James Cracknell: the comedown from Olympic glory is grim

"A short time ago you were racing in front of 80,000 people – now there’s nobody. And there will be nobody for four years”

There is a downside to Britain’s Olympic success. As the glow of London 2012 fades, the athletes who just a few weeks ago were riding the summer high of success are now grappling with the Olympic comedown.

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Double Olympic champion James Cracknell says the reality of life after competing can be a shock: “There were those 16 days when everyone was watching, but the Olympic shine only lasts for so long. Now most of the Olympic guys and girls are back training, day after day, in the rain, with only one man and his dog watching. A short time ago you were racing in front of 80,000 people – now there’s nobody. And there will be nobody for four years.”

The twists of Olympic fame can be cruel. For every Jessica Ennis or Victoria Pendleton, there are many who face an uncertain future.

“There are only so many sponsorship opportunities and media calls to go round,” says Cracknell. “In London 2012 we had so many gold medallists, but the flipside of that success is that some of them will be forgotten. I mean, could you name all 29 gold medal winners from London? I know I couldn’t.

“Helen Glover and Heather Stanning were not only the first British gold medallists of 2012, they were the first gold medallists ever in British women’s rowing,” Cracknell continues. “But the reality is they will need to repeat that in Rio, because in a minority sport like the one they, and I, come from, you need to win several times to have any chance of picking up a career outside sport when you finish.”

Even for athletes who decided to end their careers after London, the process of adjusting to retirement is far from easy. “I spoke to a sports psychologist, and she told me it takes two years to properly retire,” says Cracknell.

Despite his reservations about the Olympic fame game, he’s impressed by how Pendleton has dealt with life after racing. “For Victoria to have Strictly Come Dancing to stop her thinking about the track is great. When I retired I decided to row across the Atlantic. That was my weird way of getting away from rowing, and it worked: by the time I got to the other side I never wanted to go near a bloody boat again! But in hindsight I probably should have learned to cook, dance or muck about in the jungle for a couple of weeks.”

But for the athletes watching Pendleton glittering on television while they slog it out in the mud, this can be a grim time. “The problem I found, and they will too, is that the glow of the Olympics, the thrill of competing and the fun of racing will dim. And there won’t be a light from the next Olympics because it’s too far away. That’s when it’s going to be a real struggle. The middle two years especially are going to be very dark.”

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James Cracknell presents 2012, Now What? – a special programme looking at how leading athletes deal with the after-effects of the Olympics – on Radio 5 Live tonight at 8:30pm