted the interview and asked eagerly, “please, how am I doing?”. “Brilliantly!” I replied sincerely and I was enrolled. Collecting the cheerful uniform, red for the Guards and purple for our Royal heritage, I saw how immaculately other volunteers had organised the tailoring and distribution, an encouraging portent of the magnificent organisation I encountered at Greenwich.
The course for the three-day event had stunningly enriched the lovely park. Glistening horses sailed over one jump from East to West, leaped over Saturn’s rings by the Observatory and hurtled past Toad Hall . Over the stadium fluttered some thirty flags, anthems sounded, soldiers saluted and volunteers rushed to help the appreciative crowds. Most movingly, here a lady with cerebral palsy (and a Master’s degree in maths) won three golds, at one with her horse in the demanding dressage by means of her voice and her hands alone.
I was lucky to be in a team of fourteen, based in the anti-doping control hut. We’d keep a constant eye on the athletes as soon as they dismounted, using our walkie-talkies as they went off to press conferences, medal ceremonies or just to cool down. It was intriguing to take down their details as they came in for their urine tests, some at first too exhausted to produce a sample. One Aussie came out of the gate I was guarding and I asked if all was going okay inside. “They’re just taking the piss, mate!” he informed me accurately.
I found in fact they all welcomed the tests as it keeps their sport clean. Most memorable was the arrival of a rider introduced by a colleague as Michael Young. I happen to teach German and his uniform was covered in gold, black and red and he had GER in big letters across his chest, so I cleverly guessed his nationality. “Ist das Michael Jung?” I asked, as it had to be spelt correctly. “Jawohl!” he beamed. Next day this world and European champion on his thirtieth birthday won an individual and a team gold medal. And like all of them he was utterly modest and delightful.
Up on the Heath I visited the stables prior to the Pentathlon and learned that the riders only met their horses twenty minutes before they jumped, so inevitably there were some spills. I saw a Korean thrown off as his horse reared and crashed horrifically on top of him. To everyone’s intense relief he slowly remounted; hopelessly out of time, but completing the course to a crescendo of cheers and symbolising the spirit of both the Olympics and the Paralympics. In this Jubilee Year we really have seen the country at its best.