THE chiming of Big Ben at midnight tonight will not only usher in a new year, but an Olympic year.
Ever since 2005 when London won the right to host the biggest sporting extravaganza on the planet, 2012 has been synonymous with the capital’s staging of the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Britons would have had to have been living on Mars not to know what feats of sporting wonderment await us this summer.
Reams of print and hours of news footage have told us who to watch, when to watch and how to get involved when the greatest stars on planet sport – from Jamaican sprint king Usain Bolt to Sheffield’s own Jessica Ennis – descend on London.
Olympic Games have always been big events, but the hype for one in our own country has already blown the mercury off the temperature gauge.
They were still a big deal back in 1988, though not to the current extent, in the year of Peter Elliott’s finest hour. Then a young man from Rotherham, he won silver in the Olympic 1,500m final in Seoul. It was a crowning moment for a Yorkshireman who was unlucky perhaps to reach his peak amid the richest flowering of post-war middle distance runners in the shape of Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram.
In those days, even Olympians copuld not expect to be full-time professional athletes. Peter combined his training with a job as a joiner in the local steelworks.
Twenty-four years on and Elliott may no longer be the man chasing down glory on the home straight, but he remains actively involved in the sport that made him famous. For just over the border from where he grew up in Rawmarsh, Elliott works in Sheffield at the English Institute of Sport.
It is actually a sports facility in Attercliffe rented from Sheffield International Venues which is home to the English Institute of Sport personnel and operations.
But everyone knows the building as the EIS. It’s the indoor training base for Jessica Ennis, the Sheffield girl who is the current European and formwer world heptathlon champion as wellas world indoor pentathlon champion. It’s shere she is making her bid to deliver on her golden promise and the centre for a host of sports men and women who will head to London next year determined to win Olympic and Paralympic glory.
EIS is a body rather than bricks and mortar, but regardless of the make-up, it has quickly become a priceless resource for funded athletes, a status that Elliott could only dream of two and a half decades ago when he was winning world and Olympic silver medals. “We are the team behind the team,”explains Elliott, who is the northern regional director for EIS. “Our role is to provide sports science and sports medicine to all athletes who are competing in the Olympics, the Paralympics and other English sports as well, like squash, netball and rugby league,”
Elliott’s remit covers Sheffield, Manchester and Gateshead. He has offices at all three bases.
“Each site will be a lead site for a sport and a person will be the lead sport contact,” he says.
“For instance in Sheffield, I am the lead contact for the Great Britain boxing squad and we could send up to 14 men and women to the Games.
“I liaise with them regarding the services they require.”
Also based in Sheffield is the GB diving squad, the handball and volleyball teams, the disabled table tennis squad and GB boccia. The latter is a paralympic sport for athletes with disabilities, which has similarities with petanque and bowls.
Great Britain won Paralympic Gold in Beijing and in Nigel Murray has the current world number one.
Weightlifters and disabled powerlifters based at Leeds Metropolitan University also fall under Peter Elliott’s remit.
In all the 49-year-old oversees around 250 athletes who are either funded on the podium programme for 2012 or on the development programme for 2014 and beyond. “We provide them with services in sport science and sport medicine,” explains Elliott. “The sport science facet, in layman’s terms, means that a boxer, for instance, will have access to a nutritionist, which is very important with it being a weight-making sport.
“They will also utilise strength and conditioning (weights) facilities here in Sheffield, performance analysis (video fights and feedback). Within that you can also have biomechanics which looks at data analysis.
“Outside of sports science, sports medicine is about providing athletes with access to the doctor, access to medicine and to soft-tissue therapy, which is effectively massage.”
Fully-funded athletes reap the benefit of the EIS services.
Jessica Ennis, who trains at the facility, is a regular user, as are the squads that are based there.
Even those without London 2012 on their mind – such as Yorkshire squash stars Nick Matthew and James Willstrop and winter Olympians Kristan Bromley and Shelley Rudman – can tap into the wealth of services on hand.
Elliott continues: “Each separate sport buys into services such as nutrition, strength and conditioning, lifestyle, physio, doctor, performance analysis.
“So I’ll sit down with the performance director of, say boxing, and make sure that we are delivering from a sports science and sports medicine perspective, everything they want.
“If they are looking for a new discipline then we’ll sit down and look at that and then go out and recruit the person to deliver it.
“If an athlete is in the world class programme and lives in the vicinity of Sheffield or Yorkshire, they’ll either come to access services here, or to Leeds Met where we also deliver physio, and strength and conditioning.”
In London this summer Elliott and his team of about 35 at the Institute’s base in Sheffield, could be cheering on close to 100 athletes who fall within their remit.
How many of those win gold is up to the athletes and their coaches. In finishing fourth on the medal table in Beijing in 2008, Britain not only exceeded expectations but raised them for their home Olympics.
Peter Elliott is convinced Britain can replicate that feat and match the targets set by UK Sport and the governing bodies. “I still believe that with British athletes having the best support financially in this Olympic cycle, I don’t see us falling down the medal table.
“What we can do here at EIS is provide a programme that is athlete-centred, coach driven and surrounded by sport science and sport medicine.
“We work with the coach and the athlete to attain the very best standards.
“There are things that we can’t control. On the day of an 800m race an athlete can get tripped or fall down.
“You can get people not performing to expectation, or you can get someone coming from nowhere like Hannah England who won a silver at the World Championships in August.
“From our point of view we’ve got to make sure in the build-up to the Olympics and Paralympics that our staff, the team behind the team, are delivering to the level of expectation, if not beyond that expectation.
“That when those athletes are on their start lines, they are in the best shape both physically and mentally that they could be. Part of that is our job.
“Because the pressure on our athletes is going to be very high.
“I remember going over to the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002 and it was like no other championships I’d been to because it wasn’t just the die-hard athletics fans who were there, it was people who were coming out for the occasion.
“We’ve seen that with London 2012 and how the ticket sales have gone through the roof, because people are going for the occasion and that’s going to be great for the athletes to have that support.”
Legacy is something London campaigned on when making its bid to stage the Games.
How stadiums would be used afterwards was of particular concern, with the International Olympic Committee mindful of the ghost towns of Athens and Montreal.
Also of importance beyond the four weeks of summer competition was how the best sports men and women in the world would inspire the youngsters of Britain to get active and involved in sport.
But if the birth of the English Institute of Sport proves anything, it is that sport goes on after London 2012.
Neither Elliott, his staff, nor the athletes they work for will fall off a cliff when the last international team heads home.
“Even eight months away, sports are already putting plans in place for the road to Rio (venue for the 2016 Olympics),” he says.
“Even though we’re focusing on the biggest event in this country for decades, we still have to have one eye on Rio.
“Legacy comes from the buildings that go up and a lot of those will be in London.
“But part of the legacy for me is the role models, the Jessicas, the Ben Pipes (Hull-born volleyball captain), the Luke Campbells (Hull-born boxer).
“Usually in an Olympic year you could get to January 1, 2008, and nobody would think straight away that it is an Olympic year, unless you’re an athlete focusing on the Olympics.
“Whereas as soon as we hit January 1, 2012, everyone knows 2012 is Olympic year, and that’s all anyone associates the year with.
“There is something every day in the press or on the news about the Olympic Games, whether that be about funding, new venues, or whether it’s about an athlete.
“And hopefully the kids are showing an interest and we will see more kids come through in Olympic sports.
“And for my part, I’m very fortunate to have this involvement and to be working at this level in sport.
“The thing I love is that I’m not just in track and field, I work with a lot of sports.
“The reason I appreciate it is that while I was running I was not just a full-time athlete like these guys I see every day are.
“I worked for 11 years for British Steel. I’ve had a proper job.
“So it’s nice now that having had an athletics career, I’m still involved in sport and I’m still looking forward to an Olympics.”