Heat of the Moment

Heat of the Moment

At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the British cyclist, Chris – now Sir Chris – Hoy was faced with every athlete’s nightmare. Last to race in the final of the one-kilometre time trial event on the cycling track, known simply as ‘the kilo’, the Scot had watched three of his rivals for gold break the world record ahead of him. Suddenly, Hoy had an excuse to lose or, at the very least, a reason to panic. But he didn’t, he won, producing a fourth world record.

Hoy, as his triple gold medal in Beijing proved, is a remarkable competitor, but his mental strength owed much to the routines drilled into him by Dr Steve Peters, a psychiatrist who, before he came to the GB cycling team, worked with some of the most violent and disturbed criminals in the land. Peters has isolated the part of the mind that can unbalance rational thought. He calls it “the chimp”, and “the chimp” would have been at work in Hoy’s mind on the start line. Except that Hoy was so busy focusing on what he had to do to win he forgot to listen.

Before men like Steve Peters and a host of sports psychologists were harnessed to the Olympic effort, the old-fashioned notion of guts and courage, the individual struggle between body and mind, was played out on the athletics track or the games field. The story of Dorando Pietri, the moustachioed Italian waiter who collapsed over the line in the marathon at the 1908 Games in London only to be disqualified for receiving outside help, came to epitomise the purity of the human spirit in the face of extreme mental and physical pain. Pietri might have lost the race, but he won worldwide fame.

The balance between body and mind has changed subtly in recent years as Olympic sport has become increasingly professional. Tenacity and willpower, the qualities of the amateur, are no longer enough to win a medal; these days, the talk is of visualisation and “controlling the controllables”, of honing the mind as sharply as the body. Little Pietri didn’t have any mental training, he just ran until his legs collapsed, then got up and ran some more.

The rowing lake is a good place to find souls stripped bare. When the legs are gone, the brain mushy and there is still 500 metres left, only courage and instinct can fill the void. In 2004, in Athens, Matthew Pinsent stroked the GB IV to victory over the Canadians by a finger length after an epic struggle through the two-kilometre race. “Pinsent carried the British boat over the line” said one of the Canadians and he was right. Pinsent, a gentle giant, had been forced for the first time in his life to find out exactly how good he was and he wept unashamedly when he knew the answer. It was his fourth and last gold medal.

The clinical efficiency of the modern Olympic programme does not allow for much of the old Pietri spirit. Much of the heroism is lost in the painstaking process of seeking perfection. But every day, seven days a week, Olympic athletes have to ask themselves how good they can be, which requires huge courage.

This summer, a classic confrontation will take place on the opening two days of the track athletics, when Jessica Ennis renews rivalry with Tatyana Chernova, the world champion, in the women’s heptathlon. Ennis, stocky, powerful and mentally tough, against the tall, elegant and brittle Russian. Ennis has tons of the Pietri spirit – enough, the whole country will hope, to bring home the gold.  

Heat of the Moment by Andrew Longmore is published by Wiley.