Surviving the Olympic village
Voice of experience ... Torchbearer Steve Redgrave carries the Olympic flame into the stadium.
After all the years of dedication and self-sacrifice, all the dieting and regimented sleep patterns, you might assume as an athlete that you have the power to resist temptation for just a few more days. But if you are not careful, the Olympic Village can take on the feel of a parallel universe.
Your sport is just a single element of what goes on at the Games, and it is all too easy to become distracted, because your training has been tapered down. You are preparing yourself for the event and tending, unwittingly, to stay in the eating halls for far longer than normal.
These halls in the village are unlike anything you have ever seen: the quality and range of food is extraordinary. Let us look at the extremes. If you are a female gymnast, the way you look is crucially important and you will be ultra-careful about what you eat.
Inside the Olympic village
Damiano Martinuzzi of Belgium plays pool at the Olympic Village. Photo: AFP Photo
But as a rower you are on a 7,000-calorie-a-day regime, tempted to wolf down whatever is in front of you. While we were staying in Banyoles for the Barcelona Games in 1992, it emerged that we had eaten an average of eight Magnum ice creams a day.
You need to have the pressures of competition with you at all times. Everybody, even if they are not in the frame for a gold, should be trying to set a personal best on the Olympic stage. But some have achieved their goals simply by being selected, so the impulse is to think, 'Why not enjoy myself?' The entertainment areas in the village allow plenty of opportunity. At several Games where I competed, bands were brought in during the evenings.
At our complex in Santa Barbara during the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, there were video arcades, too. They came with unlimited credit. And I ended up playing them so much that I developed a wrist condition called tenosynovitis, where the sheaf around the tendons tightens up painfully.
I assumed that it was a result of my sessions on the water, because it can often flare up in rowing, weightlifting, or any sport putting repetitious strain upon the wrists. I was too scared to tell my coach, but as I walking back to the physio's room I noticed the arcade was empty. I could not resist one more go at the game - called, ironically enough, 'The Olympic Games' - and realised in that moment that it was the source of my problem.
Twitter will be the media phenomenon of the London Olympics, but I firmly believe that athletes should not use it during competition time. I saw a tweet recently from my long-time crewmate, Matthew Pinsent, which said to Australian journalists: "Dear Aussie media, if your men's four does not win a world or Olympic title for 14 years, it is time to stop called them 'Oarsome'." I thought, 'Oh Matthew, why are you saying that?' The gold in the four will be decided between ourselves and the Australians, in all likelihood by a very slender margin, so that form of banter is only going to make the opposition angrier and more determined to turn over the Poms.
Emails can be a similar peril. The technology began to come in at the time of the Barcelona Games, and it was the first time that our accreditation allowed us to use the email facility within the village, to contact other athletes. But it rapidly got out of hand. I remember Greg and Jonny Searle's opponents in the coxed pair receiving emails from Jonny saying, "We're going to beat you", and it stressed them out. People were pinching one another's passcodes and I know Steffi Graf became very agitated about some of the obscene messages sent to her.
Dealing with rivals
My attitude was consistent throughout my Olympic career: I would never blank my rivals, because it would only rile them to try even harder. Never wind them up. Of course, I did not want to be too friendly with them, either. I wanted to preserve some of the edge. I wanted to talk to the opposition but I would not go out of my to do so. We have a saying in rowing: 'The b------- stops when the racing starts.' In other words, if you do not have the talent, it is very difficult to bluff it. When you are racing, it is a question of what you are capable of doing, not of how much you have talked yourself up. You have to produce on the water.
I am not convinced that any gesture of outright hostility will make a difference. You have to work out what approach is going to yield the right result. Mike Spracklen, the coach for my first two Olympic golds, also mentored Michael Hart and Chris Baillieu in the double sculls when they won a silver at the Montreal Games in 1976. They were both very different characters: Michael laid-back and quiet, Chris intense and hyperactive. He had to give them warm-up chats separately. Pinsent and I were fortunate in that we had such similar outlooks on life.
Some competitors require a huge entourage, to tell them how fantastic they are, whereas others need quietening down. Rafael Nadal, who unfortunately will not be at these Olympics, has his uncle coaching him and his family around to keep his feet planted on the ground. His character is in many respects shaped by the people who guide him and look after him still.
Many parents live vicariously through the success of their children and are too wired about the Olympic experience. My advice to athletes would be: do not get diverted. By all means, see your family, but do not let it detract from what you are striving to accomplish. You have the rest of your lives to share your achievement.
When I first turned up at junior events, it felt embarrassing to have my parents there. By the time I was entering major international regattas, they brought along a camper van and it was pleasant, after weeks of training alone, to spend time with them. It broke the routine.
At my later Olympics in Atlanta and Sydney, they were looking after the children while my wife Ann and I stayed in the village. So your family can perform a crucial role. You need your relatives and friends to help you through an Olympic fortnight. In an atmosphere this intense, everybody plays a part.
Sir Steve Redgrave is an Olympic gold medallist and former member of the British rowing team.
The Telegraph, London