Karen Pickering MBE, the Sports Ambassador for British Athletes Commission, four time gold medallist at the World Championships, two time gold medallist and flag carrier at the closing ceremony of the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester had nothing but praise and astonishment for the success of the 2012 Olympic Games when I spoke to her this week.
We talked about the difference from the pressures of being out of the swimming pool commentating on the Games, to being right at the heart of the battle, swimming for the top medals. “When I arrived at the pool, I arrived quite nervous which was a worry because I didn’t need to worry about competing in the race, or if I had remembered everything to take with me.” Pickering said.
However, this did open the 2002 Commonwealth 200m Freestyle champion's eyes to the pressure of the swimmers. She said that “It was then I realised how much pressure you are under as an athlete, you don’t realise until that pressure is no longer there.”
The atmosphere at the 2012 London Games were something that the audience and athletes had never experienced before. Pickering suggests that one of the reasons Team GB beat the medal count achieved in Beijing, in both the, Olympic and Paralympic Games, was as a result of the home support increasing their performance. “When we look at home advantage it lifts the medal counts fairly significantly, you have a bigger team but generally the athlete will rise.”
Pickering pointed to the performances of Jessica Ennis and Ellie Simmonds during the Games as 'incredible' performances, despite the pressure that was placed on the pair as the faces of the London 2012 games. “There was nobody at the Olympic Games with more pressure on them than Jess Ennis. She stepped out in front of 80,000 people and won gold.
"In the Paralympic games Ellie Simmonds had a 60ft poster of her herself on the side of the building as you walk into Westfield Shopping Centre, we saw her world record taken in March and she stepped up to break the world record and take gold. It was truly an incredible experience”
However, it was not a given that all the home athletes could raise their performances; much was expected of swimmer Rebecca Adlington after her achievements in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She could not repeat her golden performance in the Fast East but did manage to secure two bronze medals.
The 2002 Commonwealth flag carrier said, “I don’t believe that too much support can hurt a performance, I just think its whether and how you deal with it and your frame of mind coming into the event. Maybe some people weren’t prepared to able to handle it in the right way.”
The 200m Short Course World Champion in Athens, 2000 pointed towards the way Tom Daley carried himself through the Olympics. After he and his partner Peter Waterfield failed to get a medal in the 10m Platform Synchronized Dive he was subject to a high amount of criticism. "The way in which Daley responded to win Bronze in the Mens Individual 10m Platform event was inspirational considering what the young man has been through," Pickering added. "It was very special, with the death of his father, but he is very good at compartmentalising things. He knows in one area what his Dad wanted him to do and in the other how to achieve it.
“He just has a way of being able to put things to one side. That is what you have to be good at, especially in diving where you have time to dwell on things between dives”
Pickering, then told of how she spoke to South African Paralympian, Natlie Du Toit, who said that the crowd increased her performance because you felt as thought they were cheering for everyone, not just Team GB. “Natalie said it was phenomenal going out and hearing the crowd, they all said they felt it was for them, because no one has ever competed in front of that many people. That's why we saw so many world records, because the crowds we extraordinary."
It was often suggested that the BBC should have broadcast the Paralympics but, Pickering, who covered the Paralympics for Channel Four says that they were in hindsight, the best channel to broadcast the Paralympic Games. “I know there was criticism as to why weren’t the BBC handling it, but the channel [Channel 4] have always pushed boundaries, they have a bit more freedom, a bit more fun and a little more daring. They were the perfect people to do the coverage and we certainly weren't guided as to how we could commentate.”
Pickering said the mentality was “just go for it, if you wanted to query something you could but we would rather you make mistakes than tip toe on things and that is why the coverage was so good.”
The former swimmer finished by stating that disability sports should have a future in broadcast television and other forms of media coverage, “When Ellie Simmonds over took Ukraine’s Oksana Khrulin the last 50m to win gold people stopped watching it as a disability sport and it was just two people who wanted to win, because you saw them athletes.”
And with the audience the Paralympic Games attracted who says they should not be extensive broadcasts and reports on disability events.
Karen Pickering drives an Alfa Romeo Giulietta, visit www.alfaromeo.co.uk