Get active: interview with Sir Matthew Pinsent
Sir Matthew Pinsent has one of the best Olympic records of any British athlete. George Arnett talks to him about why he hopes this summer will get Britain’s youth excited about sport
Former rower Sir Matthew Pinsent is hoping that London 2012 inspires kids to get active. The winner of four Olympic gold medals – at four consecutive games – feels children are missing out on some of the fun he had as a child.
“For me, sport and being outside was a big part of growing up. I hope that part of the legacy that this summer is going to see is that we take sport more seriously than we do now. And that being outside and taking part in sport is just seen as a normal way of growing up.”
Recently released government figures show that the number of 16-25 year olds playing sport once a week has actually declined since the games were allocated to London. Why does Sir Matthew think this is the case?
“The Olympics is not the solution for what is a big problem. It’s part of the solution, but we need a culture shift in order to stop what’s been happening over the last ten, twenty years. And, of course, the Olympics is going to do a little bit of that lifting, but it’s not going to be the whole answer.”
So what is the best way forward?
“I think parents have got a lot to answer for. We don’t hesitate to teach our children about table manners or academic discipline or politeness and yet somehow along the way we’re not doing enough with activity.
“It doesn’t take a lot. Kids want to be active and if you feed them the right stuff they’ll be charging around in no time.”
Sir Matthew is backing Get Set, Go Free, an initiative giving families access to free activities in exchange for points collected on Nestlé products. Parents have the chance introduce their children to some sports outside the mainstream, such as canoeing and scuba diving. Sir Matthew calls this the “best thing about Get Set, Go Free.”
He is a proud parent himself and his Twitter profile states it is sometimes harder to tell which is the bigger challenge, being an Olympic rower or being a parent. But is a family life compatible with the schedule of an Olympic athlete?
One of Sir Matthew’s successors in the coxless four rowing event, Beijing gold medallist Andrew Triggs-Hodge, recently told interviewers that he was looking forward to getting away from his family and putting his head down to train ahead of the games. Is that a mentality Sir Matthew relates to?
“My family and friends knew that, when it came to the Olympics, they were a distraction. The most important thing is that they win and then they have all the time in the world with their nearest and dearest when it’s all over.”
Similarly, although he has spoken in the past about the importance of athletes preparing for after their retirement, he would not advise Triggs-Hodge and his teammates to think about that now:
“It’s not the right time to be doing it in the run up to the Olympics. You’ve got to do some thinking when you’re away from the hardest part of competing. Making sure that you figure out what the best way forward is and it’s not an easy decision for anyone.”
His own choice was to take up a role at the BBC as a sports journalist and he is currently preparing to report on what may be Britain’s biggest celebration of sport for a lifetime.
“I covered the Beijing Olympics as a journalist and loved it. I’m really looking forward to the combination of a home games and being there to witness it. I think it will be an amazing summer for Britain and I think the team is going to do pretty well.”
Beyond punditry, Sir Matthew has achieved some pretty admirable scoops. His interview with Dwain Chambers saw the sprinter confess to having taken drugs because he did not think he would be caught. Even more controversial was Sir Matthew’s investigation into the abuse of children by Chinese gymnastics coaches, which led Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee, to launch an investigation.
Sir Matthew is particularly enthusiastic about some of his latest work:
“I’ve been involved in a fantastic project running up to London – World Olympic Dreams – seeing athletes from other countries and the way they prepare. That’s been a real privilege.
“Some of these people are in areas of conflict and war. And yet, even out of that they are producing Olympic competitors and, in some cases, medallists
“Rohullah Nickpai, an Afghan taekwondo fighter who I filmed with a month ago, he won a medal in Beijing and he’s the national icon. Afghanistan’s first Olympic medal ever.”
Could he find some common ground with these athletes as a Westerner?
“Much more unites us rather than divides us. We talk the same language about sport and their aspiration. Their dream to win and come to the Olympics, that’s a language I understand all too well.”
Sir Matthew recently took part in one of 2012’s other big events, the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant. He was one of 18 oarsmen led by his former Olympic partner, Sir Steve Redgrave, rowing on the new royal barge Gloriana.
The resplendent vessel was constructed by Richmond-based boat builder Mark Edwards and Sir Matthew was very impressed by his work.
“To still have that capability in the UK to make traditional craft like that was a brilliant advert for boatmanship and craftsmanship in the UK.
At 94 ft, Gloriana is the largest rowed vessel in the UK. How did it contrast from the boats he used to compete on during the Olympics?
“Oh quite differently. It’s pretty steady. It’s 16 tonnes of wood that thing. That’s a supertanker and we were rowing in a speedboat.”
And getting to be at the front of an 1000-strong flotilla of boats was clearly a fantastic experience for the former Olympian.
“It was wonderful to be a small part, but at least in the front row, of one of the big spectacles of 2012.”
Matthew Pinsent is supporting Nestlé’s Get Set, Go Free campaign, which gives families the opportunity to try over 25 activities for free this summer by collecting points on a range of Nestlé products. To find out more visit www.getsetgofree.co.uk