Why are the Olympics important: 2

One of our V&A questions recently was “why are the Olympics important?”  Here, Prof Steve Haake gives his personal take on the importance of the Olympics.

Seven years ago, in 2005, one of my colleagues (Dr John Hart) and I were lucky enough to be invited to Singapore for the UK’s bid for the Olympics.  It was one of the most amazing but heartbreaking experiences of my life and one which left me in no doubt about why we need the London Olympics.

Ken Livingstone hugs Denise Lewis after finding out the result of UK’s Olympic bid on 6th July 2005.

I was invited out to Singapore by the British High Commissioner Sir Alan Collins to help set up the 2005 UK-Singapore Science and Engineering exhibition.  This got me close up to the bidding action (although I wasn’t part of the official team) with access to the pre-bid Garden Party on July 5th at the British High Commission.  I don’t meet that many celebs so to have a conversation with David Beckham interrupted by Tony Blair while Princess Anne strolls past looking for her drink was a bit surreal.

Beckham and Blair during their Olympic bid double-act in Singapore in 2005.

On the evening of the bid, I was at the British Club in Singapore.  Imagine all those things that are British – green fields, red telephone boxes, chips, marmite, a stiff upper lip, awkardness – then boil it for half a century until it reduces to the size of a small club and that’s what it’s like.  We stood nervously in front of a large screen watching the voting and I still remember Juan Samaranch struggling to open the envelope.  He started off on a long nerve-jangling sentence as if it was an X-factor final:

“The International Olympic Committee…has the honour…of…announcing that the games of the 30th Olympiad…in 2012…are awarded to the city of…….Lon…”

It was days before I heard the end of that sentence.  We screamed and our feet left the floor; we lost our awkwardness and hugged complete strangers, and headed for the bar.  At 4am, we struggled rather drunkenly back to our rooms to pack hurriedly and head for the airport to catch the non-stop back to London.  As we started our approach to Heathrow, even our thudding hangovers couldn’t dull our elation.

A bumpy landing at Heathrow

And then the pilot said something chilling: “You won’t be able to go into central London because of the bombs.”  So many implications in that one sentence.  A bomb? Not one bomb but bombs. So many questions.

We landed at Heathrow, and there was chaos.  All that people could tell us was that there had been three bombs on the London Underground and one on a double-decker bus.  Security was tense, luggage was searched and anything suspicious peremptorily discarded.  As high as we’d been only hours before, we were now on the floor.  Olympics? What Olympics? What a waste of time.

Fifty-two people died that morning.  I remember seeing pictures of Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, and his face said it all.  It was as if winning the Olympic bid had been designed to make it just that much worse.

And yet, I remember coming around to the realisation that the Olympics was now even more important than before.  Sport might appear to be trivial, and the Olympics the biggest triviality of all, but it is those things that make life worthwhile.

I decided that somehow I would be at the London 2012 Olympics on merit.  For the past 7 years we’ve worked with UK Sport and many of our Olympic teams helping them with technologies to give them that little bit extra to get them on the podium.  I entered the lottery for tickets like everyone else and, until May, that was that.

But then out of the blue a secondment appeared: in two weeks I’ll be working at the Olympics with the joy and pain of Singapore a poignant memory.

Steve Haake


About stevehaake

Steve did a first degree in Physics at the University of Leeds before landing two job offers: the first with BT turned out to be in a porta-cabin in the middle of a marsh, while the second was supposed to be image processing but was really smart-bomb design. This left a third option – a PhD in the mechanics of golf ball impacts on golf greens for a person who’d never hit a golf ball. It was a simple choice (the PhD if you didn’t guess) which led 25 years later to being head of a research team of 30-40 looking into similarly unlikely topics. Highlights of the career so far? The early years setting up the ISEA with the likes of Steve Mather, Ron Thompson, Clive Grant and Ron Morgan; the fact that the 1st International Conference on Sports Engineering in Sheffield in 1996 didn’t also turn out to be the last; and getting out the first issue of the first journal on Sports Engineering in 1998. The absolute high point, though, was being in the British Club in Singapore as a guest of the High Commission when the bid for the 2012 Olympics was announced. This has led to the team delivering projects with Olympic athletes that every scientist with a love of sport can only dream of. Steve is now a Senior Media Fellow funded by the EPSRC to encourage the public to engage in science, particularly in the lead up to the London 2012 Olympic Games.