This month, sports scientist and former Olympian Greg Whyte talks to Helen Pilcher about fencing skulduggery, Comic Relief and why doughnuts are no bad thing…
Have you always loved sport?
It’s been a lifelong obsession. My passion at school was swimming, then when I was 14 there was a scandal that transformed my life. It was 1976, the height of the Cold War. The British pentathlon team was fencing the Russians in the Montreal Olympics. The British captain got hit by a Russian fencer, but he complained. They checked the Russian’s sword and found it had a secret button. The Russians were thrown out for cheating and Britain went on to win. It raised the profile of British modern pentathlon.
So you took up pentathlon?
It became the next 15 years of my life. It took me to the Olympics, and European and World Championships. I had an incredible career. You learn to cope with failure and with success.
How did you move into sport science?
When I was competing, there was no money, so you either worked or studied. I did one of the first degrees in sport science, then became involved in research. I’m running a study for patients with oesophageal cancer. Surgery is a physiological insult, so exercise can help prepare the body. It’s fantastic work.
You are known for your work with Comic Relief. How did that come about?
I remember it vividly. It was a drizzly day when I got a phone call from the CEO of Comic Relief. He’d just returned from Ethiopia with David Walliams, and they wanted to set up a big challenge. David said he would swim the English Channel. Two days later he was in my lab being tested.
Did you swim the Channel with him?
I trained him every stroke of the way, and on the day I was in the water pacing him. We had a good time, but it was tough. This was real TV, not reality TV – there’s a huge difference. Since, I’ve worked on 30 challenges for Sport and Comic Relief.
What was the toughest challenge?
David swimming the Channel was remarkable, but Jo Brand walking 20 miles a day for 7 days was an incredible achievement for where she had come from, which was virtually inactive. It’s not about the size of the challenge. Her journey to that point was truly amazing.
Of what are you most proud?
I’ve helped raise over £40m for Comic Relief, received an OBE for services to sport science and got to meet the Queen, but my proudest moments are the ones that are unseen. I’m really proud of the work I do with cancer patients because it makes such a big difference to their lives.
Do you have any vices?
I enjoy a glass of wine, a strawberry sugared doughnut and a bag of chips. Balance is important. I don’t want to be a health zealot, because it’s not the way people live their lives.
One message for our readers?
Move more. It’s that simple.
Greg Whyte is a professor of applied sport and exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University, and director of performance at London’s Centre for Health and Human Performance.
“MOVE MORE. IT’S THAT SIMPLE”