With the Rio Olympics just one year way, Champions Celebrity spoke exclusively to 2004 Badminton Mixed Doubles silver medallist Gail Emms about her recollections of Athens and how she sees the 2016 Games.
What broad-brush themes do you recall from your Olympic experience in 2004?
“Looking back on Athens, it was my first Olympics and, if I’m honest, I found the whole experience pretty overwhelming and stressful. I’d been to championships and the Commonwealth Games before but this was on an altogether different scale. I’d dedicated 4 years of my life to it and, when I got there, I entered a bubble where I had to control my emotions. When it was all over, I had to release the pressure and all the ‘my body is a temple’ stuff went straight out the window - party time! What I will tell you, though, is that an Olympic medal is worth a lot of free drinks! But you know what? I still can’t really watch the final. If I did I’d just be saying “Argh, you should’ve done this, you should’ve done that!” It’d really frustrate me, so I keep away from it.”
If you could change anything about it, what would it be?
“It went by in a bit of a blur and happily Nathan and I got to the final where I felt I ought to have had more self-belief. They won the first set but we grabbed the next one and were ahead in the last set. Perhaps if I’d had more experience I might have known how to handle the situation better and see out the match.”
Did the experience have a surreal quality?
“At the time we didn’t realise how much we’d got people’s hopes up as we were living in the bubble but when I got home I heard six million people had been watching the final. I couldn’t believe it. Life had changed beyond recognition. I went into the BOA offices and they reeled off a list of media interviews they’d lined up for us – we weren’t quite opening the proverbial supermarket but Nathan and I were in massive demand all of a sudden and neither of us had really had the chance to take any of it in.”
How did you find dealing with the media in Athens?
“Doing so many interviews and stuff during the Olympics, you barely even notice who’s asking the questions or which outlet it’s for. You have to mask your emotions – you can’t blurt out how nervous you are because your competitors will get wind and jump right on it. I remember consciously tempering my answers, trying to assume some kind of aura of cool, calm and collected – whether it worked or not, I don’t know.”
How do you see the Badminton competition panning out in Rio?
“It will more than likely be about Asian dominance again. They’re really well-resourced, have a great mentality and in a lot of places it’s their national sport. Even though they’re fiercely competitive themselves, European players are always going to be up against it. They have less money behind them and usually have to travel twice as far to qualify. I miss the excitement of big competitions but I don’t miss the stress of qualification at all. I don’t think it’s the best qualifying system we could have.”
How is the British team shaping up?
“Chris and Gabby Adcock have the potential to medal in the Mixed Doubles and with all the hard work they put in I think they’d deserve it. Raj Ouseph can beat anyone on his day and has strung some brilliant results together – if he can do that then he’ll be in with a shout. Kirsty Gilmour’s only 21 and improving all the time, so Rio will hopefully be a great experience for her and she can continue to progress her game. With a bit of luck, and you can never discount the possibility of injuries and upsets in qualifying, we might get pairings in the Men’s or Ladies’ Doubles. That would be great for the sport in this country. The more exposure it gets with the public, the more people will hopefully take it up. It’s the same with the National Badminton League, which has freshened things up and added interest – it’s all good!”
How do you rate Rio as an Olympic city?
“I couldn’t tell you whether Rio’s a good place to stage and Olympics or not. You can be sure they’ve learnt a lot from holding the World Cup in Brazil last year, so I’m sure it’ll go off with a bang. We all know the Brazilians like a party and that’s essentially what the Olympics are.
“As an athlete it doesn’t really matter where you are in the world. You just have to get on and play to the best of your ability, seal yourself off from whatever else is happening and do what you’ve trained so hard to do. That said, in Athens I remember going up the Acropolis because it was there and had to be done – it was absolutely scorching that day and, having to walk all the way up, I thought I was going to die.”