The world of sport is full of iconic images; think Pele swapping shirts with Bobby Moore in 1970; Torvill & Dean’s Bolero at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo in 1984; any one of one hundred images of Muhammad Ali standing over his beaten opponent, shaking his gloved fist.
When sports fans think about these kinds of moments, it invariably gives us goose-bumps; but what many of us don’t realise is that there are unforgettable moments of sporting theatre being created every day; the guts and the glory, the agony and the ecstasy; by athletes of incredible talent, strength stamina, and dedication – and a lot of it is happening right under our noses.
This realisation struck us last Thursday when the “HT” attended A Night of Sporting Discovery; an event run by SportonSpec, a sports listings startup that first made waves north of the border in Scotland, and is now celebrating launching in London, and hosted by the company’s sports-mad founder (with a particular hankering for boxing – hence his nickname, “the Jab”), Tim Underhill.
Underhill’s passion for sport is undeniably infectious, and he had chosen a great venue – House of Sport, in Borough, a new workspace opened in September this year by London Sport, an entity supported by the Mayor of London and Sport England, and currently hosting the Invictus Games foundation, amongst others. It’s an exciting space with lots of potential.
Tim had promised 3 mystery guests who would provide insight and tales of their feats of endeavour participating in sports that don’t necessarily make the back pages of the tabloid newspapers every day, but are just as visceral, gripping, and capable of delivering those nail-biting, white knuckle rides that so unite, and delight, sports fans.
He did not disappoint. First out of Underhill’s hat was a winner of the world’s oldest continuously held sporting event, the Doggett’s Coat and Race Badge, Simon McCarthy. Didn’t know that the world’s oldest sporting contest took place in rowing boats on the Thames? Now you do.
McCarthy competed at the World Rowing Championships and has also trained Great Britain’s most decorated ever female Olympian, Dame Katherine Grainger, and yet these are by no means his proudest achievement.
McCarthy is a fifth-generation Watermen, belonging to the Master Company of Watermen and Lightmen. Watermen have been looking after London’s rivers – and its royalty – since the seventeenth century. Only Watermen, and apprentice ones at that, are eligible for the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race, which has been competed for since 1715.
Doggett’s race winners are rewarded with one of sports’ most iconic prizes. A bright red coat and matching livery, and an enormous silver badge, which, legend has it, used to be melted down by race winners in later life – silver coins would have been taxed, after all.
McCarthy arrived in full livery – he had won the race in 1984, and 30 years later, in 2014, so had his son. In no other rowing contest, McCarthy explained to a spellbound audience, is there such pressure – with family pride and a generation’s worth of bragging rights – at stake.
Whilst McCarthy still looks like he could still make short work of the five furlong course between London Bridge and Cadogan Pier in Chelsea – conveniently for spectators the race starts and finishes outside a pub – in a competitive time (23 minutes and 22 seconds is the record; McCarthy is the holder of the second fastest time ever recorded); the costs of running the event – the river is shut in advance of every annual race – are becoming prohibitive. Hence Simon McCarthy, his fellow watermen, the Company of Fishmongers, who now organise the race, are campaigning to find fresh sponsors, and a new audience, for the event.
This is where SportonSpec comes in. The startup is on a mission to get people more involved in spectator sports – and that doesn’t mean waiting for a sport to find its way onto BT or Sky Sports, but actually physically getting out to local events – there is no bigger buzz, Underhill insists, whatever the sporting discipline may be.
The next guest on the night, Mark Sexton, is Community Liaison at Lakeside Hammers. Can you guess, or do you know what sport the Hammers “play”?
It’s speedway – where bikes race, or rather skid, around an oval track for 4 laps, completed in around 90 seconds, and Sexton says he has been in love with the sport since the its hey-day back in the 1970s – anyone remember Dickie Davies and World of Sport?
Attending a live sports event can be a great way to reconnect with one’s own days as a wannabe pro, and to introduce young ones to the thrills and spills of sport. At speedway events, Sexton explained, whilst making numerous free tickets available for a meet in the spring, you can get up and close and personal with the sport’s biggest names – you can even sponsor their progress, which ratchets up the experience of watching a live sports event to a whole new level of excitement.
As if to illustrate his point, accompanying Sexton was the Hammers star rider and current captain, Ben Morley. The audience were treated to video footage of Morley tearing it up at the Lakeside – which if you were to visit, Morley points out, has a great range of shops for other halves to visit – the “half” that doesn’t enjoy speedway, that is.
Morley has plenty of reasons to be cheerful – after a great season last year, the Hammers can look forward optimistically to more of the same next year. Sadly, that is not the case for every speedway team – the HT’s beloved Coventry Bees are no more, we discovered during the Q&A – the operating and venue costs in the midlands proved be too high.
With so many sports across the UK, that are enacted, supported, and followed by tens of millions of people, it is not always easy for athlete to secure the funding they need to reach the pinnacle of their sport. That’s why every ticket, every spectator, counts.
Luckily, because athletes cannot spend all of their time drumming up support, sites like SportonSpec exist making it easier to bring competitor and fan together at live events.
One athlete who already knows more than most about the ups and downs of elite sport, at the tender age of just 23, is Zoe Smith; Olympian, gold medallist, and British record holder -Tim’s final guest on the night.
Zoe joined a new gym at the age of 12, frustrated that she seemed to have reached her limit as a gymnast and that there was no further to go. To her own astonishment, however, at her new club she met an inspirational trainer who saw something in her, and persuaded her to take up weightlifting.
Fast forward a few years and Smith was handed her first ever “Team GB” kit and began competing in international tournaments against the very best on the world. Smith made it into the weightlifting squad for London 2012, and in front of a packed and partisan crowd, broke a British record for the clean and jerk discipline.
She followed that success up with her first world title – a gold medal at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014. Sadly, following such an ecstatic high, Smith’s career experienced a series of unfortunate lows.
First, an injury sustained trying to make one last final effort to secure qualification for Rio 2016. Then a cut to her funding by UK Sport. For a time, things looked bleak, but Smith has bounced back, has a spot in the upcoming Commonwealth in the Gold Coast all but booked, and looks a shoo-in for qualification for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. But Smith has had to work non-stop, rushing from job to job, meet to meet, and somehow also manages to be studying for A-levels in Loughborough while she trains to compete with the world’s elite.
Such are the close shave’s, near-misses, and once-in-a-lifetime moments that make live sports such compulsive viewing.
What McCarthy, Smith, and Morley all have in common, as well as their sporting prowess, is their single-minded determination. It’s what helps them to compete, but also what makes them fascinating personalities to be around. There is no better way to befriend a sports person, and learn what it is like to live the lives they lead, than to watch them up close, or better still – for no holds barred access – become a sponsor.
To return to iconic images for one moment, there was one in particular that we saw on Thursday that would qualify for iconic status.
It was a shot of Zoe Smith, at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games – as she proudly, defiantly, and, yes, joyfully, holds what looks like the world’s biggest weight aloft. She is perfectly poised, muscles rippling, hair slightly wild; a lion’s mane; the crowd are rising and applauding as one and you don’t need any plaque or guide to know that this is a moment of pure, thrilling, sporting greatness. Perhaps Zoe will be kind enough to share it with us – or perhaps you should just go and see her in the flesh.
It was hard to marry that image with the modest and smiling Smith answering questions on Thursday – but sport always gives us that opportunity to unleash the competitor within. It’s why sports fans will travel the world just to experience and be a part of it.
So take our advice, sign up to SportonSpec’s weekly newsletter, get yourselves used to the site and the ticket purchasing policies, and go and give yourself, your family, your friends, and the sports community a shot of adrenaline. Britain is a nation of sports champions – take our advice – get to know them now.
SportonSpec: the elevator pitch:
SportonSpec founder Tim Underhill says “Via the SportonSpec platform we’re looking forward to showcasing the A to Z of action in the capital so that Londoners don’t miss their favourite events, but equally discover new sports to go and watch live. After all – there’s nothing like being there!”
You’ll love it because:
Tim continues: These are exciting times to be involved in the spectator experience in the capital with clubs, promoters and governing bodies alike looking to innovate and attract new audiences to their live events, not to mention new sports breaking onto the scene.
“These new additions, coupled with an existing spectator calendar that is the envy of the world, mean there has never been more choice when it comes to enjoying a day out at the sport in London with friends or family and, who knows, being inspired to take up a new sport.”