Karen Pickering’s Olympic memories
Karen Pickering is one of the most experienced Olympians of her generation.
The Ipswich-based swimmer took part in four consecutive Olympic Games, starting out as a 20-year-old at Barcelona in 1992.
Pickering went on to compete in Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004). She was a radio commentator at Beijing in 2008, and will be working in that capacity again in London next year, as well as fulfilling her duties as a board member of the London Organising Committe for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
So in terms of sampling the Olympic experience, there is no better athlete in East Anglia to speak to than Pickering.
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“It was an incredible experience. As an athlete, you always have a dream of competing at an Olympic Games. You’ve seen all the adverts and the big previews on television, and then suddenly you are a part of it.
“The whole thing was so exciting. You hear so much about the Olympic Village, and what it feels like to live there, and as a 20-year-old I found it all very surreal.
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“I could look out of my window and see some world-class cyclists riding past in a peleton, or watch a group of gymnasts march outside to do some stretching exercises.
“At the World and European Championships you obviously only came across other swimmers, but here you were suddenly in the presence of the world’s best athletes across all sports.
“I suppose the Commonwealth Games is a smaller version of the Olympics, without as many athletes or as many sports.
“They didn’t have semi-finals in the swimming events in those days, but I did finish second in the ‘B’ final (200m freestyle), which meant I was 10th overall. The fastest eight from the heats just went straight to the final.”
“Of all my four Olympic Games as a competitor, Atlanta was my least favourite.
“All Olympics are different, but I didn’t particularly like the way the athletes and spectators were treated at Atlanta, because it was the sponsors and the corporate people who seemed to get the priority treatment. That’s how it felt anyway.
“They weren’t interested in you as an athlete, unless you’d won a medal.
“It was a completely different experience to Barcelona. It was not a very friendly Games, and it didn’t help that I was also taken ill in the village.
“But one of the highlights for me was getting a ticket to watch the basketball final.”
“Sydney seemed to make a conscious effort to look at the Atlanta experience and do the complete opposite, and the outcome was a very successful Olympics.
“Australians love their sport. They appreciate all sports, not just the ones they are good at, so they have a wider understanding of Olympic sports across the board. They also love their athletes.
“As athletes, we all felt appreciated and the whole atmosphere was wonderful.
“The Olympic village was amazing. It was situated much nearer to the stadiums and the pool, so there were no long bus journeys to contend with.
“Thanks to local hero Ian Thorpe, the swimming events were in the spotlight.
“It was a fantastic experience, and it was great to watch some of the other sports after the swimming had finished, like seeing Cathy Freeman win the 400m in front of her home crowd.”
“I remember the Olympic village at Athens being huge. It was so vast that you lost the intimate experience you felt at Sydney and Barcelona.
“It was also more difficult, as athletes, to get tickets for some of the other events.
“But the biggest drawback, for us swimmers, was the insistence (by national performance director Bill Sweetenham) that we should return to Britain to take part in another competition, rather than be allowed to stay on in Greece to be a part of the closing ceremony.
“As swimmers, you never get a chance to attend the opening ceremony, because the swimming events are always first on the programme, taking up the first eight days of the 16-day competition.
“In the end, all but two of the British swimmers returned to Athens to be a part of the closing ceremony.”
“We in this country certainly know how to put on big events, whether they be concerts or sporting extravaganzas like the London Marathon.
“The location of the Olympic village should make for an intimate experience, and most athletes should be able to look out of their bedroom windows and see the Olympic fire burning bright.
“London is such a cosmopolitan city – more so than the likes of Paris and Barcelona – so it won’t just be the British athletes who are well supported. There is such a mix of nationalities.
“I think it’s going to be a great occasion.”