Georgina Harland is an Olympic medallist who moved into sports administration after her sporting career. She is the first female chef de mission of the British Olympic Association, and in a special column for BBC Sport talks about the importance of female role models and male allies.
My sporting career ended abruptly just two months before the start of the 2008 Olympics, when I ruptured a calf muscle at the World Modern Pentathlon Championships.
I sat on the sofa watching the opening ceremony of the Beijing Games with tears rolling down my face and my leg in a cast, questioning what was going to come next.
But in that second I resolved to write letters, make phone calls and tap into any contact I had from my athletic career to try to take the next step. It was a moment of clarity juxtaposed against the bitter disappointment of not being at those Games in China after winning a bronze medal four years earlier.
It was Clive Woodward who first introduced me to life away from being an athlete, at the British Olympic Association (BOA). I was keen to do anything, to get off my sofa and get involved.
Needless to say the move from athlete to administrator is not always an easy one, and I still remember sitting at my computer staring at a spreadsheet with no clue whatsoever of what I was doing.
A colleague came up to me and said: “Come on, let’s figure this out together.” They took the time to help me understand little things, which were probably very simple to them but were things that not only made me grow in confidence but made me feel part of something. That feeling has grown and grown during my time at the BOA.
As an athlete, you all too often don’t appreciate the level of detail and hard work that goes on behind the scenes – rightly so – but you become aware very quickly that it’s a heck of lot.
A hangover from your athletic days is the desire to be the best that you can be and I was prepared to work hard to learn about the many different facets of the organisation.
I’ve been very lucky to have people that have believed in me and helped me as I have progressed into a career beyond sport.
There are too many to mention but, people such as Dr Steve Peters, who I worked with as an athlete and also in the period just after my retirement, and Mark England (Tokyo 2020 Team GB chef de mission).
Mark has been instrumental in my development and I remember very clearly him calling me into a meeting room and offering me the deputy chef de mission role for Rio 2016, an incredibly proud moment for me.
That support and inspiration for me hasn’t just been confined to the BOA. British Olympians have been going to the Olympic Games since 1896, so there are many great female athletes to have inspired those who have followed, generation after generation.
I think one of my favourite athletes, and a real inspiration to me, is Dame Mary Peters. A wonderful athlete but an equally wonderful person. I’ve been so lucky to get to know her a bit better through the work the BOA has done to engage athletes from Tokyo 1964, and Dame Mary just encapsulates so many of the things about being a great Olympian – talented, humble and a genuine interest in other people.
The advent of the National Lottery funding in 1996 saw Team GB go from strength to strength, and there are any number of female athletes I could pick out who have done their bit to excite and inspire – Jess Ennis-Hill, Nicola Adams, Christine Ohuruogu or Laura Kenny to name but a few, but one who really stands out for me is Katherine Grainger, who I had the honour to compete with in Athens and am now proud to call a friend.
What she achieved in the boat was incredible, but since retiring she has also been a fantastic example to athletes finishing their career to follow the paths that interest and will engage them in the same way their sporting career did. I think that’s a piece of advice I would always pass on; not to worry about finding the perfect job as your first job, just take a chance and try something. See what interests and excites you.
I will always remember a moment a few months after Rio 2016 when I spoke to Katherine and offered to go for a coffee with her.
We discussed the possibility of chatting through her thoughts and options as she looked at life after rowing. I was keen to give support in the same way I had received it. Little did I know that Katherine would be announced as chair of UK Sport shortly after this. I should perhaps have turned the tables and asked for tips from her!
It is really important for women in sport, and for athletes more generally, to see people like Katherine or Barbara Slater at the BBC, or more recently the new CEO of the Tokyo organising committee Seiko Hashimoto. They all have sporting backgrounds, and that sense that there is a pathway for women after their sporting careers to set new goals and aspirations but continue to be the best they possibly can be – I find that very inspiring.
I drew inspiration from a lot of women during my career, those I have competed with and who have supported me along the way. In the current phase of my life I also take great inspiration from looking around the office at the BOA.
We have so many talented women who quietly go about their job not looking for accolades, but at Games time without their knowledge and expertise we simply couldn’t achieve the things we do to support the athletes to be as prepared as they can be.
That’s one of the reasons why it’s even more of an honour to be the first female chef de mission for Team GB at Beijing 2022.
It goes without saying to head a delegation of super-talented and committed athletes is something to be very proud of but to look at colleagues you work with every day performing at the best of their ability too is a special feeling.
I like to think that despite my sporting career and now as an administrator – two things I have dedicated a lot of time and effort to – I am also an incredibly proud and doting mum to my two children – Mollie and Archie.
Mollie is older than Archie and is probably more aware of what I do, and it’s important for me that I’m there for her as a mother but also showing her that it is possible to work alongside that.
Ultimately my hopes for Mollie, and my son Archie, are that they find something in life they are passionate about and they have the opportunity to pursue that, and my husband and I will support them all the way.
Roughly a year ago I had just finished my chef de mission role at the Lausanne 2020 Youth Olympic Winter Games. No-one could foresee the year we’ve had since but I remain positive for the things that are to come, and opportunities I wouldn’t have imagined when I sat on the sofa watching the opening ceremony in 2008.