POSTED: July 20th 2011

NEIL WILSON: Should athletes have the right to march in the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony?

The London 2012 Olympic Stadium / LOCOG - Getty Images
The London 2012 Olympic Stadium / LOCOG - Getty Images

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LONDON, Jul 20: What do Linford Christie, Jonathan Edwards, Sally Gunnell and Kelly Holmes have in common beyond their Olympic gold medals? None attended the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in which they won them.

Frankie Fredericks, Christie’s good friend and former training partner, went public this month with his opposition to the edict issued by Britain’s chief athletics coach Charles van Commenee that none of his athletes could attend the ceremony in London next year.

"I think it’s important for the athletes to make sure they can go if they wish,” said Fredericks, chairman of the IOC’s athletes commission.

Some may wish but it is a wish denied by the Dutch coach. The majority of his team will be away at a training camp in Portugal when the ceremony is held. 

Those who have returned to Britain early enough after altitude training will be forbidden attendance.

Van Commenee cites many valid reasons, not least the time and effort involved in marshalling outside the stadium and marching around it. Most of all he sees it as a distraction from the only reason athletes are at the Games – to give of their best in competition.

I consulted Gunnell for her view. The hurdler competed in three Olympic Games, in Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta, and never attended an opening ceremony. “Now I think I would have liked to but as an athlete it was all about preparation. Opening ceremonies are not easy things to do. They are tiring, lot of standing around and you miss most of it because you are outside the stadium waiting to go on,” she said.

“As an athlete you are not there for ceremonials. It’s all about performance, doing your best, and anything that gets in the way of that should be avoided.”

That four of Britain’s most successful Olympic athletes did not march before they won is entirely coincidental. They did not march either at the Games in which they did not win. And, after all, US athletes invariably march and more of them win. Carl Lewis recalled hanging around for two hours outside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before the opening ceremony in 1984, but he was to win four gold medals there.

Van Commenee is not inflicting a Dutch practice on the British. It has been the custom within British track and field teams at Olympic Games at each Games since 1984 to prepare themselves at a camp outside the host nation. Few British athletes, therefore, arrive in an Olympic city in time to march.

This time it is an order, and since Britain is the host nation, it is controversial. Only the athletes, it seems, support their coach. Jessica Ennis, Britain’s heptathlon world champion, puts it simply: “We are there to compete.”

Van Commenee has made one concession. His team will be allowed to watch the ceremony. On a giant TV screen at their Portugese hotel.

NEIL WILSON reported his first Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. He has since covered another nine summer and nine winter Olympics for various newspapers, including The Independent and the Daily Mail with whom he has worked for the last 19 years as Athletics and Olympic correspondent. He was Britain's Sports Journalist of the Year in 1984 and is the author of seven books.

Keywords · IOC · Olympic Games · opening ceremony

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