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British Olympic Association chief executive and London 2012 Team GB Chef de Mission Andy Hunt reflects on his childhood in Watford
When I visited the British Olympic Association’s (BOA) London headquarters on Monday to interview Andy Hunt it was inevitable certain places and subjects would come up in conversation. I did not expect Rickmansworth Aquadrome to be one of those.
But that was where the former Watford Grammar School for Boys pupil learned to sail, starting a journey that ultimately led to him heading the most successful British Olympic team in more than 100 years during those never-to-be-forgotten 17 days in July and August this summer.
Born in Watford and raised on the Cassiobury estate, the chief executive of the BOA and Chef de Mission of TeamGB during London 2012 lived in the town until his early twenties before embarking on what was to become a highly successful business career.
Hunt, whose wife was also born in Watford, has fond memories of his time in this part of Hertfordshire and reflected: “It’s changed a lot, it’s changed a huge amount.
“I remember as a child you really felt the separation between north London and Watford. There was this area around Bushey that almost separated London from the other part and gradually over time, almost this encroachment, continuum of north London out to Watford’s taken place. But it is a very different place now.
“I had a fantastic time living in Watford, I love Watford Grammar School, it was a great place for me. It’s a place where I was involved in a lot of sport, which I’m very passionate about.
“I later in life became very interested in sailing, in yacht racing and it was the inspiration of sailing at Watford Grammar School, out at Rickmansworth Aquadrome which ironically probably got me into this job.
"So I went from being a dinghy sailor at Rickmansworth Aquadrome to later in life, when I had the chance to take up yacht racing, to eventually getting the job as the CEO of Team Origin, the British America's Cup team after my business career, to that actually not happening because of the America's Cup being in the courts to the point of then being known in the sports world to then getting this job here. So I can trace back Rickmansworth Aquadrome to getting this job."
That marked the start of what Hunt admits was an “unusual journey” that included a “fantastic career grounding” at ICI Paints in Slough to having overall responsibility for a team that won a stunning 29 golds in its magnificent haul of 65 medals. However, he has had little time to reflect in depth on a glorious summer.
“I had a week off last week,” he said with a smile. “It was the first time I’ve really had any time after the Games to kind of think back and think what an extraordinary summer it had been. It never seemed to stop with sport, did it? To go on from not only what was achieved at the Olympic Games and then, of course, the Paralympic team did so amazingly well and I think probably exceeded all expectations – certainly in respect of how the public reacted to the Paralympic Games.
“It was an amazing summer of sport, an extraordinary outcome for TeamGB. We’re still in the final throes of doing all the debrief activity following the Games but it was phenomenal and will probably will never be repeated quite like that.
“That doesn’t mean we won’t necessarily achieve those heights or even do better but there will be nothing quite like that home Games and I’m sure that’s what’s unique about them.”
Hunt, who was also a director of the London organising committe (LOCOG), is an integral part of that “unique” story but it was not achieved without significant sacrifice, although he knew it had to be made.
“The commitment that athletes give to winning a place in their sport, compete for their home country is so immense that actually the pressure it puts on you to equally give everything to make it successful is huge and therefore, yes, you have to prioritise it above everything else,” the 48-year-old, who now lives in Cheltenham, explained. “Fortunately my family sort of got that and recognised the fact that this was going to be a unique year and, yes, I’ve seen very, very little of them. I think I was home, before two to three weeks ago, about 14 nights this year.
“It was phenomenal but look, it was worth it, absolutely worth it.”
Pressure. Every athlete competing at the Games was under pressure – a pressure to perform and give their best. But imagine the pressure of not only being in overall charge of a national team, but one that is competing at a home Olympics. How do you deal with a pressure that can become all-consuming if you allow it? You build a first-class support staff and plan to a meticulous degree.
Hunt said: “I joined literally this time four years ago and the job was about transforming the organisation. It’s about the people you have around you, it’s about the team you create, it’s about planning for every eventuality and I think for us as an organisation we’re there to support the team, to give it the best possible chance to succeed.
“We built a fantastic team, not only the people that actually work here [at the BOA] but a broader team. We had over 750 people that supported the 541 athletes – it’s all about the people and team.
“If you have the right people, if you’re prepared to the best possible extent, if you’ve thought through every possible scenario that might come up – and we had tried to – then when you’re in the heat of the battle and things come up you have the ability to react calmly because you know what you’re doing.
“We’d sat in conference rooms here and other locations going through the most ridiculous things that could happen, every kind of version of them and nuance.
“But the great thing about the Games – and I think it’s my overall reflection on the Olympic and Paralympic Games – is there aren’t many times in life when something comes together so well, where it is such a magical combination of an extremely well organised event, incredible performance by athletes, the engagement of the British public and the world behind the team and teams – they really got behind the Paralympic team too – we had good weather just in time, even the ceremonies worked – it wasn’t another Millennium Done – it was phenomenal.
“That so rarely happens in life, that everything comes together in that way and it did and therefore we had relatively few issues to do with.”
While years of planning went into preparaing for London 2012, Hunt was also able to draw upon the experiences gained from being Britain’s Chef de Mission at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Describing it as “hugely useful”, the BOA chief executive believes he learnt most from his Canadian colleagues – or, rather, learnt “what not to do”.
The host organisers ran a “very in your face” programme in the build-up called Own The Podium, that explicitly stated aim of which was to maximise home advantage. This included preventing other nations having access to the venues and facilities beforehand.
“A lot of that was perfectly acceptable,” Hunt said. “When you are at home, you have got a unique advantage, you understand the environment you are operating in, you probably can bring a little more influence to other countries but the mistake they made was telling everybody they were doing this.”
By doing so, a host nation which had not won gold at any of its previous home Games was inviting extra pressure on itself. But the Winter Olympics also got off to a tragic start as on the day of the opening ceremony, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvikli died in a training accident at the sliding centre.
“That kind of put a whole bunch of questions in the minds of the Canadian public,” explained Hunt. “Then it was day three or four before they won their first gold medal and medals are very hard to come by in the first few days. The Canadian public almost started to turn against them as a team and they started to lose confidence themselves in their ability to win medals.
“So number one I learnt, yes, of course you need to maximise home advantage and minimise home disadvantage but do it quietly, do it in that kind of British way behind the scenes, below the covers. Still do it totally above board and within the spirit of sport, which is exactly what we did, but do it quietly.
“The second was absolutely remain confident in your plan.
“If you think about the London Games, the first day of competition did we think we were going to win a road cycling gold medal? Yes, we were very hopeful we would. But we’d also planned for not winning it as well. So we never were entirely reliant on that.
“We always knew the rump of our medals were going to come from the middle of week one to the middle of week two because they’re the sports we traditionally medal and we knew the course was never a great course for Mark Cavendish too. And boy – these guys had come back off the Tour [de France] a few days before and done something quite extraordinary for the country. So to go from that to win the men’s road cycling race would have been a tough call.”
It took another four days for the women’s coxless pair of Helen Glover and Heather Stanning to win TeamGB’s first gold and Hunt acknowledged: “That was a long time, it was the fifth day of competition before a gold medal was delivered but what I learnt was to remain absolutely confident.
“We knew the plan, we knew where we could deliver the medals. Yes, the pressure was intense to say the least but stick with your plan and eventually it will come good, and it did.”
That plan reaped historic rewards but four years ago, Hunt’s appointment to one of the key positions in British sport was what he calls a result of “a good coincidence of timing” after a complex court case had scuppered what, at face value, appeared to have been his dream job.
The keen yacht racer explained: “The opportunity came up with Team Origin, which was a nice combination of my business experience and my personal passion.
“That’s often the case with these kind of jobs. We all aspire to try and undertake a job which has some link to something we are really passionate about and sport was something that I’d been madly keen on and this chance to put the two together was quite something.
“Unfortunately Team Origin – because the America’s Cup ended up in the courts and Team Origin was eventually wound up – never came off for me. We were due to move the family to Valencia but it never transpired.
“So I had quite a good year of yacht racing to be honest before eventually I was sitting on a rock in Cornwall, fishing with one of my younger children when a phone call came through asking if was I interested in applying [for the CEO position at the BOA]. It was during the Beijing Games.
“It sounded amazing but I thought at the time there have got to be thousands of people out there who are probably more qualified than me to do this role. But I said ‘yes, why not, I’ll go for it’ and I went through the process and the rest is history.”
Hunt continued: “It was like many things, a good coincidence of timing. This was an organisation that needed transforming to make sure it could make the best use of this once in a generation opportunity of hosting the Games, so it was a great combination of business experience turning organisations around, making them effective and my passion for sport.
“I just think so often in life when we get these opportunities, take the risk and accept that sometimes you’re going to be outside your comfort zone, because in this kind of job you can often be outside your comfort zone dealing at every level of Government, every level of society. But take the opportunities, they don’t often come along, seize them and enjoy it.”