Keio University is hosting Team GB during the Olympics

Credit: TEAM GB

Preparing a team of more than 350 athletes for an Olympics is a gargantuan task. Sleep must be sound enough for them to reach competition in peak physical condition, training environments need to cater for every conceivable demand, and logistics should be someone else’s concern – anyone but the athletes themselves.

But without fine-tuning small details, the big things become meaningless. Which explains Team GB’s dedication to porridge.

In addition to ensuring 8,000 pre-made porridge pots had safely arrived before anyone even set foot inside Britain’s preparation camp in Yokohama, the team’s head chef personally took charge of one of the most important tasks ahead of these Tokyo Games: teaching a Japanese kitchen crew how to cook one of Britain’s best-loved breakfasts and something that is totally unfamiliar to them.

“Porridge is such a big thing with athletes but not big in Japan at all,” says Wendy Martinson, Team GB lead nutritionist.

“We had to get them to make a sample of porridge to see if it was up to scratch and actually they nailed it first time so we’ve now got two varieties of porridge each morning: a flavoured one and a plain one. They are going down a treat.”

It is such attention to detail that Team GB hope will propel the biggest ever contingent they have sent to a foreign Olympics to glory. It is why they made sure the baked beans served in the preparation camp hotel were Heinz; why 45,000 tea bags were flown in from Britain; and why there was little cause for panic when six track and field athletes were told they had to isolate in their rooms after being identified as close contacts of a non-Team GB Covid case on the flight over.

“We did a lot of scenario planning about Covid, environmental disasters, climate, humidity, members of the public coming into camp,” says Paddy Anson, Team GB lead performance scientist. “We knew isolation might happen and it’s something we were prepared for. Nothing has come as a shock.”

Within hours of being told they must remain in their rooms, the isolating athletes were provided with barbells, weight plates and all manner of equipment to ensure they could continue to train. They also had the usual access to everything on Team GB’s extensive food menu, delivered to and collected from their rooms.

The athletes rooms are very basic

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Once they had provided the obligatory two negative PCR tests within 48 hours, they were back training outside again on Monday morning having been assigned their own separate space at the Todoroki Stadium and a cordoned-off section of the Team GB gym. Nothing was left to chance.

For Anson and the rest of the performance staff it was just the latest in a long list of complications the Covid pandemic had thrown at them over the past 18 months.

Back in 2015, when Team GB first identified two sites in Yokohama and the neighbouring Todoroki Stadium in Kawasaki for its Tokyo Olympics preparation camp, there was no concept of social distancing. No one could have foreseen the need for one-way systems or the amount of sanitising hand gel that would be required.

But, through a combination of diligence and good fortune, Britain were able to plough on with their original plans while many other nations had to abandon their own pre-Games preparation camps. It just required more work.

Every lift button and communal door handle at the Team GB hotel has self-cleaning nanoseptic stickers on them; the dining area has Perspex screens between each person, and stickers on each table remind them to ‘keep conversation to a minimum’; masks are mandatory at all times and athletes have joked of having “raw hands” due to a stringent cleaning regime.

In addition to their own floors, which are for the sole use of British personnel and away from normal hotel residents, Team GB were also able to secure two exclusive outdoor spaces which are crucial to carefully considered acclimatisation plans.

“Direct sunlight is key as part of our travel strategy because we’re trying to move people’s body clocks faster than they would ordinarily shift,” explains Paul Ford, Team GB deputy chef de mission. “Early light exposure helps with that.

“Most of our flights land at 11am and the key thing is to get people into daylight early afternoon to trick the body into changing the melatonin levels. Having access to natural light is the key to changing your circadian rhythm so getting the large outdoor balcony space was a big part of the negotiations. 

“They’ve also given us a controlled area of around 200 metres outside the front of the hotel for morning jogs and stretches.

“That’s as important for the support staff as the athletes. The athletes get to go to their training sessions every day, but having the morning access outside the hotel is critical for the support staff’s physical and mental wellbeing.”

Helen Glover and Polly Swann of the Team GB Rowing team train at Sea Forest Waterway

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

The meticulous nature of preparations is almost endless. With some athletes due to compete as early as 6am and others not toeing the startline until nearer 10pm, each individual sport’s training time has been specifically designed to replicate when they will need to peak.

Heat mitigation work has been extensive for months before arriving in Japan, with a number of team sports – whose activity will be outdoors and therefore most exposed to the searing temperatures of the Japanese summer – conducting training sessions in heated environmental chambers in Britain. Others have become accustomed to jumping in hot baths or saunas immediately after training to force their body to cope with excess heat.

Following research that showed the detrimental effects of poorly-fitting bras, every Team GB female athlete has had the opportunity to be personally fitted with a bespoke sports bra for these Games.

Particular attention has been paid to the training equipment athletes are using to hone their skills in the final days before moving over to the Olympic Village: weights are measured in kilos, rather than pounds, to avoid any accidents caused by incorrect conversion; gymnastics apparatus has been matched to the identical specifications that will be used in competition to ensure athletes become properly accustomed to the right gear.

“There’s a lot of nuance but it all makes a difference,” says Ford.

Given the difficulties associated with the pandemic-blighted past 18 months, extra mental health provision has also been laid on to support athletes and staff members before and during the Olympics.

A dozen mental health champions have been appointed across the team, with every individual assigned both a person within their sport and someone outside their sport to offer multiple options if anyone requires support.

“I delivered the preparation camp for Rio 2016 and we have gone to the next level for Tokyo,” says Ford. “This one is special. It is exceptionally good.”

But without ensuring provisions of Marmite, Heinz beans, Dreams mattress toppers and Whole Earth peanut butter it would all be worthless. Those and top-notch porridge.