Kenny Barton: Volleyball has moved faster than any other sport in the build-up to London 2012

Duncan Mackay

We are watching the GB men’s volleyball team turn into something special. With table-turning wins over two of Europe’s top teams in successive weeks, the signs are there of growing strength and self belief in our young squad. We made history. Last weekend we defeated Spain, the 2009 European League runners-up. The weekend before that we scored a famous victory over Slovakia, the 2008 European League winners.

All from a standing start in 2006 with no tradition, no infrastructure, no players, no coaches, only ambition and the Holy Grail of the 2012 Olympics. I might be accused of bias, but no Olympic sport has moved so quickly from nowhere to serious competitiveness, gaining plaudits across Europe, than we have.

There is further to go, as acknowledged by our Dutch coach, Harry Brokking, but the three set defeat of Spain (25-22 26-24 25-22) in Salamanca last weekend in the CEV European League, avenging a loss the previous day, was a demonstration of this squad’s powerful resilience.

As the Spanish Samba band were whipping up the crowd into a Latin frenzy aided and abetted by El Toro, the Spanish Mascot, it was obvious the home crowd were demanding a second straight victory over the British underdogs. But despite the Spaniards racing to a three point lead with lightning fast services followed by huge blocks, GB scrapped for every point.

Empowered by the total support from their subs corner, the visitors were responding magnificently to the incessant beat of the Spanish percussionist. That’s when I found myself thinking: Does anyone know a Samba band from the Crawley area? If yes, please contact me immediately and prepare to bring your drums to the K2 Crawley Arena next Saturday, June 19, home Euro league match-ups when Romania and Bulgaria will be the visitors, men’s match at 3.00pm and women’s at 6.00pm

That is the way it works in British volleyball. All hands to the pump. Everything we can do to make this deserving team more successful, we are pledged to do, alongside the funding we receive from UK Sport. We were rewarded last weekend with the sight of opposite, and Sheffield dental student, Dami Bakare, leaping higher than seemed physically possible, hovering in the air and completing monstrous stuff blocks which must have looked like a total eclipse to the attacking Spaniards.

It was a glimpse of his huge potential leading up to London 2012. The Spanish women’s team coach was sitting near me while we watched the match. When he saw how high Dami could jump he just laughed and gasped. It was probably the best response.

Super quick Rio-born Mark "Samba" Plotyczer was sensational, working overtime in passing and attack. The higher-ranked Spanish had no answer to him and could not quite manoeuver their big guns  into attacking positions to inflict real damage to the GB defences. The marauding British took the second set 26-24 , and nostrils were twitching as they scented a famous victory.

Surely the Spaniards could not be so soundly beaten in their own back yard? With the game on live TV and being beamed across Europe, it came down to the moment when Mark McGivern, hanging around in the middle, managed to get the third fingernail of his left hand to thwart a last ditch tip attack from the Spanish to finish the match and secure the 3-0 victory.

What a difference a year makes. There was a time when the team was so young and raw that they would lose matches by huge margins. But the professionalism and attention to detail of Brokking and assistant coach, Joel Banks, has transformed the fortunes of the team.

As Brokking said post-game: "I am very happy with the result and, of course, it keeps us in the race for the Final Four. There was a lot of tension in the players after the loss yesterday, so it was a good win, with better serving and blocking than the day before." The team learns quickly. It has to.

Julio Velasco, the renowned coach of the Spanish team lamented that injuries that forced him to play a young side. What he didn’t know was that our GB team was even younger. 

GB Captain Ben Pipes said: "I’m obviously delighted, it was a big turnaround from a 3-1 loss yesterday to a 3-0 win . it was like déjà vu from last weekend when we beat Slovakia 3-0 on the Sunday match at EIS Sheffield.

"We are massively looking forward to the matches next weekend in Crawley when I’m hoping our crowd are as loud as the Spanish were today. It is important that the two matches in Crawley against Romania have become must-win matches, and it is entirely within our own hands to qualify for the final four in Guadalajara in July."

So, to repeat my plea, can someone find us a Crawley Samba band before next Saturday?

Kenny Barton, a former captain of Scotland, is the Performance Programme Manager of British Volleyball, overseeing all aspects of the delivery of the programme from budgetary control to decisions on tournament entries in the build-up to the London 2012 Olympics. Tickets for match, priced £8 for adults, and £4 concessions, are available on the door.    

British Volleyball is represented by

Cathy Wood: Windsor Triathlon demonstrates sport's incredible growth

Duncan Mackay
Driving along the M4 for one of the highlights of the domestic triathlon racing calendar, the Nokia Windsor Triathlon, the competing triathlete isn't hard to spot.

It's not the sticker in the back of the car or even the type of vehicle they drive.

It's the gleaming frame dangling from the bike rack or the shiny new wheels pressed against the rear windscreen that give the game away.

In recent years triathlon has become increasingly visible as a sport and attractive to its participants.

It wasn't always so. 

Almost 20 years ago, when the fitness boom in the UK was in its infancy, the very first Windsor Triathlon took place amid some cynicism.

"Trying to get people involved was like missionary work," says John Lunt, the founder of  Human Race, an events company now putting on more than 30 events a year including half and full marathons, open water swimming races, duathlons and triathlons, including Windsor.

In the early 1990's the idea of swimming 1500 metres in the Thames, then cycling 40km around Windsor before finishing off with a 10 kilometres run didn't attract much enthusiasm or interest.

Just 200 trail blazers lined up for the first Windsor race in 1991.

This June Windsor celebrated its 20th running with 2,500 athletes of all ages, shapes and sizes willingly plunging into the Thames knowing they were the lucky ones.

It's a race which has long been one of the most prestigious events on the summer calendar, and all 2,500 slots for the 2010 event sold out within three weeks of online registration opening. 

Another 1,200 were on the waiting list.

"If you haven't done Windsor you haven't competed in all the big events in Britain," says Ian Parker, who's completed nine in total and now helps as one of a small army of volunteer staff.

Back in the early days, when triathlon was still relatively new, it was just the super fit who competed.

Today, while not a mass participation sport, triathlon, and Windsor in particular, caters for a range of athletes with varying experience and ability.

There are triathletes participating for charity, others who want to dip a toe in the water with the shorter, 'Sprint' distance (750m/29km/5.5km), age group competitors who start by age and gender and, finally, an elite field of 70 of the country's top triathletes who start at the end.

Today the sport's no longer the domain of a fit few. 

Instead a pre-race Expo features music, clothing and equipment stands, refreshments and a long line of massage tables for the eager triathletes.

And there's certainly no shortage of eye catching and, at times, eye wateringly expensive kit.

"It's totally changed," says Parker. "You used to be able to get your old bike out of the shed and compete.  Now you have state-of-the-art bikes and wetsuits."

Adrian Smith, director of Total Fitness Bath, one of the exhibitors at Windsor, agrees. "'I raced the first race," he says. "The kit I used was basic. Now everything is very specific."

And expensive.

"You get people who spend £4,000 or £5,000 on a bike," he says. Or there are those who want carbon front and back wheels and are happy to pay £2,000, or more, to have them.

"You can go crazy," Smith says. "But it's still the person pedalling the bike at the end of the day."

And as those gleaming machines and shiny wheels get put away for another day, the 2,500 or so athletes who own them probably feel a little sorer than they did at the start of the day.

And, no doubt, exhilarated at the achievement.

Happy Birthday Windsor Triathlon. 

Here's to the next 20 years.

Cathy Wood was editor of the Daily Mail Ski Magazine before moving to become ski correspondent on the Daily Mail. She later became travel editor before going freelance. She represented Great Britain at elite level triathlon and writes on travel, skiing and sport.

Alan Hubbard: Blazered bureaucrats endangering London 2012 dream of tiny Zoe

Duncan Mackay

Tiny teenage weightlifting sensation Zoe Smith continues to demonstrate that she is likely to be one of Britain's star turns in 2012, setting new records - now in excess of 200 - almost every time she heaves more than three times her own 9st body weight above her  head. The personable 5ft 2in Kent schoolgirl, just 16, is one of the most prodigiously talented young athletes in the country.

Yet earlier this year she had her funding suspended by World Class Lifting (WCL) following a dispute over her coaching programme, the governing body wanting her to move from her home to be under their supervision in Leeds, which would have taken her away from her personal coach, Andy Callard, and, as her supportive parents pointed out, disrupted her schooling. A pupil at Townley Grammar School in Bexleyheath she is no dumb belle, hoping to go to University to study languages.

After we drew the attention of funding body UK Sport to this daft situation it was quickly resolved. Or so it seemed. Last month Zoe, already the Commonwealth Youth champion, won silver in the European Youth Championships in Spain breaking the snatch record, the best performance by a British lifter in a decade as WCL themselves proudly boasted at the time.

This entitled her to be elevated to the next funding level but we hear this is now being withheld because written documentation for her training plan supplied by her coach, who has also been appointed as one of England’s coaches for the Commonwealth Games, is considered inadequate by WCL.

We understand that Callard has provided as much documentation as he feels able to and has explained that he doesn’t work to strictly written down plans - especially looking as far ahead as a year. WCL’s reaction has been to inform Zoe that  she must remain on basic funding and won’t be moved up to the next level that the Spanish result earned for her.

Strewth! Bureaucracy eh? The word that strangles sport with the red tape it represents. Surely Zoe(pictured), who began as a child gymnast, is too precious a talent to be weighed down by politics. She seems literally worth her weight in gold.

She is not alone in being a female lifter having her funding snatched away, so to speak. Michaela Breeze, who pioneered the women’s sport in  this country, is so peed off she has decided to quit after the Commonwealth Games in October and won’t try for a place at London 2012, which would have been her third  consecutive Olympics and a fitting finale to her splendid career.

Michaela, 31, expresses "great relief" at not having to work with the national weightlifting body, specifically Hungarian Tamás Fehér, the GB world class lifting lead performance coach, with whom Breeze has had a differences of opinion over the past 12 months. It is Feher that WCL originally wanted Zoe to work with.

This means Michaela will have to pay for herself in order to compete for Wales in Delhi. "It hasn't been an easy decision to make, but  I can't begin to tell you of the immense relief now that I've finally made up my mind,” she tells her local paper, the Plymouth Herald. "I have been proud to compete both for Great Britain and Wales, but after the national championships in June and the Commonwealth Games in India, that's me done. I'll definitely miss not being able to compete at the London Olympics, that would have been my third after Athens (2004) and China (Beijing 2008).

"There's so much I could say about the current governing body for British weightlifting, but suffice to say, I'll not miss having to following their programmes at all, in particular, the performance coach, who imposes these on us. It came to a point where I told him  last year, after suffering a string of injuries, that I wouldn't follow his programmes any more and would go my own way. Since then, my back has improved and so have my results.

"But, really, it's the entire leadership and organisation, the unnecessary pressure and unrealistic totals. But I am looking forward to it all being put behind me after Delhi and have already hit the qualifying mark."

Michaela, who won Commonwealth gold and silver for Wales adds: "I have now been officially dropped by World Class Lifting which means all funding and medical support will be stopping in the next couple of months. So I'll have to try and fund my own physiotherapy and everything else myself."

British weightlifting hasn’t exactly covered itself in Olympic gold dust over the years. So why is it that the blazered bureaucrats in minor sports like this always seem to want their competitors to conform? Don’t they realise it is usually the non-conformists like Zoe and Michaela who usually win the medals?

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics

Gail Emms: To my surprise, I'm actually pretty good at fencing

Duncan Mackay

There are well over 30 Olympic and Paralympic sports, but how many can you honestly say you’ve tried?  Well, in the last month I’ve given fencing, goalball, boccia, taekwondo, handball and volleyball a go and I’ve had an absolutely brilliant time. 

I’ve been a bit outside of my usual comfort zone of a badminton court and, if I’m honest, I wasn’t particularly good at some of them, but that’s the beauty of sport - you don’t always have to be great at it to enjoy it.

In my role as an Ambassador for the Youth Sport Trust I’ve been visiting schools recently and trying my hand at new sports in support of Lloyds TSB National School Sport Week. 

The week takes place this month and is encouraging young people to try a new Olympic or Paralympic sport. Thirteen thousand schools across the country are expected to take part in the week involving around  four million children - it really will be a time to celebrate all that is good about sport.

I’ve already heard about some of the activities that schools have planned which will be motivating and inspiring young people. 

Some are holding opening and closing ceremonies and organising torch relays, others are planning inter and intra school competitions. All are living out the Olympic and Paralympic values. The range of sports that’s going to be on offer for young people is incredible.

New research shows that London 2012 excitement is already spreading amongst Britain’s school children despite the Games still being over two years away. Eight out of ten youngsters surveyed are excited about the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games with six out of ten inspired to take part in more sport. Nearly nine out of ten school children are keen to try a new Olympic and Paralympic sport. That’s great news and shows why it’s so important for schools to give youngsters the chance to experience new sports during Lloyds TSB National School Sport Week.

I’ve always believed in the positive impact that sport can have on children. Alongside the obvious health benefits, it builds self confidence and self esteem, it develops social and personal skills and it can develop team work. These skills are so important for young people, not only on the sports field, but also in the classroom and in life once they leave school. 

Badminton was my sport of choice, but given the opportunity I would have loved to have tried a lot more sports when I was younger.  As for those I’ve given a go over the last few weeks - I’m not sure you’ll be seeing me competing in taekwondo anytime soon – I don’t think I’d cut it at the top level, but I’m a bit of a dab hand at fencing so watch this space for a possible Olympics comeback!

Gail Emms is an Olympic silver medallist and an Ambassador for the Youth Sport Trust, who is delivering National School Sport Week in partnership with Lloyds TSB. It will run from June 28 to July 2 in England and Wales with the Bank of Scotland National School Sport Week, in partnership with SportScotland, taking place for the first time between June 7-11.  All primary and secondary schools can register at Registered schools will receive a free teacher planning and activity pack, full of ideas to help plan their week and ensure the whole school can get involved.

Andy Pink: Return to Greece reminds me of passion of fans

Duncan Mackay

The second round of qualifying for the European Championships 2011 has started here in Heraklion, Crete. It is a pleasure to return to Greece for me. I played and lived in Athens for a season two years ago and really enjoyed this fascinating society. 


They are very proud of their heritage and culture and, as you may have read recently, are not afraid to voice their concerns with protests and marches. If the Greek people don’t like something, they let their Government know about it. All too often we British merely tut at something and carry on. 


I can only imagine what the Greeks would have done in response to the expenses scandal in the UK for example. 


However, at the moment there doesn’t appear to be much visible difference here in Crete. I'm assuming its due to the tourist trade, which judging by the amount of Brits flying in on various budget airlines, is still booming here.


Arriving here again, reminds me vividly of the series of violent clashes during my season  when a boy of 13 was shot and killed by the police under dubious circumstances. Then the clashes and protests lasted the better part of two weeks, and the streets of Athens were like a ghost town for a few days. The young boy’s funeral took places just minutes away from where I and my British team mate Mark "Samba" Plotyczer lived. We used to train amid the sound of police helicopters circling overhead and young men and women marching through the streets. 


There was also the very real and impending threat of violence at all sporting contests in Greece especially when the teams are associated with large football clubs. The club where Samba and I played didn't have a football team so we were lucky not to experience too much trouble during the season. However, the Greek police turned up en masse for every sporting contest just to be on the safe side, which led to a few matches where we had nearly as many riot police as fans present! 


Joking aside, the hatred between rival sporting clubs sadly does often cross the line with dire consequences. A few seasons ago a fan was stabbed and killed on the way to a women’s volleyball match between Panathanaikos and Olympiakos resulting in the suspension of all sports in Greece for a few weeks. 



In fact, just a month ago the Greek volleyball playoffs were put on hold due while the police diverted their resources to dealing with the economic strikes. They simply couldn't ensure the safety of the players. When the players got wind of this during the warm-up, one of the visiting teams ran off the court to the safety of the changing rooms. I should explain that at volleyball matches generally there are no away fans allowed, so a stadium full of rival fans who hate you and your team and your colours more than life itself isn't the safest place to be when there is no security. Say what you will about football in the UK, but it’s like going to a library compared to Greek volleyball, basketball or football.


Back to our matches against Finland, Greece and Latvia in Crete. As the underdogs, we lost them all but, believe me, it was so, so close. We played Greece in this round of qualifying just two years ago in which we lost three sets to nil, and each set was in the region of 25-10. We weren’t just outclassed, we didn’t inhabit the same planet. This time around, we lost to Greece - in Greece! - 3-2, and to a strong Latvian team by a grand total of three points over four sets. 


On the official statistics we were better in attacking, serving, blocking, and just about every other statistical tool used in volleyball.  I think we are all still trying to figure out how we didn't win the those two matches. When you add in our close defeat at the hands of eventual group winners Finland, we have lost a total of nine sets this weekend, and six of those sets were decided by a mere two to three points. In volleyball this is barely a quantifiable statistic. It could be as simple as one attack that grazed an opponent that wasn't seen, or one extra service error or what have you. We managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory so many times this weekend it really is incredible.


In the end, we have not qualified for next summer's European Championships and we also didn't achieve our goal of sneaking into the second position of our group which would have given us a second chance to qualify via a play-off system. We have, however, won ourselves many many plaudits over the six matches, and we know now that no matter who play against in future we have a full squad of players capable of causing opponents problems.


We should be winning these matches without question. We are all painfully aware that the final step in sports is the hardest one to make. It takes the most effort.  It requires the most sweat, the most blood, and sometimes, yes, the most tears. We are the British volleyball team. We represent 60 million people.  If there is one thing that people the world over know about British people, it is that when called upon we are lions. We are sick and tired of losing. We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. You had better believe we will fight for that last step. 


We now head back to Sheffield to begin phase two of our summer programme, the European League. We play Slovakia in Sheffield this weekend as we start our group phase of this annual competition. Watch this space. 


Andy Pink, who plays for Bassano in Italy, is Britain's vice-captain.

Cathy Wood: Dame Kelly Holmes Olympic gold medals leaving a real legacy

Duncan Mackay

Cathy Wood_12-01-12It was a little after 9am on the Wednesday of half-term week and yet the queue to get into Filton College in Bristol already stretched out of the door and into the June sunshine.

They were queuing - 100 talented youngsters aged between 13 and 21 and the same number of parents, carers and coaches - to register for the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust (DKHLT) Backing Talent South West day.

It's the latest in a series of far reaching, ambitious projects, launched and directed by Holmes, the 800 and 1500m double Olympic gold medallist from Athens 2004.

Half an hour or so later the youngsters, who ranged in competitive level from county to international, filtered into the campus theatre to hear why Holmes started her charity and what to expect from the day ahead.

But before Holmes appeared the audience were reminded of those extraordinary six days in August 2004 when Holmes won her golden double.

Six years have passed but it's impossible to watch the replay of Holmes's look of utter disbelief as she crosses the line in the 800m, momentarily unaware of what she's achieved, and not be moved.

When the dust from that life-changing summer finally settled, Holmes faced the same question all elite performers must, at some point or other, answer.

What do I do next?

And how do I find meaning in a life where I no longer spend each day training to be the best I can in my sport?

What she came up with was a Trust which draws on the experience and example of elite past and present sportsmen and women, who may themselves be transitioning into new careers, to encourage, stretch and motivate multiple groups of young people.

These could be young sports performers, like those gathered in Bristol, or young vulnerable people who the Trust helps with placements, work opportunities and athlete mentoring.

What unites the work of the Trust is a core desire to inspire young people to fulfil their potential in life, and sport, and Holmes's own commitment to make a difference. 

She leaves those she touches with the sure fire belief that if you work hard, like she did and don't give up when adversity smacks you in the face, which it will, dreams really can, and do, come true.

Dame Kelly_Holmes_giving_lecture_12-01-12Once Holmes appeared on stage, to a captivated audience, she introduced the team of past and present athletes who would make the day ahead happen.

So double Olympic cycling medallist, Bryan Steele was the leader of one group of 25 young people while Adam Whitehead, the European and Commonwealth swimming champion led another. 

Alongside team leaders other athletes brought specific skills so former rower, and now businessman, Toby Garbett,  a double rowing world champion, taught the youngsters about the importance of a healthy lifestyle hoping to pass on information he wished he'd known at their age.

And, as a former international triathlete, I was invited to lead the media and communication groups aided by Sarah Winckless, who won a bronze medal in the women's double scull at Athens and who has just been named Chair of the British Olympic Association's Athlete Commission.

As I talked about how to deal with the media and what to expect at press conferences the young performers had burning questions of their own.

"Where should you put your hands when interviewed?" asked one netball player.

"Should you ever say, 'no comment'?" ventured another.

And then, out of the blue, "Who's the worst person you've ever interviewed?"

There's no contest on that one but since the person in question is still competing I decided not to share the answer.

When the 200 re-grouped at the end of the day, exhausted and yet at the same time exhilarated, the changes were evident.

For many the chance to meet a real life Olympian, touch a medal, or talk to an elite sports performer about their experiences will live long in the memory.

And as the day drew to a close, nine hours after it started, still they queued.

This time though it was to have their photo taken alongside Holmes or to ask her to sign the T-shirt each had been given as a memento of the day. 

Patiently, and with considerable charm, Holmes obliged them all.

And if that, together with the genuine commitment of world-class athletes to give freely of their time and knowledge to the next generation of young rising stars, isn't a real, lasting legacy I don't know what is.

Cathy Wood was editor of the Daily Mail Ski Magazine before moving to become ski correspondent on the Daily Mail. She later became travel editor before going freelance. She represented Great Britain at elite level triathlon and writes on travel, skiing and sport.

Darren Campbell: There is a volunteer inside all of us

Duncan Mackay

With it being Volunteers' Week, anyone who has ever played sport regularly, from grassroots to elite level, myself included, will have been helped, supported or come into contact with one of the country’s unsung army of volunteers. 

From officials, marshals, coaches, administrators, helpers, medical staff and first-aiders - the list goes on. Without all of them sport would not exist.

I am acutely aware of the role they have played through every step of my career and the hand they have had in my success.

But all too often this army of hidden volunteers are taken for granted because the assumption is that they’ll always be there, come rain or shine, morning or night.

People who give up their time, not to play sport, but to help others play, enjoy and compete are a rare breed and should be celebrated. They don’t do it for the glory or the recognition, but for the benefit of others.

Figures show that sport in the UK relies on more than 1.5 million volunteers and we are told that 75,000 people will be needed to make sure the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics can go ahead to the enjoyment of billions around the world.

Because these people are so passionate about what they do, there is often a tendency to think that there will always be a constant stream of dedicated volunteers coming into sport to replace those who are too old or simply unable to give up their time anymore because of commitments elsewhere.

Equally, there are members of the general public who have never volunteered, but would like to "if there was just one extra hour in the day" and they weren’t so busy with modern life.

I’d like to think that there is a volunteer in all of us.

Sometimes volunteering can come at a cost - if not financial, then via a commitment in other areas of life, such as time spent away from family.

The rewards though can be overwhelming and the sense of personal pride, achievement and joy in the knowledge that you’ve helped give something to someone - for nothing - is priceless.

Organisations like the charity I support, the Youth Sport Trust, which works to provide opportunities and experiences for every young people to develop through sport, are trying to make sure that the next generation of volunteers grows in number not shrinks.

I strongly believe that young people can be incredibly powerful leaders, acting as role models to their peers, often without even realising just how influential they can be. The Trust recognises just how crucial it is to tap into this natural resource and encourage these youngsters to identify the opportunities that exist for them within sport outside of just participating.

An example is the Trust’s TOP Link programme which encourages secondary school students to organise and manage sport festivals and competitions for primary or special school pupils - an initiative for young people, delivered by young people, if you like.

Elsewhere, the Step into Sport programme aims to increase the quantity, quality and diversity of young people engaged in volunteering and leadership. Recently in Loughborough at the University, around 300 teenagers spent three days improving their skills to become better leaders, coaches and volunteers at the annual Step into Sport Camp.

I was lucky enough to be there and experience for myself how much of an impact the camp had on this diverse range of young people.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that the lives of some of those attending will have been changed forever as they learnt more about themselves and their capabilities.

They will have made life-long friendships and developed key skills, such as teamwork, tolerance of others and humility, which will stay with them - all because of sport.

The Youth Sport Trust has also worked with a number of cities across the country, which all host major sporting events to recruit young volunteers from local schools running sports leadership programmes.

Importantly, the Youth Sport Trust is also helping schools deliver training for young leaders in sport.

Young people across the country who are leading the way, in terms of showing themselves to be incredibly positive and inspiring role models for their peers, are joining together as official Young Ambassadors - a scheme managed by the Youth Sport Trust and endorsed by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG).

These 14-to-19-year-olds advocate the benefits of sport and health to other young people and are involved in a range of volunteering activities, including organising sports festivals, leading school assemblies, coaching and mentoring.

There is no question that London 2012 is helping to encourage more young people than ever before into leadership and volunteering, particularly in their schools and communities.

Elsewhere, young officials have been deployed in a number of major sporting events over the past year, none more so than at the annual Sainsbury’s UK School Games, while many governing bodies of sport now have a Young Officials programme.

This is all against the backdrop of a constantly changing environment for young people with more distractions than ever before.

Sport is fighting to compete with computer games, the internet, music, fashion and the world of celebrity, in terms of getting its share of the average young person’s time.

I believe it’s up to all of us to help do our bit to encourage more young people into volunteering - perhaps by setting an example and finding time to do more of it ourselves.

Darren Campbell is one of Britain's most successful-ever sprinters, including being a member of the 4x100 metres relay team that won the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He is now an Ambassador for Sky Sports Living for Sport, a successful initiative run by the Youth Sport Trust in conjunction with BSkyB, which uses sport as a tool to re-engage young people who may be at risk of opting out of school life

Mike Moran: Athletes like Lou Zamperini make me proud to be an American

Duncan Mackay
Americans view our most recent national holiday, our Memorial Day, in countless ways related to their age, their birthplace, life experiences or the lives of those like their parents.

For many of us, it is the most solemn of our holidays, though we celebrate it by doing enjoyable things with our friends or families, from camping to sports events, from hiking to picnics, and from trips to the mountains to fishing in a quiet stream. It was the sme for for me, having just enjoyed a week in New York City with all its cultural and entertainment bounty.

Across our nation, smaller ceremonies were taking place at hallowed grounds, the cemeteries and graveyards where our servicemen and servicewomen lie at rest.

It is not lost, still, on millions of us who enjoy our lives and the endless possibilities, the enormity of what we owe these fallen Americans. My frame of reference remains World War Two and what this conflict did to shape my life and so many I know among my family and the friends of my youth, and to a lesser degree, the conflict in Vietnam of my 20s.

My father was whisked away to England and North Africa in the days following the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, along with the millions of other young men suddenly torn from their hometowns and families and thrown into the horror of a global war that changed the America we knew forever. He was in the US Army Air Corps at the time, later to become the Eighth Air Force, but unlike 405,000 others who gave their lives, he came home to resume his life in 1945.

For ten straight Sundays recently, I sat spellbound in my living room and watched the superb World War Two HBO Series, "The Pacific", produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg and based on the memories and books written by two Marine Corps vets who fought at Okinawa, Iowa Jima, Peleliu, Guadalcanal and other brutal, indescribable battles. This was the companion series to the acclaimed 2001 mini-series, "Band of Brothers", also from Hanks and Spielberg, but based on the experiences of the Army's 101st Airborne Division in Europe.

These two television series, in a perfect world, should be mandatory viewing for much of our youth, as well as some middle-aged Americans who take a lot for granted about their view of the American Dream, because once you have seen them, you will never take lightly your average day.

I was thinking this morning of one of those young men who served in the Pacific and who was also an Olympic athlete, Lou Zamperini. He's 93-years-old now, one of our oldest living Olympians, but his story is special.

I met him several times at fund-raising events and Olympic dinners over my years with the United States Olympic Committee, and every time I introduced him, I was riveted by seeing him and listening to him, for he is the quintessential hero. Fresh out of Torrance High in California and headed to USC, he made the 1936 Olympic Team and entered the 5,000 metres in Berlin, with all the ominous rumblings and dark shadows of what was to come for him and our world. He finished eighth in the race, but was invited to shake hands with Adolf Hitler at the conclusion of the event - something he remembered when he returned to the Olympic Stadium in Berlin in 2005.

Zamperini was a gold medal favorite for the 1940 Games in Tokyo after setting an American record in the mile run at USC in 1938, but found himself instead a bombardier in the Army Air Corps. In May, 1943, during a search and rescue mission 800 miles south of Pearl Harbor, his B-24 was shot down by Japanese fighters. He drifted for 2,000 miles on a life raft, surviving on chocolate bars, water, small fish, birds and ultimately, rainwater.

He and his two companion flyers kept their wits about them by doing quizzes, imaginary meals, singing Bing Crosby tunes (I can only imagine how many renditions of "White Christmas"). On the 33rd day of this ordeal, the tail gunner died, and on the 47th day, he and his buddy made it to land in the Marshall Islands and were taken prisoner by the Japanese.. He spent the next two-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war, moving from one camp to the next, and finally to the Japanese mainland.

Liberation came in September, 1945, for Zamperini. He authored a book on his experiences, "Devil at my Heels, A World War II Hero's Epic Saga of Torment, Survival and Forgiveness",  and about to be published in November is a novel by Laura Hillenbrand, who wrote "Seabiscuit", about his story.

Zamperini was a runner in the Olympic Torch Relay ahead of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and the Relay leading to the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

He still lives in Hollywood and does motivational speaking and a film on his life is in development, with actor Nicolas Cage tabbed to portray his character. Other American sports heroes interrupted their careers to serve in the armed forces without regard for their safety or their cushy lives, notably Ted Williams, Bob Feller, and Jerry Coleman. Another 1936 Olympic decathlon champion Glenn Morris of Simla, Colorado and CSU, fought in the Pacific.

But some, like my hometown Omaha Benson High sports hero, Nile Kinnick, never made it home. When my father came home in 1945 to resume his life and work for his father's printing business, our neighbour across the street, a judge, welcomed home his son, Charlie Gietzen, who had flown Marine F4U Corsairs in the Solomon Islands battles, and he played catch with me on occasion as I grew up. As did my first boss at an Omaha TV station, another former Marine Corps pilot.

I spent some modest time with these memories this week as I do on this holiday each year, because they remind me of the gifts and limitless horizons the men and women who died in our service, and those who were fortunate to return, helped to make possible for me and most of my friends.

And it is why, from Lake Placid to Salt Lake, the playing of our National Anthem for an American Olympic champion, was so very inspiring and memorable for me. These athletes have stood atop the victory stand at the Games partly because of the sacrifice of the fallen in World War Two and Vietnam.  

Mike Moran was the chief communications officer of the USOC for nearly 25 years before retiring in 2003. In 2002 he was awarded with the USOC's highest award, the General Douglas MacArthur Award. He worked on New York's unsuccessful bid to host the 2012 Olympics and is now director of communications for the Colorado Springs Sports Corporation.

Jim Cowan: Will Hugh Robertson bring end to "Initiative-itis"?

Duncan Mackay

Initiative what?

Initiative-itis. No, I haven’t made a word up, that was Hugh Robertson the new Sports Minister.

Mr Robertson was interviewed in a national newspaper earlier this month and the following is an excerpt: "Robertson sees the legacy of 2012 as his top priority. 'The lack of a tangible mass-participation sports legacy from 2012 is the single biggest sports policy challenge facing the government.'

"His solution will be an end to what he calls "initiative-itis", 'dropping little pots of money here and there without any coherence', and a shake-up of the way public money is delivered in sport. He is developing a five-point plan for his policy and details will follow, but the gist is clear."

To anyone who has an inkling of what genuine sports development planning looks like, this should be welcome news, that is despite the fact Mr Robertson appears to underestimate how widespread "initiative-itis" has become over the last decade or so. The fact is, in British sport it is at epidemic, if not pandemic levels.

It isn’t only little pots of money being dropped without coherence that have undermined long term sports development planning in the UK, it is also the way many in sport try to create solutions, plug gaps and achieve targets by simply creating more and more unlinked or poorly linked initiatives. The 21st century has seen literally thousands of them.

It has reached the point where for many working in sports development has been replaced with working in sports initiative creation and delivery. Indeed, for many who were not working in sport a decade ago "initiative-itis" has been their only experience of working in the industry. Many of them have progressed to management roles honestly believing the current way is the only way meaning Mr Robertson’s five point plan to rid us of the pandemic will need to address a considerable re-education process.

How bad is the problem? If we take the Olympic Games’ shop window sport, athletics, as an example we have not seen a national strategy for the development of the sport since UK Athletics was born out of the failed British Athletic Federation in the late ‘90s. In the same period we have seen initiative after initiative launched with little (apparent) thought given to even horizontal, let alone vertical integration of these programmes.

That is not to be critical of athletics' national governing body (NGB) for many other sports have delivered so called development programmes via a series of ad hoc, sounds good this week initiatives.

Some will say that these governing bodies have had proper development strategies, UK Sport and the Home Country Sports Councils will have demanded it in return for funding.

You would hope so but that hasn’t been the case. What the DCMS’s various sports delivery bodies have demanded were what they called "One Stop Plans" and "Whole Sport Plans" which were used to evidence how the NGBs would achieve Government targets through various initiatives in their sports. That is not the same thing as a strategy for the development of said sport. It is far too narrow in definition. Indeed in some sports consultation with the grass roots, where it exists at all, has become an irrelevance as the raison d’être of many has become solely the delivery of Government agenda.

In order to look at how things can be improved, let’s take a step back and remind ourselves of something called "The Sports Development Continuum" which is the name given to the four basic stages of sports development planning: Foundation, Participation, Performance, Excellence.

Note that the four stages are not isolated silos to be treated as separate from the other three. They are a continuum; an unbroken, fluid line runs through the four. And yet the NGBs are all answerable for funding to quasi-quangos established in such a way as to deliberately create a stepped approached in place of a smooth, staged continuum. And then, even within those silos further silos have been created.

In England, UK Sport has been responsible for elite sport, Sport England for grass roots sport and the Youth Sport Trust for school sport. Mr Robertson (pictured right) could save money and do sports development planning a huge favour by simply replacing these bodies with a single UK wide organisation for the development of sport and for distributing the funding thereof.

Logically, many NGBs have mirrored parts of this fractured structure and established UK bodies and Home Country bodies along the same lines. Initiatives have flourished where sound, continuum based planning has withered.

But there will be those who advise Mr Robertson that his aim of "a tangible mass-participation sports legacy" cannot be delivered via the sports development continuum model. They would argue that the sports development continuum model assumes a progression along the continuum which for most is simply not possible, that it focuses on the development needs of a talented elite few.

They are, quite simply, wrong. They misunderstand the application of the sports development continuum to planning. The continuum does not take individuals in at Foundation and seek to channel them through all the way to Excellence at its end, although it should offer that as both opportunity and aspiration to all.

What the continuum offers is a way into sport at every stage for everyone. It offers the opportunity to progress to those who want to at every stage. It offers the chance to stay and enjoy at each stage. It offers the chance to return to a previous stage to all on its path. And, being a continuum there are no clear dividing lines between the four stages, they blur, blend into one large process of sports development focused on the wants and needs of each individual.

Yes, within the continuum there could be any number of ‘initiatives’ but they will be designed to provide ways in and ways to progress on as well as ways to happily participate at each individuals’ current level.

Doing this properly demands a high level of strategic planning. Consider this list: Participants (those actively taking part); Facilities; Coaches; Officials (referees and umpires); Clubs; Schools; Higher & Further Education; Local Authorities; Communities; Equity; Events & Competition; Education & Training; Staff (paid and unpaid); Funding, Sponsorship & Commercial; Communications; Player Support Services (eg medical, educational, equipment, etc); Recruitment & Retention; And the list goes on and each of the areas stated can be further sub-divided.

Then consider planning that lot into a continuum based strategy to develop sport. It is not good enough to simply plan initiates for (eg) schools without considering the quality and availability of coaching, the links to the community and to local clubs or even the availability of clubs locally. What of competition provision or of the desire to pursue a sport enjoyed once the school child has experienced it? All of these elements and more need considering and properly planning.

And that planning cannot take place in isolation. There is little point in having a strategy for (eg) the development of coaching if it pays no heed to where, how many and of what quality coaches are both needed and wanted (not always the same). Then what of school plans which might create future demand? Then what get the picture.

A horizontally integrated strategy will cover everything needed to develop coaching but not necessarily to develop the coaching that is needed. To do that requires vertical integration of planning; that is planning that considers the implications of everything on everything! Go back to our list of areas requiring attention and consider planning in a vertically integrated way to cover the impact of each item listed on every other item listed. You soon begin to see why simply designing initiatives in the hope they will be successful is a system doomed to fail.

Consider the school in the East Midlands that offered its students a programme that included one sport that had no club or infrastructure within 30 miles. It’s like offering a taste of the Promised Land and then saying, "Sorry, you can’t have any more". Is this how we encourage people to take up AND stay in sport?

Or consider the local authority in Yorkshire which offered a summer full of initiatives for youngsters without discussing any of them with local clubs. Those clubs were then unready and ill prepared for the young people wanting to join turning a positive first experience into potentially a negative second one or even no second experience at all. Is this how we encourage people to take up AND stay in sport?

Then consider the club in Lancashire which ran such a successful recruitment campaign that it was swamped with young people wanting to join. Unfortunately they had forgotten that recruiting more youngsters would also require recruiting and training more coaches! Is this how we encourage people to take up AND stay in sport?

These are examples of where a decade or more of initiative led sports ‘planning’ has led us. We need to get back to strategy led; sports development continuum based planning if the resources of time, personnel and money are not going to continue to be wasted.

And vertically integrating planning would not just be better for the properly planned development of sport, it would also be beneficial to the nation’s purse as money is specifically, strategically targeted rather than thrown at piecemeal initiatives apparently randomly spawned by silo led horizontal thinking.

Mr Robertson’s desire to end "initiative-itis" should be applauded but doing so will require a huge shift in culture for those directing and managing sport in the UK and will demand significant restructuring. It is to be hoped his plans will be supported and not resisted.

Jim Cowan is a former athlete, coach, event organiser and sports development specialist who is the founder of Cowan Global, a company specialising in consultancy, events and education and training. For more details click here

Martin Corry: Inviting athlete input on anti-doping sends positive message

Duncan Mackay
Some of the recent back-page headlines have shown that, like it or not, anti-doping is part and parcel of being an elite athlete.

Whether it’s chasing a rugby ball for 80 minutes or running 200 metres in 20 seconds, the responsibility to compete clean remains a constant. I believe it is absolutely essential - this is why I applied to sit on UK Anti-Doping’s new Athlete Committee, and also why I was delighted to be successful.

It is vital that there are visible and open means of communication between athletes and authorities and, recognising this, UK Anti-Doping has made a real statement of intent by establishing the Athlete Committee - they want to work with us and not against us.

Since retiring from rugby in 2009, I have joined Premier Rugby Ltd in an advisory role and also sit on the Rugby Union Illicit Drugs Forum, which has introduced illicit drug education, testing, sanctioning and rehabilitation to support the Rugby Football Union's anti-doping policy, experience I believe will stand me in good stead as I take on this new challenge.

In 17 years of playing senior rugby, I was subject to regular testing not only domestically but internationally as well. As far as I was concerned it went with the territory and I was safe in the knowledge that I was being true to myself, to my team and to my sport.

However I am equally aware of the pressures players face in training, in matches and in the day to day demands of being a professional. With the correct education and the right approach, we can go some way to ensuring that anti-doping does not add to these pressures.

My own experience of captaining both club and country also ensures that I know what is required when acknowledging both sides of the coin. It is part of a skipper’s duties to represent your team mates to the management and vice versa, and I believe this is an apt comparison to make when considering the role of the Committee

Those selected represent a real cross-section of elite sport. It will be very interesting to share experiences and gain a different insight outside of rugby union, particularly from an Olympic and Paralympic perspective. It will also be great to discuss how the subject of anti-doping is best addressed. 

Athletes need to know that anti-doping is a two-way process and the Committee is one way of ensuring this message gets across.

I am very much looking forward to meeting my fellow members at our first gathering in August. Even though we are yet to sit down and start our discussions, I already know that there is one thing we all have in common - we are passionate about protecting sport, not just our own but in general.

Doping is cheating and there is simply no place for cheats. But on another level, it is only right that those who are expected to adhere to a rigorous anti-doping programme are given the opportunity to contribute opinion on what it entails. I feel privileged to play my part.

Martin Corry captained England's rugby union team from 2005-2007 and was a member of the World Cup winning squad of 2003. During his time with Leicester Tigers, the club won five league titles and two European Cups. He also won six caps with the British and Irish Lions. UK Anti-Doping is the national anti-doping organisation for the UK.

Andy Pink: Three defeats but we are on the right road for London 2012

Duncan Mackay

Travel day/Wednesday May 19, 2010

After our remarkable victory over Azerbaijan in Sheffield on Saturday, we find ourselves on a bus to Stansted airport not four days later.  We are through to the second round of qualifying matches for the European Volleyball Championships 2011 where we will face Finland, Greece and Latvia.  For those of you out there who assume we travel first class, let this be a lesson about making assumptions.  We politely queued for our Ryan Air flight. Thanks to some creative priority boarding, we managed to monopolise most of the exit-row seating, which for a team of very tall people, is the holy grail of travel necessities. 

There was one slight issue upon arrival in Riga. Mosquitoes. Lots of Mosquitoes. Just to try and give you a mental picture...the Riga airport is about 20 minutes drive out of the city centre and appeared to be located in a swamp. We stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac, and those little blood-suckers literally blocked out the setting sun. Cue hilarious scenes of people trying to sprint to the terminal building with their overweight carry-on luggage all the while swatting mosquitoes left, right and centre. I would have been rolling around on the floor laughing if I wasn’t worried about catching malaria. 

We passed through customs and baggage reclaim easy enough, although I was gutted to come second in our little "baggage" game. Anyone who wants to play places all the loose change in their pocket into a kitty, and the first bag that pops out on the conveyor belt is the winner. Our physio Karen won a cool £9, I came second and won nothing. Latvia isn’t on the Euro, so I’m secretly hoping that I do not finish first on the way back either. A pocket full of Lats doesn’t buy you much in the UK after all. We have a full day of training tomorrow before our first match versus the host Latvians on Friday night.


We got our first look at the venue for the upcoming matches today, and the Latvians have taken it up a notch. We are playing in the fantastic Arena Riga which hosts Ice hockey and major international music acts. It can seat 11,200. We had a great crowd in Sheffield last week, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Latvians get 5,000 people in the door, of course complete with air horns, drums and whistles. This is volleyball as it should be.  The team is very excited as we sense we have some momentum and a real chance to raise some eyebrows across the volleyball world.  As we had to come through the first round of qualifying we are seeded fourth in this pool of four but we are confident of doing better than that.  It is an intensely focussed day. 

Friday/Match versus Latvia

Tonight we played our first match of the second round versus the hosts Latvia. I wish I could report that we were victorious but tonight it just didn’t happen for us. We lost 3-1 in a very tight contest. We had numerous opportunities to win each of the first three sets but we couldn’t turn the big points in our favour. I suppose the silver lining is that two years ago we would have been happy with our performance but this time around we are bitterly disappointed. We know we can play better and should be beating teams like Latvia now. All credit to the Latvians; they played a smart match and took advantage of their large home crowd. The match was live on TV here in Latvia and also on the web so thanks to all who tuned in and supported Team GB. We are not here to make up the numbers any longer, we are here to win matches at this level and also gain respect for all the hard work everyone involved with the GB program has put in.  Although we may not have won our match vs. Latvia we certainly gained their respect. The Latvian coach was very complimentary after the match and said he was very surprised at our level. 

Saturday/ Match versus Finland

It was difficult to sleep last night. Evidently Friday night at the Europa Hotel Riga is music night, and on the floor above us the only swing band in Latvia played for far too long into the night.  I’m certain the bass player was squarely over my bed. They were pretty good to be fair to them, but it just wasn’t what the team had in mind after the disappointing loss to Latvia. 

Although we lost 3-0 to Finland, we didn’t disgrace ourselves in the slightest. When this Olympic cycle started a team of the calibre of Finland would have put out their second team against us and laughed all the way to an easy win. That just isn’t the case anymore. We pushed their best players all the way and even had a sniff at taking a set or two ourselves. I only played the first set as we were determined to get everyone on the squad experience against one of the top teams in Europe. It was an absolute pleasure to watch the younger guys play.  Watching how good our young guys are now and thinking of how good they can be and it makes one think about volleyball in the UK in future.

Here’s hoping Pits Andersons & the Swamp Shakers haven’t got an encore planned for tonight!

Sunday Night/ Match versus Greece

I’m writing this from the Riga airport very early Monday morning, the morning after our final match of the weekend versus Greece.  The match was a similar story to the other two from this weekend. We controlled large portions of the match and again had some set points we didn’t take advantage of resulting in a close loss 3-0.

Perhaps the easiest way to judge our efforts is to compare them to our results from this same competition two years ago. In that tournament we showed a flash or two of our potential but it was far too infrequent and we were outclassed. We lost to Greece that day two years ago 25-10 or thereabouts, so we should be quietly pleased that against Greece two years later we had set points and perhaps should have been leading the match 2-0

We now begin an insane travel schedule. I always have a chuckle to myself when you hear football commentators say, "Oh they played a mid week match in Europe, they must be tired for Sunday’s match".  We have played three matches in three days; will spend an entire day getting back from Riga via Stansted to Sheffield, and upon arrival get off the bus and go directly into a weights workout. I, like the rest of the squad, will then have 36 hours to unpack, wash and repack before we leave again for the second leg of this competition in Greece. I am personally looking forward to getting a secondchance to beat the same teams and some feta cheese. Opa!

Andy Pink, who plays for Bassano in Italy, is Britain's vice-captain.

Alan Hubbard: Jacques Rogge should forget chess and put roller derby into the Olympics

Duncan Mackay

So, the newly-elected chairman of Russia’s Olympic Committee reckons it is time chess was added to the Olympic programme. Moreover, Alexander Zhukov says he will be putting pressure on IOC president Jacques Rogge for its inclusion, adding ominously: "Regrettably, the IOC  doesn’t want to add that sport to the Olympic programme, but we will insist."

Hmm. Interesting phraseology. Seems Mr Zhukov, a member of the  Russian cabinet and former head of Russia’s chess federation is making the sort of offer that sounds more in keeping with the Russian mafia.

But, of course, the IOC will refuse it? Won’t they? The overtures from chess have been on the table for some time, citing its global popularity, and it is known that there are elements within the IOC who  would like to see the Games become more cerebral.

But if they ever let in chess, where will it end. Scrabble? Poker? Backgammon? How about a spot of Sudoku?

All worthy and popular pursuits which might consider they too are worth an Olympic berth should chess get the nod?

But do any meet the IOC criteria of being telegenic? Goodness, if squash can’t get in because it apparently lacks visual appeal what chance does chess have?

No, what the Olympics needs is something that will quicken the pulses not slow them down to the point of nodding off. Which brings me to a sport which slots neatly into the philosophy of the modern Games:

Exciting, inexpensive to stage, great TV, commercially attractive and with a massive appeal to women. 

Think the opening of the doors on the first day of a Harrods sale as a horde of screeching females barge and bully their way towards the bargains, all  slam, bam and not so much as a thank you m’am. Put them on roller skates, dress them in fishnet tights, gold lame hot pants or mini skirts - not forgetting the gumshields and helmets - and you have Roller Derby, one of the fastest-growing contact sports, designed especially for women.

What is roller derby, you ask? Well, with Drew Barrymore's directorial debut Whip It! recently released, the coming-of-age drama starring Ellen Page is propelling the sport to become one of the biggest hits of the year.

Last Saturday night the ticket touts were out in force in Tottenham, not for anything happening football-wise at White Hart Lane but outside the local leisure centre just down the road where the Steam Rollers met the Suffra Jets. This same venue also staged  Britain’s  first-ever roller derby international, between The London Rollergirls and Canada, before a capacity crowd.

Since the first roller derby league was launched in the UK four years ago virtually every match has been a sell-out, particularly in London where some 50 women of all shapes, sizes, age and nationalities spend a couple of evenings a week spinning around an elliptical track in pursuit only of points for each opposing player they pass. And if they can shove them out of the way, or even knock them down, so much the better.

Hands, knees and plenty of boomps-a-daisy. It’s speed skating with attitude for these hell-for-leather angels, and inevitably there are a few unladylike brawls between women whose more demure day jobs range from an accountant to a qualified to psychologist.
But once dolled up in their retro combat outfits they adopt alter egos, with accompanying stage names, such as Sleazy Rider, Bette Noire and Grace of Wrath.  

These are the ladies who crunch. It may not sound terribly Olympian, but with Rogge’s new accent on "yoof" and wanting to show the Games' feminine side, could Roller Derby’s time be coming?

Something which began in Depression-era America as a mixed sport but is now generally played only by women in 135 US leagues, is gaining popularity throughout Europe and with teams in a dozen British towns and cities.

So why become a Rollergirl? Preston-born Stephanie Ross, aka Correctional Felicity explains: "There’s not much else a 27-year- old can do when you want to take up a sport.  And as it’s girls-only sport you don’t get guys doing it who are better than you. It’s a full-on game. 

"You hit people really hard and get a lot of aggression out of your system.  Basically you hit them with your full body but you can’t hit their heads or their back or below the knee. You go for the shoulder or the chest. It’s a real adrenaline booster. You hit each other and then you go for a drink afterwards, a bit like rugby I suppose."

TJ Usher, (Dot Slash) is a former figure skater took it up after seeing a documentary called Roller Girls in the US. "I find it physically challenging, a good way to keep fit and make new friends.  You get rid of aggression in a controlled environment. I don’t like gyms, I find them boring, and there are no other sports that interest me. Fitness is the main thing, I reckon you can burn off about 500 calories an hour which for a woman is a good thing.  It means you can eat as many cakes as you want afterwards. As a sport, it’s cool.”

Not all Rollergirls are Amazons. Some mere slips of things, like Jess Holland, (Sky Rockit), a 26-year-old London journalist. "I played roller-hockey at university and read about London Rollergirls in Time Out.  I like the fact that it’s all girls and that you can dress up a bit and have an a different persona. It suits all shapes and sizes and you don’t get your usual sporty types doing it. We have quite a few Aussies and Americans involved but so far it does not seem to have caught on among the ethnic community.  There used to be one or two men’s teams years ago, but now it is all women.  It’s is not just a feminist thing, but I think it is a way of women becoming more assertive."

Although men are not allowed to skate, they can pitch in as referees , masseurs and medics (bruises are the norm and broken bones not unknown). "This is something we take seriously as a sport," says Jayne Mahoney (Fox Sake), whose husband Dave is the London announcer: "And when you’ve had a bad day there’s nothing like putting your skates on and knocking the crap out of someone else."

Beats chess, don’t you think?

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics

David Owen: Ben Johnson's coach was my sporting hero

Duncan Mackay

This month I have been mourning one of my sporting heroes, Charles Merrick Francis.

Yes, that Charles Merrick Francis, the man who coached Ben Johnson, the disgraced Canadian sprinter, and who died of cancer on May 12, aged 61.

It was not, of course, his use of anabolic steroids that made me grow to respect Francis.

Although I can understand how he came to conclude in the 1970s and 80s that, in his words, "As I saw it, a coach had two options: He could face reality and plan an appropriate response, or he could bury his head in the sand while his athletes fell behind".

After all, as he also wrote: "Throughout two decades of acknowledged doping in East Germany…only one G.D.R. athlete has failed a drug test at an international competition."

Nor would I necessarily quibble with the opinion attributed by Francis to a respected medical director that, "when regulated in small doses [my italics], there was no evidence that anabolic steroids had any significant side effects".

What qualified him for hero status in my eyes was the way he reacted to the disaster of Johnson’s sensational positive test at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

He tried - without undue delay - to tell the truth, both in 29 hours of testimony to the Commission of Inquiry into the Use of Drugs and Banned Practices Intended to Increase Athletic Performance, the so-called Dubin Inquiry, and in a subsequent book.

To quote him once again, this time at length:

"As I saw it, I could only gain by providing the Inquiry with the fullest and most detailed truth.

"I had lost my career and my athletes.

"I’d been branded a cheat, a Svengali, and even (by the more imaginative commentators) a pusher of drugs to children.

"I’d been portrayed as a coach who took short cuts because he couldn’t succeed in any other way…

"But while my career was a dead issue, I thought I might still salvage my reputation and those of my athletes…

"There was more at stake, of course, than my personal honour.

"In giving my testimony, I hoped that others would be induced to follow my lead."

To my mind, that book, Speed Trap, written with Jeff Coplon, is one of the best sports books ever published.

I don’t know if everything in it is true.

And what it does not do is provide a definitive explanation of how Johnson came to test positive after the most important race of his life when, in Francis’s words, "using the same steroid, Ben had tested clean on 29 previous occasions".

Actually, more than 20 years after the event, I think we still await a wholly convincing explanation.

But the tone is unflinching, matter-of-fact and utterly candid.

The picture it paints is at times shockingly bleak, sometimes perhaps unjustifiably so.

Francis could, in my experience, be cynical about the world at large.

I would hope, for example, that in this passage relating to the tragic 1972 Munich Games, in which he competed, he was mistaken about athletes’ reactions.

"The massacre evoked little outward emotion among the Village survivors," he wrote.

"The incident was jolting, even numbing - but there were still races to be won, medals to be earned.

"Olympic athletes are the most single-minded people on earth.

"Their grand obsession cannot be shaken by a last-minute intrusion of the real world."

When talking about the nitty-gritty of track and field and, in particular of course sprinting, however, the insights are profound, the prose lucid and the messages simple to comprehend.

Take this on his training methods:

"My theory was simple: Sprinters needed to train at race pace, both to imprint the higher speeds on their muscle memory and to acclimatize their muscles and tendons to the demands of racing…

"No one in North America conducted special endurance drills this fast."

Or this on the peculiar discipline that is sprinting:

"The 100 metres is track’s ultimate challenge precisely because it is so austere, so short…

"Precision matters more than effort…

"In the greater athletic community, however, sprinters get little respect.

"Distance runners disdain them for their lack of suffering.

"These Calvinists equate pain with achievement…"

Or this on the anguish that lies in store for all but the lucky and hyper-talented few:

"My chosen sport was one of ultimate frustration for almost everyone who played.

"There can only be one Olympic champion.

"The rest of us must confront our limitations.

"It might happen at the local level, or at the national, but we reach a point where we stop winning.

"(The purest expression of competitive agony is the face of a silver medallist just after a near-miss for the gold.

"I’ve lost, the face tells you, I’m a loser.)”

He must, in short, have been a brilliant coach.

On a bitterly cold Toronto day five months ago at Christmas-time, Francis had the good grace to spend a good two hours answering my questions, though he was plainly very ill.

I’m grateful that I had that opportunity to meet him face-to-face.

Now that we can no longer do so, it would be a fitting tribute if someone would re-publish Speed Trap, which has become quite scarce.

David Owen is a specialist sports journalist who worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering last year's Beijing Olympics. An archive of Owen’s material may be found by Twitter users at

Daniel Keatings: From the highs of success to the lows of injury

Duncan Mackay

It took a while for the World Championship silver medal to sink in but this time round, at the Europeans, I knew as soon as I saw the last competitor Flavius Koczi make a small error during his routine. I am the European pommel champion!

I think as a nation, GB has some of the best pommel horse workers in the world, not only at senior level but also at junior and development.

I knew that it was only a matter of time before we would claim the top two spots on the podium at a major championship; gold and silver at the European Championships - what an achievement.

Fresh from my success I was whisked away for two days straight of media interviews and appearances. It was hectic but a great experience.

On Wednesday I was back at the gym and things were getting back to normal. It was the start of the preparations for the World Championships in Rotterdam, which is the first qualifier for the Olympics and as a team we have to ensure we finish in the top 24 to move onto the next qualifying stage.

Training was going well and spirits were high after the successes from the weekend before. But during the afternoon training session on the tumble track, I landed awkwardly during a normal routine that saw me hyper extend my legs.

As a precaution I went to the local hospital that took x-rays and discharged me with a referral to my physiotherapist, the GB medical team then sent me for an MRI scan. Unfortunately the MRI scan showed a tear to my anterior cruciate ligament which meant I would need an operation to reconstruct the ligament. 

I was admitted to the Lister Hospital in London. Mr William who performed the operation is one of the best in his field. 

The good news is, he said the operation was a great success and after rehabilitation I would be back fitter and stronger than before. The down side; rehabilitation is six to nine months and I have been told I will be unable to compete until this time, which unfortunately means I will miss this year’s World Championships.

I am disappointed but the GB team does contain a group of strong and excellent gymnasts who will be fighting to get into the team, including, some quality juniors who are now ready to step up to the senior level.

I have every confidence that team GB will have an extremely successful Championship and get through to the second Olympic qualification stage - I wish them every success and will supporting from the side lines.

Daniel Keatings, who is powered by Opus Energy, made history last October when he became the first British gymnast to win a medal in the All-Around event at the World Gymnastics Championships. To find out more about his sponsorship deal with Opus Energy click here

Suzi Williams: BT Is delighted to continue support for ParalympicsGB until 2016

Duncan Mackay

Sitting at lunch with Oscar Pistorious yesterday was the starting gun for me on this year's BT Paralympic World Cup.

In Manchester over the next seven days, starting tomorrow (May 25) and continuing through until next Monday (May 31), more than 300 of the world's elite Paralympians will be competing at the event - which is regarded by many as one of the most important stepping stones to the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

It's a fantastic opportunity to see the world's elite in action. Many of the athletes we'll see competing over the next week will be at the start line of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. The competition gets stronger every year and it really reinforces for me the power of Parlaympic sport to inspire, connect and engage people of all ages and backgrounds.

BT Ambassadors Oscar Pistorius and Liz Johnson will be there of course at the heart of the action. The BT Ambassador programme is our way of engaging and inspiring our people and our customers as London 2012 gets closer, and it's a pleasure and a privilege for me to work closely with people like Oscar and Liz along our journey.

The athletes are doing a fantastic job for us - whether competing, speaking at internal or customer events, or supporting our wider PR and marketing programmes.

We wish them and all the athletes the very best of luck as they compete over the next few days.

The start of this year's BT Paralympic World Cup also provides us with the perfect opportunity to announce our increased commitment to Paralympic sport. It's something that BT is very proud of, and I am pleased to say we are now doing even more to help secure a lasting legacy for Paralympic sport in the UK. 

Beyond 2012 BT is committing to continue its support of the British Paralympic Association (BPA) all the way to January 2016. This means we will help support ParalympicsGB athletes as they compete in Sochi in 2014 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016. BT will have exclusive partner rights with the BPA and the highest level of sponsorship rights. 

It's a very exciting time, with a little over two years to the start of London 2012.  In our role as official communications services partner, BT is delivering the most connected Games ever, and ensuring everyone can be involved in the Games like never before.  Every image, every sports report, every visit to the London 2012 website and millions of calls, e-mails and texts will be delivered over BT networks.

Suzi Williams is BT Group marketing and brand director. BT is the official communications services partner for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and title sponsor of the BT Paralympic World Cup. For more information click here