Olympic focus: Birkbeckians take part in the world's greatest sporting event

Birkbeck's finest are preparing themselves for London 2012

Olympic rower Rob Williams

Birkbeck's finest are embracing the Olympic spirit – from racing in the rowing competition to volunteering in various roles, including at boxing matches.

Olympic rower Rob Williams

Just weeks after completing his PhD at Birkbeck, rower Rob Williams is a contender for a gold medal in the lightweight men's four. He and his GB teammates are joint favourites for first place after winning the World Cup competition in Munich in June.

On Tuesday 31 July, Williams and his GB teammates won their semi-final at Eton Dorney in the lightweight men’s four. They will be competing in the final on Thursday 2 August at 10am.

Williams, 27, said: “It is exciting, and I am really looking forward to the Olympics. The training is going well and we are happy with our position. We are joint favourites.”

His past success on the water include winning gold in the lightweight men's four at the 2010 World Rowing Championships in New Zealand. He was a reserve at the Beijing Olympics.

Williams studied full-time in the winter and part-time in the summer to enable him to train and compete. His PhD in crystallography at Birkbeck and UCL's Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology focused on systems that secrete macromolecules. Such research is used to help understand pathogens.

Williams added: “I thoroughly enjoy science and I thoroughly enjoy rowing. My supervisor and Birkbeck have been incredibly supportive. It would have been very hard to combine both studying and rowing if I had not had the flexibility to switch from full-time to part-time.”

Williams' supervisor, Professor Gabriel Waksman, Head of the Department of Biological Sciences at Birkbeck's School of Science, said: “Rob is an exceptional student. He is remarkably organised, and this makes him able to succeed in both science and rowing. I wish him all the best in the Olympics. He is a World Champion and has possibly a good chance of a gold medal.”

Focusing on football

Lionel Foy is studying Birkbeck’s MSc in Sport Management and the Business of Football. He will be the team liaison officer for Gabon’s men’s football team, and he is excited at the prospect of seeing what happens behind the scenes. His duties will involve translating at press conferences for the French-speaking team, and assisting with security and transport arrangements. Foy said: “From the moment they arrive at Heathrow until they leave the UK I am basically their first point of contact. As a football fan it is a great opportunity for me to see elite footballers: how they prepare for tournaments, and see what the television does not show you.”

Foy used to play football in the second division in his native Cameroon, and he hopes to return one day to improve financial opportunities for footballers. He said making a living from football in Africa is hard, explaining why young African footballers dream of forging their careers in Europe. The 33-year-old is currently leading LionHeart In The Community (LITC) - a social enterprise providing welfare to work services, training, and community engagement projects in London’s deprived communities.

Classmate Leonardo Tellez, 23, will be performing the same role for Mexico’s men’s football team. The Venezuelan student will be accompanying the team to Newcastle, Coventy and Cardiff for the team’s games in the early stages of the competition. Tellez, who is eager to work in the world of sport after his studies, is optimistic about the prospects for the Mexican team following their successes in recent youth tournaments. He said: “I will be rooting for them all the way through. They have a bigger footballing history than my own country.”

Nicolas Cornélis, 25, will be working with France’s female football team. The Belgian student and former semi-professional golfer is also studying the MSc in Sport Management and the Business of Football. He will translate during press conferences, and help with transport and security arrangements, so that the players can focus on their football. He said: “I am really looking forward to it and it will be a great experience. We have to do everything they ask, and I will be doing my best. We do not know exactly what we will face.”

Boxing: from research to ringside

Professor Lynda Nead will be combining her research interests about the visual representation of boxing with her sporting pursuits as a boxing coach when she volunteers at the boxing matches. As a Games Maker, her various ringside duties will include maintaining the corner for boxers and coaches during the bouts and ensuring the boxers have what they need in the breaks, and that the area is kept clear and clean. She may even lead some of the male and female boxers out to the ring during her 12 shifts at the ExCel Centre.

Nead said: “It is like having the best seat in the house for when I am on shift. I have worked as a coach for six or seven years now and this is the most significant thing I could do in amateur boxing.”

Nead, of Birkbeck’s Department of History of Art and Screen Media in the School of Arts, is a boxing coach at the Peacock Gym in Canning Town, Newham, where she trains boys and girls aged nine to 16. She also comes from a distinguished family of East London boxing coaches; her late great uncle Harry Griver coached Michael Watson.

Volunteering backstage

Helen Metcalf will also be combining academic interests and volunteering. The second year student is writing her MSc Occupational Psychology thesis about the coverage of myths surrounding ticketing, doping and other aspects of the Olympics in the media. She is one of the Workforce Operations team at the ExCel Centre, and her responsibilities will include checking in staff, uniforms and accreditation. From September last year to March 2012, she was involved in interviewing prospective volunteers for the Games. She said: “It is exciting to be part of something so huge. There is a good atmosphere among the volunteers, and lots of people volunteer to be part of the Olympic spirit.”

Metcalf has lived in Newham – one of the London boroughs hosting the Olympics – for 12 years and she has noticed how the area has developed thanks to the infrastructure projects associated with the Olympics. She added: “There is a very optimistic feel about what has happened here. The Olympics have been a catalyst.”

Giant Olympic rings in Richmond Park

There are also more unconventional links between Birkbeck and the Olympics. Dr Andreas Liefooghe, Assistant Dean at Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics (BEI), was asked by the Royal Parks to assist with an unusual commission. As part of the project, he arranged for the shire horses he keeps at Hampton Court to cut the grass in Richmond Park to form giant Olympic rings, which are 300 metres across by 135 metres high.

Liefooghe said: “Shire horses are now rarer than pandas, and a symbol of a bygone age of Britishness. The industrial revolution would have been different if we didn't have thousands of shires working on the docks. Right under the Heathrow flight path, this is the first thing visitors will see - and we are very proud that our horses have contributed to this.”

Linking sport and academia

Regarding past Olympics, Dr Linda Trenberth, Head of Birkbeck’s Department of Management in the School of BEI, was selected to represent New Zealand in gymnastics for the 1972 Games in Munich, but had to withdraw after breaking her ankle before the competition. As a New Zealand representative she competed in various international competitions in the four gymnastic disciplines – floor, beam, vault and uneven parallel bars. She retired from gymnastics at 21 and then coached and judged the sport before returning to university and embarking on a career in academia in which she continued the sporting theme through developing sport management programmes and writing four sport management texts.

Trenberth said her training during her teenage years – six hours a day, six days a week – has proved invaluable to her drive to succeed. She said: “To be an elite athlete you have to be highly motivated and determined. Sport certainly prepares you well for taking on a leadership role, and makes you more resilient. Sport also teaches you the values of fair play and team spirit and develops transferable skills such as strategic planning, communication and people management, which are nurtured within the sporting environment.”

Birkbeck conference focuses on Olympics

The impact of the Olympics upon businesses, host cities and culture will be discussed at the 5th International Sport Business Symposium on 7 August at Birkbeck. Members of the International Olympic Committee, academics and students will discuss the opportunities and challenges associated with the Olympics during the event, and London 2012 will be centre stage with presentations about the role of new media, brands and sponsorship, and the socio-cultural dimension of this summer’s Games.

Experiences from past Olympics and preparations for Games in future will also be shared, with subjects including public opinion in host cities, Olympic values, ticketing, commercials, and urban planning.

Highlights from the event include IOC members talking about their areas of expertise:

  • Sam Ramsay, from South Africa, on the Youth Olympic Games
  • Gerhard Heiberg, from Norway, on brands and sponsorship
  • Richard Pound, from Canada, on Olympic television rights and the challenges of new media

Sean Hamil, Director of Birkbeck’s Sport Business Centre and co-organiser of the conference together with Professor Holger Preuss, of the University of Mainz, Germany, said: “The Olympics are the greatest sporting event in the world. They have a profound impact on business and society, and it’s important to discuss these links when the Games are happening on our doorstep in London. Hosting the Olympics can boost businesses, create new enterprises, accelerate urban redevelopment and much more, but they are also associated with significant risks, notably the challenge of leaving a sustainable legacy for the host city and its citizens. The experts at the conference will be exploring all these fascinating opportunities and challenges.”

The conference fee for delegates is £35, including catering and the evening reception. The event will take place at Birkbeck’s Clore Management Centre, Torrington Square, London, WC1 7HX.

Forecasting Olympic medals

Professor Klaus Nielsen, Department of Management, has been working with Danish researchers to develop a new model for predicting medal successes at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Find out about Professor Klaus Nielsen's model for forecasting Olympic medals.