Bullying off for Britain

July 19, 1996

In the first of three articles, Olympic hockey player and student chemist John Wyatt sets off on the road to Atlanta

As I walked off the pitch I was overcome by relief. We had beaten Belgium 2-0 in the final match of the Olympic qualifying tournament in Barcelona. It was January and we had qualified for the Centennial Olympic Games. The Great Britain men's hockey team would be present in Atlanta.

The euphoria dissipated quickly. I was half way through my final year of a chemistry degree at Corpus Christi, Oxford, and was expected to complete a year of research and hand in a thesis by June. When the first Olympic training programme appeared through my letter box I realised that time for anything else was going to be hard to find. Thank God for my sympathetic Oxford supervisor.

On the domestic hockey front, my club, Reading, was in with a real chance of the league and cup double. So, in March, as the season reached its climax, chemistry once again took a back seat. For the second year in a row we were pipped at the post in the league, but before the final rounds of the cup (which we later won) I was off to Atlanta for a training camp.

To say the trip was not a total success would be a massive understatement. The catalogue of disasters included the unreadiness of both Olympic venues - one had a pitch but only half a stadium, still under construction so the risk of injury ruled out its use. The other had a stadium but no pitch. Each day we were updated on how the pitch laying was progressing. Four days to go to the start of the tournament 20 per cent laid - three days to go 30 per cent - two days 50 per cent completed. Needless to say we finally managed to play on the pitch four days into the tournament. In the meantime we played on a temporary Astroturf carpet laid on a car park surrounded by bales of straw to stop the ball and players running off the pitch.

On the pitch, we were inconsistent, but a draw with the South Korean team without playing to our potential was encouraging - South Korea is our first opponent at the Olympics.

We returned with images of Atlanta as a building site, but the Olympic fever that gripped the city was contagious, and the dream of playing for Great Britain at the games was slowly taking shape. That dream has been part of my life since watching the Seoul Olympics in 1988 when Britain took the gold in hockey. Then I had just been invited to my first England under 16 training weekend.

On my return to Oxford I had to deliver a presentation on my year's research to the rest of the department. The stark reality of standing up in front of a group of profs was more nerve racking than any hockey match. I had to skip the compensatory celebrations at the college's May Ball for a flight to Malaysia for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh. The climate was similar to summer in Atlanta, with temperatures reaching the high 90s and humidity close to 100 per cent. The feeling of complete exhaustion and my inability to breathe in enough oxygen after only 20 minutes of the first game was quite a shock.

The first letter I received on my return was from our manager David Whittle telling us that David Whittaker, our head coach for the past two years and coach to the Seoul gold medal winning team, had resigned - a few weeks before the start of the games. With a thesis to complete in three weeks and a four-day training camp and televised match against Germany I pushed the news to the back of my mind. My schedule was full enough.

John Wyatt next writes from Atlanta on his team's fortunes.

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