The Olympic Games: Much more than the stars

July 2, 2012

By Denis Balibouse

“The important thing in life is not victory, but the fight; the main thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.” Baron Pierre de Coubertin

I have always been addicted to sports, any kind of sports. My father was a sports reporter in Switzerland. As a child I would follow him onto soccer pitches, motocross grounds and ice hockey rinks. Whenever I travel somewhere I try to follow the local sports. I even attempted to understand cricket (I’m married to an Australian), although I have to confess, I have so far failed with this one.

Now that the Euro Championship is over, my attention will turn to the “road slaves” of the Tour de France, which, in my eyes, is the toughest sporting event in the world. And then there’s the Olympic Games in London, regarded by many athletes as the pinnacle of physical prowess.

As part of our pre-Games coverage, editors have asked us to photograph some athletes during their preparation for the event. Despite plenty of assignments in Geneva, where I am based, I suggested going to the Swiss Rowing Center in Sarnen, central Switzerland. The backdrop of the Swiss Rowing Center is postcard-perfect. Snow-covered mountain peaks ring Sarnen Lake, so I knew the story would not lack for visual appeal.

Simon Cox, the British-born trainer of the Swiss Olympic rowing team, offered to let me follow the quad scull team and to focus on new Swiss talent Augustin Maillefer. Nineteen-year-old Augustin, a Junior World Champion in 2010 was only selected for the team a few months ago, after his older brother Jeremy was injured and unable to row for the team.

When I arrived at the center, the team was already working out on ergometers. They finished out of breath, with the fifth man lying on the ground to recover. I was struck by the intensity of their training, which takes place 12 times a week on the lake, with added strength training and ergometer sessions.

I asked Augustin if I could take a few pictures after the training, when he was relaxed and having dinner with the rest of the team. He didn’t attend the mid-afternoon strength session, as the ergometer had left him completely out of breath. I found him on his bed with his laptop, watching films. At 193cm (6′ 4″) tall, he hardly fits the bunk bed.

The team took their evening meal in an empty refectory, joined by children attending another rowing training camp. Earlier that day, during a strength training session I talked with one of the team’s trainers Michael ‘Muchi’ Erdlen, who told me that one of the rowers, André Vonarburg, will compete for a fourth time at the Olympic Games.

That’s when I realized that in less than 30 days there will be 14,000 athletes from 205 Olympic teams competing at the London Games. How can we, the media, even hope to cover them all? The focus will be on the obvious stars, such as Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, to name a few. Some athletes will remain in the shadows, even as the Games take place.

So, I promised myself to watch as many events as I could, to think of all the sacrifices the athletes have made to get there and to enjoy sharing their emotion, as for some a fourth or even a tenth place is already a victory.

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