Walk & Talk with James Cracknell
A two-time Olympic gold medallist, James Cracknell is now a Sustainability Ambassador for London 2012. But the British rowing champion and adventurer’s sense of wanderlust is very much intact – and then some! He talks bites, bikes and his battle to walk again with Susan Gray
You’re a Sustainability Ambassador for London 2012 – what are you hoping to achieve?
With the Olympics itself lasting only 17 days, and the Paralympics on for a further 12, there had to be a longer-lasting benefit to justify all the disruption. The Stratford Olympic Park can’t exist in isolation – it needs to survive for another 100 years. The aim is to be the most sustainable Games so far, acting as a sustainability blueprint for other large projects in the future. We will be producing data sets for future host cities to compare their environmental impact on biodiversity and climate change, and that’s never been done before. Athletes staying in the Olympic Village will use less than 150 litres of water per day, which is below the national average. Emphasising public and active transport is key, too: the new Javelin train will take people from King’s Cross St Pancras to Stratford in seven minutes. People have to take responsibility for their own transport decisions: it will be the tube for me, or the overground from Chiswick.
What about walkers?
The Olympic Park will have a cycleway, but you would need to go a little further afield to get to a place you would want to walk in. But after the Games, there will be parkland and sporting facilities created to the west of Westfield Shopping Centre. We were lucky to have land to develop in Stratford so close to the city.
You read Geography at Reading – do you think that’s made you more personally concerned about climate change?
Not really – that was 20 years ago, when climate change wasn’t such a big thing. My understanding comes more from seeing the pressures on various industries and economic sectors, and how urban environments would benefit if we took more care with energy consumption and emissions.
What impact do you think the Olympics will have on Britons’ health?
There is going to be a time bomb hitting the NHS in the coming decades with obesity and associated diseases. We need to revise our mindset and start exercising not just for sport’s sake, but for health’s sake. We need to be more active. This imminent health crisis is going to make the current economic crisis pale into insignificance, and it’s going to cost a lot to sort out.
Was the Government right to shelve Olympic legacy targets for participation in community sports?
Were they right to set the target in the first place? Why limit participation to a million? People need to be more physically active; more into their health. Exercise is not about people running around in Lycra: the bigger picture is to make us a healthier society, so that we get more out of our lives, more out of our families. We need to plan now for the health time bomb. Supermarkets putting minimum price limits on alcohol and making processed food more expensive would be a move in the right direction. And we need to subsidise food that’s natural and grown locally. Move more, eat better: doing that is the next big thing.
For your latest TV series, World’s Toughest Expeditions, you trekked the Amazonian jungle, paddled the Zambezi, crossed the American Southwestern desert and were stranded in the Pacific. Are there any walks closer to home that are similarly adventurous?
After the bee stings and mosquito bites, I won’t be hurrying back to the Amazon jungle! Europe’s Alpine lakes offer adventurous terrain, and in Britain, the Brecon Beacons are phenomenal. The Marines, SAS and SBS [Special Boat Service] all put recruits through their paces there, so there are plenty of challenging routes.
You say your continuing recovery from brain injury has made you appreciate ‘the value of a day’. Can you elaborate?
Due to an accident on a public highway thousands of miles from home, my three kids were one day away from never seeing me again. [In July 2010, he was hit on the head by a truck’s wing mirror while cycling in the US, breaking his skull in two places and putting him in a coma. He is convinced his helmet saved his life. ] So that day will always stand out in a different way. Now, if I choose to be away from them, there has to be good reason. And I make sure the kids are included in the trips as much as possible, so they get to learn about the Amazon and Polar regions. Travelling to remote places makes me more appreciative of a tap, a fridge and a toilet when I get back. We’re incredibly lucky as a society, but we don’t appreciate it.
Was walking part of your rehabilitation?
I broke my foot, so I did more cycling. But when you’re building up from nothing, walking is a good way to start. At first I wasn’t sure if I would live, so to talk again and walk again is a milestone in recovery. Walking is one of our first tastes of freedom – it’s so important to us as a species. I was in a ward with people who would never walk again unaided, so I’m thankful I still can.
What’s your proudest Olympic memory?
Having missed Barcelona in 1992 with an injury, I then fell ill at the Atlanta Games in 1996 and couldn’t race. [He went on to win gold in the coxless four rowing at Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004.] So my proudest memory is not giving up. It would have been easier to get a job and leave it behind, but I kept my self-belief.
What rising British stars should we look out for in this year’s Games?
Rising stars will find it difficult to break through, as there are 18 to 20 gold medallists competing again, as well as household names who’ve yet to win gold, such as Tom Daley, Zara Phillips and Paula Radcliffe. On top of that there are athletes who have delayed retirement because the Games are in London this year. But great stories always come out of the Olympics, and if young athletes can combine a great story with a great performance, they have the chance to compete and leave their mark.
World’s Toughest Expeditions with James Cracknell airs on the Discovery Channel.
What’s your favourite…
The Thames Path from Chiswick to the Houses of Parliament.
Anywhere pram-friendly along the north Devon and Cornwall coast.
The ocean from Putsborough, North Devon.
…piece of kit?
Windproof and waterproof everything, in all sizes, for all ages.