2. There’s nothing left to do
It should be noted here that what I’m going to say here ties into the first post, but is much more what I hoped for as a fan. I follow the ITU World Triathlon Series on the BBC, because I’m too poor to stump up the fee for TriathlonLive! Joking aside, I should make it clear that as unhappy as I am at what I experienced as a volunteer, there was the aspect that, as a fan, I would never have believed could happen. So I wish to distinguish this and I hope you all understand.
“This is going to be brilliant“
I walked up to the coach parked around the corner. I picked up around three bags and walked back with the other volunteers to the Leeds City Museum. I tried not to look the remaining people at the bag collect in the eye, almost ashamed. We walked on through and I walked into an area called the Finishers Lounge. A wide open circular room converted into a sort of recovery zone for the elite triathletes. I’d lost track of the exact time, just remembering there were loud cheers coming from the grandstand and they were coming every few minutes. I put the bags down and stood upright. I turned around, and noticed that some of the elite women had finished the race, and were in the lounge.
I’m not going to name names, because that’s just not something you do, or can do, when you’re doing a job. There was nothing crazy about it. Just drop the bags, a quick stretch of the lower back, and it was back outside with the other volunteers.
The fan in myself had awakened. I said to one of the other volunteers “Of all the things today, I wasn’t expecting that!” I was thoroughly professional throughout the day, but right there the role assigned to me had given us a level of access I never expected nor was I used to.
We all sat down on the museum steps. We were overlooking the elite transition area, talking about our experiences. The recovery team leader came around. “There’s nothing left for you to do, you can go now if you want, though we will have the elite men’s bags later”. That was it? Free to go? We looked towards the grandstand. The men were lining up for the start of their race. It was hard to see what was going on the big screen, but we knew that none of us were going to leave. We’d been given a vantage point. To myself, this was amazing. Maybe no more so than anyone else there to spectate, but I was actually going to see an elite triathlon race!
Of course, while the elites were still to reach the city centre, there was very little to watch, and so we were permitted, as volunteers, to head to the museum cafe downstairs, close to where some of the media stuff was going on. We grabbed a couple of hot drinks, and went back outside.
Time passed, and we could see on the big screen the Brownlee brothers were in front. The cheers got louder, and that was the kick we needed to get up and get down the stairs towards the barrier. We had a perfect view of the corner. Soon, an official held up the board to indicate 7 laps to go. And there they were. Jonny and Alistair, along with Aaron Royle and Aurelian Raphael, flying round the corner!
They seemed to be a long way in front of the next pair, the great Javier Gomez and the Slovak, Richard Varga. The rest of the pack came around, along with a couple of backmarkers struggling to keep pace.
Before long Gomez and Varga had rejoined the bigger chase group, and the front four were working together to extent a lead they didn’t want anyone to overhaul. A couple of backmarkers even got lapped and had to drop out. Towards the end of the bike leg, Tom Bishop made a break out in front of the chase group, but it was all about the Brownlees as they hit transition for the run leg. That was an artform in itself. Quickly in, and straight back out. Exactly what everyone aspires to as a premier triathlete.
There they were, the Brownlees, Raphael and Royle, all way out in front, followed by a steady stream of runners from the chase pack who all emerged one after another. Jonny was leading as we were called to grab the elite men’s gear.
As we waited for the van, which as it happens, had missed its junction and had to turn around, a volunteer brought up the race on his phone. By now Alistair had taken control, and this was only going to end one way – a Brownlee 1-2. We carried the bags in, and managed to emerge just in time for the finish of the race. Alistair in 1st, Jonny in 2nd, and Royle in 3rd. Gomez overhauled Raphael for 4th. Though we couldn’t see what was going on behind the media wall, the athletes down there were milling around, some within inches of where we were stood. The medal ceremony took place, and that was largely it. I said my goodbyes to the volunteers who’d stayed to the end, with whom I’d had such a good time in this respect, looked out down the transition area, made my way past the bag collect, now closed off and abandoned, and within 5 minutes, the heavens opened that little bit more. The rain had just about held off most of the day, thankfully, and now it was here.
Leaving Millennium Square, I had a real mix of feelings about the day.
What I described here, as a fan of the sport who got involved with the volunteer side, was basically a front row position when crowds in some places were four or five rows deep, able to capture several quality action shots of the elite men as they began another bike lap, and as they set off for the run. Not only that, but I got a sense, without exchanging any words, of what this means to the elite athletes. Again, not naming anyone, but I could see when frustration hit, when the strain was really on, even devastation, amongst the elation, the smiles and contentment. For these people, its their career, their livelihood, which they work so hard to maintain, to either stay at the top, or to try and reach the top. For one or two, there was a sense the race hadn’t gone to plan, as though the work and time they’d invested into getting themselves into race shape had just got up in a puff of smoke, or in a performance they perhaps hadn’t anticipated. We often think of these elites as freaks, on another level, not like you and me. That’s not entirely true. They’re human. They have goals just like we do. They’re no more perfect than you or I. The stakes for them as a career may be much bigger, but the sacrifices for them aren’t dissimilar to the ones we make. “A picture paints a thousand words”, someone once said. Well, to get this close to the action, to experience this side of an elite World Triathlon Series race, was truly incredible.
I guess this means I have to be thankful to the ITU, British Triathlon, etc, for the opportunity?
Well, it was great to be invited to be a part of this event, and I’d never have got this close to it were it not for that. Certainly, I’ll never forget the experience I had as a fan of the elite side of the sport. But that will always be tempered with what I experienced down in the bag collect. And indeed, what those who took part in the open race had to endure once the business of racing had finished. The wave of discontent, the fact that there are still people complaining about the treatment they’ve received.
The organisers, a week after the event, sent us, the volunteers, a welcome thank you message by email, and the race has been confirmed as returning to Leeds in 2017 is excellent news for the city. I just hope they can overcome these problems, because regretfully, I don’t feel I want another part of this particular race as a volunteer.