We came, we saw, we came seventh

August 16, 1996

In his last report from Atlanta, our correspondent Jon Wyatt sees the Olympic flame glow and then die.

The Atlanta Olympic Games started and finished with the sort of shows that can take place only in America. What took place in between the ceremonies was a roller-coaster ride of emotions and outcomes as each event unfolded. The dream I had worked so hard for and nurtured for so many years was as fantastic as I had imagined.

The opening ceremony, walking into the Olympic Stadium watched by the eyes of the world, was a moment of intense pride and joy, although marred by the heart attack and subsequent death of the Polish chef de mission. The electrically charged atmosphere in the stadium made me wish that I will be fortunate enough to attend as many such ceremonies as possible. This soon dissipated, however, as we were shepherded out through a tiny exit to buses too few in number to return us to the Olympic Village. We spent two hours in a crush before finally making it to our beds a little after 2am. Not exactly ideal preparation for our first hockey match, although we did have nearly two days rest before that.

In contrast, the German team, pre-tournament favourites, attended the ceremony despite playing at 9am the next morning. Their arrogance was undone by the Spanish who won 1-0, throwing the competition wide open on the very first day.

We started well, drawing with the fancied Koreans and eventual champions Holland in our first two games. We knew that to qualify for the semi-finals we had to win at least two points from those first two games - and we did. Everyone was happy and the rest of the day was filled with enjoying village life. With all food, drink and entertainments free, there was rarely a moment of boredom. In fact, the main problem was ensuring we spent enough time with our feet up, resting properly. Unfortunately, time spent reading, sleeping or watching television felt like time wasted when the alternatives included tenpin bowling, computer, arcade and video games, live concerts and inter- athlete email.

The joy was not to last, though, as a late equaliser and controversial umpiring cost us victory over the Malaysians and we hit the depths of despair. Although we were not out of the tournament, not beating a team ranked well below us, and whom we outplayed for 68 out of 70 minutes, meant it would be much harder for us to qualify for the chance of an Olympic medal.

As we returned to the village, grumbles over the poor time-keeping of the buses and bland food grew louder, and those who disappeared to the computer area to play Doom did so to get rid of frustrations rather than out of enjoyment.

Other results in our group meant that the match against the Australians would in effect be a quarter final, with the visitors progressing to the semi-finals to play Spain, the surprise qualifiers from the other group. Our confidence about our ability to beat Spain turned the Australian match effectively into a match for the silver medal at least. Tension was high and, despite our poor record recently against the Aussies, they had not been playing well and we knew we had a chance. All the build-up and preparation had come down to this one game. The pressure was immense.

History will record that, by losing this game 2-0, we were doomed to play off for fifth to eighth places. If we had won an Olympic medal could have been ours. But we were outplayed on the day, succumbing to their pressure at the back and unable to create enough chances up front. The bubble had burst.

After our final matches we came seventh. Disappointing. Unsatisfactory. And yet, only one place below our world ranking going into the games. For us to have succeeded in Atlanta would have required playing consistently at the peak of our potential, with some luck thrown in, and it would have been a flash in the pan. Not since 1988 have we been ranked in the top three in the world. This is not through a lack of effort, and no players, coaches or managers are to blame. But sport at this level is not a part-time venture. All members of our team had to rely on sympathetic employers, give up work and lose income for many months before the games. Sports Aid Foundation grants help make these sacrifices possible and we are all very grateful, for without them our achievement of seventh place would not have been possible. But we cannot compete with all the other top nations who play hockey full time and are given the financial and coaching support to do so.

The lift the success of the England football team in Euro 96 gave the nation will not be achieved by a British team in an Olympic Games until there is a drastic change in the attitude towards sport in this country to give us the chance of consistent victories on the world stage.

To compete in an Olympic Games was the greatest event in my life so far. To stand on top of an Olympic medal podium would be greater.

Jon Wyatt has just completed his final year as a chemistry student at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and was a member of the British men's hockey team at the Olympic Games.

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