Going for gold: An account of competing at the Rio Olympics

1 September 2016


By Paul Bennett

Paul Bennett (MSc Computer Science, 2013) won a gold medal for Team GB in the men’s eight rowing at the Rio Olympics. Here, Paul gives us his thoughts on competing at the Olympic Games and draws comparisons with his time studying at Oxford.  

Being part of the Rio Olympics has been in many ways unique. Usually that would make it easy to write something engaging for you to read. However, it is actually a tall order. My peers are not only exceptional athletes but (usually!) intelligent, thoughtful, and eloquent in a way that puts me to shame. On top of that they have spoken about all the most unique experiences! One thing they have not spoken about is the way it is similar to our previous experiences. As I am keen to give you a perspective that you won’t read in the papers I will do my best to express the most pertinent similarities I experienced between the Olympics and Oxford.

The Olympic games are a funny one. I guess like any large well known event with worldwide
coverage, when you are totally on the outside it feels like this huge alien system that you could never be a part of. But once you are there it all feels scarily normal. This may not be unfamiliar to many of you who have been through the Oxbridge system; the shift from glorification to adjustment. You spend forever thinking about it and imagining what it will be like, there is a brief passing over the threshold, then suddenly you are there. Much less dramatic than you thought it would be. Even now, watching the footage of the event I participated in, some of the aura that I have associated with video of other Olympic games isn’t there; it just looks like any other event I have been lucky enough to compete in.

I appreciate that I was experiencing a bubble within a bubble. All Cariocas are quick to tell you there are dangers in Rio and that you should stay guarded. Despite Rio being an incredibly beautiful and unique city filled with engaging people and a diverse population, the fears and concerns of the International Olympic Committee, British Olympic Committee, World Health Organisation, British Rowing, and your parents all weigh on your mind constantly, making it impossible to totally relax. This is painfully similar to my memories of Oxford, in the sense of a simmering fear that maybe you aren’t good enough, maybe you aren’t working hard enough, maybe there is more you should be taking from this incredible opportunity bubbling against the backdrop of the undeniably beautiful once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Even becoming Olympic Champion has huge similarities to finishing your studies. There is so
much uncertainty and so many choices to confront almost as soon as you graduate. My sole
focus had been to do what I could to get past the finish line first. Once it was complete a void followed, a huge goal that I had strained for was gone. Much as there is elation and pride at your accomplishment there is also sadness at the loss of what you knew and how you had defined yourself.

After returning to the UK I went on a short trip to Devon with my girlfriend. She insisted on telling more people than I would have liked that I won in Rio and therefore instigating the furore of embarrassment, excitement and photography that has come to represent Olympic status for me. I almost feel like I don’t deserve that spotlight. Possibly because I was part of a team event, I feel more proud of what we accomplished as a group both my crew and my teammates, but also Team GB as a whole. So many incredible people formed that group as athletes and as support staff. I am just one very small piece of that. Any positive association you have to it comes from the tireless work of thousands of people. For me, that is also Oxford.