Loughborough, England: All roads lead to London for the world’s Olympic athletes but those competing for Britain, no matter where they come from, cannot get there until they have been through Loughborough.
Every member of the biggest team at the Games, 542 athletes and some 450 support staff, will have passed through the ‘Team GB experience’ at Preparation Camp in this central English university town before the start of competition.
They will have been kitted out for every occasion, carting away bags of free clothing and equipment by the airport trolley load, had their hands and feet cast in plaster for posterity and signed a wall of fame destined for a new museum to open in the London Olympic Park in 2014.
The equipment list includes hoodies, sports bras for women and Bermudas for men, a red plastic duck bath toy with ‘I’m Squeaky Clean’ on it — a reminder from UK anti-doping — an iPod pre-loaded with cheering, playing cards and flip-flops.
Most importantly, the five ‘One Team GB’ core values of performance, respect, unity, responsibility and pride which cover everything from dress code to social media will have been signed up to.
Loughborough — synonymous with elite sport in Britain and alma mater to London Games chairman and twice Olympic gold medallist Seb Coe — is where the hard miles and years of sacrifice suddenly translate into something very tangible.
“It’s been an absolutely amazing experience, probably one of the best experiences I’ve had as an athlete,” badminton mixed doubles player Chris Adcock said after being kitted out on a rainy Monday morning.
“It makes me feel like part of Team GB...this is where it really sinks in. It’s really hammered it home today that we’re close and we’re getting there.”
Where athletes were once just handed team clothing with a hope that it fitted, nothing is left to chance now.
Former rugby World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward has played a key role as director of elite performance at the British Olympic Association and preparations have been meticulous to ensure the team look and feel like one united whole at all times.
The message is clear from the moment an athlete walks through the door at Loughborough, with the key values painted in bold on the walls, along with inspirational phrases.
“Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen,” declares one. “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much,” reads another.
“Respect is a lot more important, and a lot greater, than popularity.”
Mike Hay, the Preparation Camp director, said athletes came in representing individual sports but left feeling part of something much bigger.
Ben Hunt-Davis, a 2000 gold medallist who rowed in the Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney Games and is now working with Team GB, wished he had enjoyed such attention to detail during his competitive years.
“For Barcelona, the kitting out was in the back of the old BOA offices, in the garage. There were three wooden trestle tables and someone had stuck a suitcase on,” he told Reuters.
“They asked you what size you were — I said extra large or XXL or whatever it was — and they’d go ’here are three T-shirts, here’s a tracksuit and a long-sleeved top’. It would get chucked in the suitcase...and 15 minutes later job done.
“And you’d then arrive and find that actually most of the stuff was the wrong size, didn’t fit and you’d got to try and swap it or spend your time walking around the village in effectively a crop-top or something,” he grinned.
The 2012 British Olympians are attended to by ‘garment technologists’ working for retailer Next with tailors and seamstresses on site to alter instantly any of the 66 jacket sizes and 51 variations of trousers.
The changing booths — with chairs upholstered in the British colours — have motivational messages from athletes who competed in the 1948 Games in London, when austerity ruled and shorts might be made out of wartime blackout curtains.
“Wear your outfit with pride. It’s the greatest honour to represent your country,” wrote long jumper Lorna Lee-Price in one of them.
The 2012 formal suits have buttons with ‘Better Never Stops’ inscribed on them, while the Olympic oath is written on the inside of trouser waistbands.
The attire for the July 27 opening ceremony remains top secret, although some reports have already alluded to flashy gold ‘Elvis jackets’. Perhaps more alluring is an Aladdin’s Cave of Stella McCartney-designed clothes and shoes provided by sponsor Adidas.
“Free kit is always great,” Hunt-Davis said. “But you can’t buy this stuff...qualifying for it, earning it, coming in to pick it up and then competing in it is really special.”
Imogen Bankier, Adcock’s playing partner agreed, after going through the experience of trying out clothes with a media audience.
“It’s very special. What a day. It’s the first step to becoming part of this greater team which is a fantastic feeling. And picking up kilos of kit is never a hardship.”