Mixed fortunes, but the same passion as captains face their Olympic destiny

By curious coincidence – or perhaps not – two Yorkshiremen are destined to compete at London 2012 as captains of the two leading Olympic team sports. They have much in common, as befits professional sportsmen in the modern era, except that one is much taller (by about a foot), much wider (in terms of wingspan), and a good deal more broke. Such is the unequal nature of sporting life.

Ben Pipes, 6ft 7in, 23, born and bred in Hull, is the captain of the GB men's volleyball team and, as such, much of his career has been spent eking out a frugal existence while helping supervise the dramatic advancement of the fledging team on the court. Only four years old and the GB volleyball squad is already beating convincingly teams in the world's top ten.

Barry Middleton, 5ft 8in, 26, native to Doncaster, is blessed with a slightly lower centre of gravity as one of the world's leading hockey players and is captain of the England side which has recently risen to fourth in the world.

Both are full-time professionals, both play for clubs abroad and both have the feet-on-the-ground, unexcitable mentality that the county of Yorkshire seems to imbue in its citizens.

"Whenever I go back to Doncaster Hockey Club, a few people say 'well done', but all my mates will call me an idiot. Being from Yorkshire, you don't get too carried away," said Middleton, and maybe that explains it. Over-excitable leaders, witness Diego Maradona and/or Silvio Berlusconi, can be a damning liability.

Pipes, for all his youth, is a veteran. He left school at 16 to pursue a career in volleyball and was already playing professionally abroad while in his teens. Those who play with him, know he brings immense inspiration and dedication to his role as captain.

"If I am honest, I never felt truly worthy of the captaincy, but nothing means more to me than having my head coach and fellow players pick me to play that role. I always believe a good leader never says 'advance', only 'follow me'. I will never ask of anyone something I don't demand of myself."

The principle difficulty for British Volleyball was its own non-existence as an Olympic sport in this country as recently as 2007. But the squad have made rapid strides to be competitive with a wide-ranging recruitment policy and a tight-knit group of players who are now dedicated to full-time training.

However, the shoe-string budget is considerably frayed. The shortage of funding has been an issue for the sport – which has just been given the go-ahead by the British Olympic Association to take up its host-nation place in 2012 – but not for Pipes.

"I have the opportunity to live my dream of becoming an Olympian. I would say I am the richest man in the world. Plus, even if I was fortunate to have a lot of money, I am a Yorkshireman, so I would still be buying dented cans of Tesco's beans and shopping in the sales."

He plays for a professional club, Doetinchem, in a small Dutch town near the German border. It concludes a year of ferocious international competition during which the GB team had victories in the first and second rounds of the European Championships as well as success on tour in Tunisia, Egypt and Qatar.

"When I'm living abroad, I miss a good Yorkshire brew in the morning, which my mum religiously brings me in bed on the few occasions I get time at home and my grandma's Sunday roast. I also miss Match of the Day but not as much as when Hull City were in the Premiership."

He doesn't – and daren't – dream about the Olympics yet, but the occasional thought does slip through. "Whenever it does, it is the same dream... walking out with my team in front of a massive, loud, vibrant home crowd. Testing ourselves against the best teams in the world. Then, after we have poured our hearts out and measured five years of work against the best, sitting in the centre of the court until they turn out all the lights and the cleaners drag me out with a smile on my face. It is almost too big to dream about".

Curiously, the greatest moment in Middleton's sporting life to date also involves the rapture, sound and fury of a passionate crowd, not in a dream, but the reality of the Commonwealth Games semi-final this year against India... in India. "It was absolutely great. Just standing there for the national anthems with this enormous home crowd going absolutely crazy.

"We said to each other: 'Let's have this moment to respect and remember.' It was very similar to my first Olympics in Athens, at the Opening Ceremony, where we walked out as a team to be greeted by a crowd of 80,000 people cheering. It made the hairs on my neck stand up and you thought: 'Wow, this makes everything worthwhile'.

"It compensates for those other moments, like the matches we played against Argentina at Lilleshall in November, on the coldest, most miserable day, any of us can remember.

"Unlike footballers, we can't play in gloves and snoods. Our hands were so cold we couldn't feel the hockey stick. The only compensation was the look on our rivals' faces. They were, by a fraction, even more disgusted than we were."

The England hockey team (they rarely morph into the GB squad, with the inclusion of players from the other home countries, until the Olympics themselves) began the year with a terrorist death threat on their way to the World Cup in Delhi, which didn't preclude them playing well enough to finish fourth.

There followed a silver medal in the prestigious Champions' Trophy for the top six teams in the world and a fourth place finish at the Commonwealth Games where their semi-final v India was watched round the world by 1.2 billion people.

Nominated as one of the top five hockey players in the world, Middleton has played abroad, in Holland, for the past five seasons and next spring he moves to Germany. In between, he has joined the indoor champions, East Grinstead, for the winter campaign.

"I'm lucky. You don't make fortunes out of playing hockey, but I have been in Holland for the last four years where I have a salary, plus a car, petrol and rent all paid.

"It helps enormously, but we're nowhere near the lifestyle of a footballer. I'll still have to find a real job when I retire from sport."

Like Pipes, he misses aspects of England when he is away. "Crumpets," he said. "While I was in Holland this English shop opened there and it was amazing the difference it made. I was able to get crumpets and jelly to remind me of home. I missed things like that... and my girlfriend. Actually, you'd better put the girlfriend first."

For Middleton, the chief attribute of a captain must be a sense of humour. That and the calmness under pressure ably demonstrated by the England Cricket captain, Andrew Strauss. Extraordinarily, Strauss was born in Johannesburg,Transvaal, but one must presume Yorkshire ancestors.

For all the difference in financial support – hockey as a genuine medal prospect at London 2012 is approximately seven times better funded than volleyball – the similarities between the two men are glaring. Both are understated but adamant.

"I think the greatest thing an athlete can say is: 'no regrets'," said Pipes. "Knowing that, at every turn, you made choices to put yourself in the best position for your sport. That maybe, despite performance or results, there was nothing left of you when you walked from your respective field."

See Barry Middleton in action for East Grinstead at the super sixes National Indoor Hockey Finals at Wembley Arena on Sunday, January 30 2011. For tickets call 0844 815 0815 or log on to www.ticketmaster.co.uk. For more information visit the website www.englandhockey.co.uk/supersixes