"I could have been a contender" - the BBC Olympic presenters who almost had careers in sport

Matt Baker, Gabby Logan, Jake Humphrey, Clare Balding, Sonali Shah and Chris Hollins were nearly successful sports people - some more than others

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"I could have been a contender" - the BBC Olympic presenters who almost had careers in sport
Written By
Radio Times staff

Gabby Logan:

I took up rhythmic gymnastics at the age of ten; I followed my sister into the sport.

There are five pieces of equipment you have to use – rope, club, hoops, ball and ribbon. I liked hoops, because there is a lot that can go wrong without it being visible. At the Commonwealth Games for Wales in Auckland, in 1990 (I came eighth), one or two things didn’t work out, but it wasn’t that obvious.

With clubs, too, the worst that can happen is that they fall at your feet, and with ribbons they would lie in a crumpled heap. Although at one event the organisers did have to put up scaffolding to get a ribbon of mine down from the ceiling.

It was the ball routine that really showed you up if it went wrong. I remember my sister having to run after a ball and retrieve it from the shopping bag of a lady in the front row; when she reached in, she nearly pulled out a cabbage. Unfortunately, I had to give up the sport at 17, because of a bad back. The doctor said the only way the condition could have made itself known was if I had been painting the Sistine Chapel or doing rhythmic gymnastics – those are the only two activities that require such intensive amounts of back-bending.

Giving up left a large hole in my life. I had been training in the morning for an hour and a half before school, then again in the evening. Sadly, I never got to the Olympics, but I do have some idea of the level of commitment needed to get to the top.

Jake Humphrey:

My dad got me into cycling when I was 12. I was fascinated by him talking about the Tour de France, and the Olympic gold medallist cyclist Chris Boardman was my hero. So I joined a club near my home in Norfolk.

My entire cycling career consisted of two races. The first one was up and down a steep hill. I came last and was the only boy to be lapped by girls. My second was at an aerodrome. I remember sitting in the car on the way, thinking, “Just don’t come last.” It was punishing. I had tears in my eyes I was trying so hard not to finish last.

I didn’t, but I realised in that second race that, at 14, I would never be Norfolk’s answer to Chris Boardman.

The final nail in the coffin was a few weeks later when my bike got stolen. I thought, "This is the end."

I’m really looking forward to presenting the Olympic cycling. I know how tough it is for the riders. To be there alongside Chris Boardman will be amazing. I’m determined to go out for a ride with him.

Sonali Shah:

I took up taekwondo at the age of 18, when I went to university, as a way of keeping in shape. At the time, I was going out with someone who was a black belt in karate, and a few of us got together for regular sparring sessions, which were friendly, rather than competitive.

That’s the good thing about taekwondo: you score points without hurting people. Also, you wear a lot of padding and protective gear: helmets, chest pads, foot pads. What’s not so good is that there are all these different styles and federations, and when I left university and came back to London, I couldn’t find the federation that oversaw the style I had learnt. End of taekwondo career, aged 20.

Mind you, my best sporting days were already behind me. At primary school I played netball and hockey, and was a sprinter and hurdler, too, but then I stopped growing (I’m still only 5ft 1in). Sport became harder for me, because I couldn’t compete when it came to size and weight.

From my own experiences, I have some idea of how much dedication is required if you want to be the best. I’ve met quite a few Olympic athletes, and basically they have to give up their social lives. Early nights are obligatory – some athletes won’t have seen midnight for the past four years.

Clare Balding:

I first got on a horse at the age of 18 months. At the age of two, I fell off and broke my collarbone. Over the years I’ve broken ribs, too, and had concussion a few times, but have never for a moment contemplated not riding.

When I was little, all I wanted to be was an eventer; I modelled myself on Lucinda Green. In the end, I didn’t do badly as an amateur flat jockey; my best moment was in 1990, when I became Champion Lady Rider. I won my weight in champagne: one of the few times in my riding career when not being small was an advantage.

There’s no question that it’s better to be the winner of a race than to be the person interviewing the winner. All you can do is help communicate something of the joy, the adrenaline rush that person is feeling.

Success is difficult to achieve in any sport, but particularly when there are horses involved. There are so many variables; you can be training them for years and suddenly something goes wrong and you have to pull out. Look at Piggy French [the British eventer who’ll now miss the Olympics due to an injury to her horse].

I am going to be at Greenwich covering the dressage and the showjumping. When I look at the level of commitment, the years of hard slog required to become an Olympian, I am lost in admiration.

Matt Baker:

I was always jumping round the house when I was little, so it was no surprise when I took up gymnastics. I took it seriously and, by the age of eight, I was North of England champion.

Then I became part of the national junior gymnastics squad. I used to spend all my summers away from home, either at Lilleshall Hall National Sports Centre, in Shropshire, or abroad with the rest of the squad. Most days I’d train three times: first thing, during the lunch hour and after school.

Gymnastics was a way of life for me; to get the results, you need that mind-set. It all came to an end when I was diagnosed with anaemia at the age of 14 and had to cut back on my training.

In a way, gymnastics also got me into television. At sixth-form college I was in a production of Grease, doing back flips. I then got a bigger role, which led to drama school and getting the job on Blue Peter. When I’m covering the gymnastics now I think, “That could have been me.” But if I’d stuck with it, would things have worked out for me as well as they have?

Chris Hollins:

When I was at school I played football, cricket and rugby. I had always been sceptical about hockey until I gave it a go at 13. Although I got hit by the ball in my first game, right in the unmentionables, I really enjoyed it. I was in the school team, playing at right midfield or right back, for years.

Players like Steve Batchelor and Sean Kerly were a real inspiration. When I was 17, I remember watching them in the Great Britain men’s hockey team at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when they famously beat the West Germans to take the gold medal.

I had to give up hockey when I went to Durham University. I'd started playing football again, and got picked for the England universities team. Then I went to Oxford and played first-class cricket, too, so there wasn’t really time for hockey.

I do look back and ask, "Could I have taken it further?" I like to think I could have been on the bench at national league level but, if I’m really honest, I know I wasn’t good enough. My experience of playing sport is useful in my job, in that I know what people are going through to achieve a certain standard. That sense of perspective really helps.

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