‘It’s the greatest show on Earth’

Mick Hill, four-time Olympian and now director of athletics at Leeds Metropolitan University.
Mick Hill, four-time Olympian and now director of athletics at Leeds Metropolitan University.
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What is it really like to compete in the Olympics? Leeds Olympian Mick Hill tells Grant Woodward about Chinese giants, beating Steve Redgrave and ‘shenanigans’ in the athletes’ village.

LOOKING back over an Olympic career that it’s fair to say had more lows than highs, there is one triumph that still stands out for Leeds javelin thrower Mick Hill.

“It would have to be me and Steve Backley beating Steve Redgrave and Matt Pinsent on the 18th green at the Sydney Games in 2000,” he chuckles. “We stayed at Surfers Paradise in Queensland and spent a fair amount of time on the golf course.

“If we weren’t doing that then me and Steve (Backley) were in our room playing on the Nintendo Gameboy we’d got with us. You’re just looking to fill your time with stuff that isn’t going to wear you out.”

Victories over Great Britain’s multiple-gold medal-winning rowers aside, the Olympics never quite saw Hill at his best, despite him being one of the sport’s leading lights for well over a decade.

But the disappointment doesn’t sour what remain precious memories of his four appearances at the Games – stretching from Seoul in 1988 through to Sydney in 2000.

“I remember our holding camp for Seoul was in Japan and even there you knew you were part of the greatest show on Earth,” recalls the amiable 47-year-old. “I grew up wanting to go to the Olympics and so to make it was a dream come true.

“Looking back, Seoul was probably my best chance of a medal. I had thrown 85 metres the previous year and at the time Jan Zelezny had the world record at 87 metres. But then I had an operation on my knee over the winter and it still wasn’t right by the time we went to the Games.

“That’s the really difficult thing with the Olympics. With an event like the javelin you spend four years training for it, have three throws that take about six seconds each and then have to wait another four years for the next one.

“But that’s what makes them so special. With sports like golf and tennis there are four major events every year. With the Olympics you get one shot at it every four. You have to be right on a certain day and at a certain time. It’s the pinnacle – and if you mess up it’s a long wait.”

Seoul was the start of what would prove a frustrating pattern for Hill, who picked up world championship bronze and silver medals during his 18-year career. A broken metatarsal in his foot hampered his preparations for the Barcelona Games, while a shoulder problem in Atlanta four years later again put paid to hopes of a place on the podium.

At the same time, room-mate and rival Steve Backley was collecting silver and bronze medals in the same event, although Hill insists there was never any jealousy, with Backley picking him as his best man when he tied the knot in 2002.

So what is it really like to represent Great Britain at an Olympic Games?

“Everything about it is special,” says Hill, now director of athletics at Leeds Metropolitan University and javelin coach to Yorkshire heptathlete and major gold medal hope Jessica Ennis.

“The athletes’ village is almost like a freak show. I remember this Chinese basketball player who must have been eight foot tall and then at the other end of the spectrum you’ve got these superlight weightlifters – it’s all a bit mad.

“As the athletics events started the swimmers were finishing, so there were always a few shenanigans going on. Put it this way, they give out a lot of condoms in the athletes’ village and I don’t think many are given back.

“One of the best places to socialise is the village canteen and it’s amazing to be rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in world sport.

“I never went to an Olympics as a tourist, but once my event was over I loved the fact you could go and see sports you wouldn’t ordinarily watch.

“In terms of competing at an Olympics, the whole build-up is amazing. At Sydney we were at the warm-up track half-a-mile away and could still hear the roar of the crowd. There were 112,000 inside the stadium and the atmosphere was electric.

“You know you are going in there to do battle – it’s almost gladiatorial. You’re wearing those five rings and realise you’re part of something that is just ginormous.”

When it comes to passing on advice to those competing in London, Hill is unequivocal.

“Enjoy it, because it’s over in a heartbeat,” he says.

“We’ve had seven years of build-up and it’s going to be fabulous to perform in front of the home fans.

“From a performance point of view the worst mistake you can make is to overdo it. You see other competitors doing stuff and you can be tempted to copy them or show off to try to gain a psychological edge. It’s easy to pick up injuries that way.

“So don’t do anything different and get out there and believe in yourself. After all, that’s why you made it here in the first place.”

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