Series 1 Episode 6

The one in which Neil ends up in a Japanese hospital…

‘You only get one chance to make a first impression.’

It’s pretty well acknowledged that cyclists are the fittest of all athletes; they require stamina and endurance, but also explosive power on demand. They have a wide range of disciplines to cover, too; professional male and female riders will take part in long tours on the roads of Europe – in events such as the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia – with short time-trials and sprints thrown in along the way for good measure. These same riders can also be seen at work in velodromes: steeply banked, 250m oval circuits of cold concrete outdoors and beautiful wood indoors. Their other prime quality is hardiness. Crashes and falls happen regularly in this game, and the pain involved can be intense. Hold that thought about managing pain…

Where we left the story in the last episode was with me at the Olympic Broadcasting Services’ (OBS) International Broadcast Centre (IBC) in Tokyo, where due to a promotion, for the first time I was attending a management meeting of the Commentary and Communication teams for all the Olympic venues. You’ll appreciate, I’m sure, that in my line of work this is considered august company.

After a short, unspectacular, and rather expensive sandwich lunch we re-convened (colleagues from the UK were given boxed meals because they weren’t allowed to mingle with the rest of the IBC occupants, having arrived from a Covid-ridden Britain); and I soon started to feel a familiar kind of back pain.

But this pain wasn’t muscular: like most people of a certain age I get a stiffness if I sit in one position for too long, or carry out heavy lifting; and from time-to-time, thanks to twenty-odd years of carrying a bag over my shoulder containing a location sound mixer and radio microphone receivers – and balancing the weight of it whilst holding my hands high above my head, operating a boom microphone fixed to the end of a 2 metre pole – a bulging disc in my lower back gives up and gives way; and for the next week I try not to eat Ibuprofen as if they were Smarties. It’s a bitter-sweet reminder of the way I worked for 5 series of the BBC’s Antiques Road Show, back in the 1990s (now, would that be ‘legacy’ or ‘provenance’ in Antiques Roadshow-speak, I wonder?) No, instead, and with a dread rising in direct proportion to the rate at which my pain was increasing, I started to strongly suspect this was one of my kidney stones deciding that it was time to move.

I excused myself and quickly found a toilet to sit down on. Maybe I just needed a poo. Nope. Then I had the irresistible urge to vomit. Nope, nothing but dry retches (I’m sorry about all this detail). Then I thought, ‘how about if the intense stabbing pain in my left lower abdomen is appendicitis? I’ve never had that.’ A quick google told me I’d be prodding my right side, not the left; and in the interim, the pain was getting worse. Decidedly worse. But I had to return to the meeting room, I couldn’t stay here in the cubicle to eventually be found, passed out, with my trousers around my ankles.

I’ll be honest with you, just after I made that decision, I used another anatomical term, albeit slang and to myself in that lavatory stall, to describe the situation I found myself in: bollocks. My first management role for the Olympics, and no sooner had I fist bumped and introduced myself to everyone, than I’d be going out of the door on a gurney.

‘Hello, I must be going!’

I returned to the room which by now consisted of informal groups hunched over circuit diagrams; but the pain had reached such a level, I needed to let someone know that I needed to go to hospital – although those around me would surely have guessed, given that the gasps I was uttering were either due to extreme pleasure or intense pain. My two close friends from London 2012 and Rio 2016 were on the ball and straightaway called the IBC medical team. My new boss was also quickly across the situation and in no time at all, two of the IBC medical team had turned up with a wheelchair to take me to the on-site medical centre.

What seemed like an extraordinary long journey to the clinic was memorable for all the wrong reasons – in my head at least, my grunts and groans were reverberating all around the vast Tokyo Big Sight exhibition centre that the IBC inhabited; but with remarkable stoicism, I committed to not uttering one single swear word (unusual for me in such circumstances), irrespective of whether my Japanese angels understood them or not. Judging by the use of google translate once I was finally horizontal in the medical centre, I guessed they might not have recognized any naughty words; but I always feel like an ambassador for my country when I’m abroad, (I sometimes start enunciating like Terry Thomas, too, when I can’t be easily understood, finding myself saying things like ‘I say, old boy…’), and so, with no small measure of fortitude, I held fast.

Through the wonders of a smartphone app, I was able to explain my situation: ‘I have kidney stones in both kidneys; I have a Urologist who monitors them in the UK; they have remained stable for the last 12 months; at the last scan this left kidney stone was measured at 6mm; I think it’s on the move; please can I have some powerful pain relief to help it on its way? Liquid paracetamol, preferably. Arigato.

Some of this translated, some didn’t, but then bizarrely I started to go into a kind of shock that manifested itself as uncontrollable shaking, which was so violent, I thought I might fall off the bed. And then, just for good measure, I vomited. Profusely.

The medical staff were so unbelievably kind. I couldn’t understand what the two nurses were saying, but they sounded like soothing words to me; and whilst one stroked my arm, the other stroked my forehead and something got injected into my arm. Within thirty minutes I was in an ambulance and heading to a hospital, mumbling as I always do when I get into an ambulance, ‘My eldest son is a Paramedic. I’m so proud of him’. (That said, I’ve only gone to hospital in an ambulance once before, and that was again due to a kidney stone. Actually, that’s not strictly true: I did once break my leg in France and rode in a Pompier ambulance, a VSAV. I’m not sure that this counts as an example though, as a) I was unconscious at the time and b) my son who is now a Paramedic was then only 10 years old.) Anyway, as I got into the ambulance at the IBC, a young Japanese driver from OBS introduced himself and told me he was going to stay with me, to be my translator.

And stay with me he did – whilst I was taken into an ER room for appraisal, before being wheeled on a bed for ultrasound and CT scans; and then on my return hooked up to an ECG monitor, wired-in to a blood pressure sensor, fitted with a pulse oximeter (one of those things like battery clips that squeeze your finger tip), put on a drip to rehydrate me (I knew I should have drunk that bottle of water that the security guy made me throw away at Changi airport), intravenously fed pain relief, and then monitored for 7 hours. I drifted in and out of the kind of sleep that comes with total exhaustion, presumably from the effort of moving the stone.

I barely recognized myself; but the bright white spot is the stone and is clearly located outside of the left kidney now, sitting in the ureter.

At some point, the doctor showed me the CT scan and said that my 6mm stone was now almost 7mm, but the good news was that it had indeed moved: from being in the middle of my kidney on my last scan, it was now outside the kidney, sitting at the top of the ureter. It now just needed to move down the ureter into my bladder, and from my bladder out through my urethra. (To protect all of our sensibilities, I’m not going to put any of that into layman’s terms. But the important bit is that a 7mm object still needed to pass through something that isn’t 7mm in diameter at rest.) Through the night I was observed every 30 minutes, and each time that occurred, my translator / driver would also come in to the room to see how I was doing. The kindness and concern shown to me by him was extraordinary; as was the quality of the care I received from the doctor and nurses whose shift I had descended into.

Just before midnight, the doctor said he felt that I was ready to leave, so I could get some rest in my own hotel; and he appreciated that there was still a 3-hour drive for my driver and I to get through, taking me back to my hotel in Izu. I injected some humour into the situation by remarking on the time and describing how a pumpkin and six white mice were waiting for me in the car park; but what I thought was rather witty conversation somehow got lost in translation. Or maybe not – whilst he was a relatively young man, the doctor gave me what my mother would describe as ‘an old-fashioned look’; and I’d never really known what that meant until that moment.

In the hospital reception, as I waited for my case notes to be prepared for me – impressively, a CD-ROM of my scans, plus the doctor’s notes and a formal referral letter for a doctor if things did get worse in Izu – I started to sweat profusely, and I could feel the pain starting up again… And so, my driver and I went back into the ward and told the good doctor. He felt that it was probably some residual pain, as the pain relief he had given me would be starting to wear off by now. He had prescribed me very powerful tablets to take with me, which we needed to collect from the hospital pharmacy; but for the journey home he could either give me something intravenously again, which would take about an hour to take effect, or he could administer a suppository, which would be effective almost immediately. In the spirit of Tom Cruise’s character Maverick in Top Gun, I also felt ‘the need, the need for speed’; and within a couple of minutes, I was walking away from the ward again; albeit with a slightly different gait to how I’d walked in. I didn’t mind though; I could feel that the drugs were working. I was going to be pain free again.

‘Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’

I slept solidly for the 3 hours it took to get back to the hotel in Izu, stretched out across the back seats of one of the fleet of Olympic-liveried Toyota people movers, and it was after 3am when I finally got to my room. I was concerned about my wonderful driver who had already worked a full day, stayed with me in hospital, driven me all the way home and then waited to make sure I got my room key at such an unearthly hour. He still had to make the return journey to Tokyo. I thanked him profusely and he was incredibly modest about receiving my immense gratitude. We laughed together when he said he was pleased for the chance to earn some overtime. I simply couldn’t thank him enough.

There have been several times in my life, and this was one of them, when I’ve seen at first-hand that humans have the capacity for kindness that is seemingly boundless; and to receive it is a truly humbling and life-affirming experience. It might not be an original thought, but I’m going to say it anyway: why the hell can’t we be this kind to each other, all the time?

As I dropped off to sleep at the end of what was an eventful and unexpectedly very long day, the doctor’s words as I left the hospital came to mind – ‘make sure you drink between 2.5 and 3 litres of water a day; and if you haven’t passed the stone in the next 7 days, you must arrange to come to a hospital to have it removed…’ That would be an issue; because I had the next 3 weeks to get through before I could even think about taking a break, and that would be in the 10 days between the Olympics and the Paralympics. I put my faith in water; and lots of it.

The United Colours of Broadcasting.

With the doctor’s warning ringing in my ears that I only had 7 days to play my very own game of pass the parcel, any twinge, anywhere in my lumbar region, made me anxious, and I made sure that I drank my requisite 3 litres of water a day; even drinking deeply during the night to replenish the fluid I was forced to wake up and expel. The oppressive heat of the day and the intense humidity of the night, whilst uncomfortable, at least made it easy to remember to keep up my fluid intake.

Our venue – the Izu Velodrome – was dual purpose: outside, there was a challenging Mountain Biking course set in beautiful woodland that would host two days of intense, rough terrain racing; and inside was Japan’s first purpose-built velodrome that would not only be a temporary home, but also a world stage for the sport’s greatest track riders. Built in 2011, it has a 3,600 capacity, and unlike the Tokyo venues that had no spectators, the local prefecture for the Izu area deemed that a 50% capacity would be acceptable indoors, and spectators would be allowed to watch the Mountain Biking outdoors. I’m really glad that they did, because it made an enormous difference to the atmosphere for both types of competition.

We had two bases on this impressive site, set as it is in intense green and densely forested hills, and approached by alpine-style roads that at times seemed very tight for the coach that took us to the venue each day. The Mountain Biking Commentary Control Room (CCR) was housed in a temporary building alongside a grandstand that had been built to accommodate the television and radio commentators, as well as other reporters who would be covering the event. The CCR for the Velodrome itself was within the main building, on the ground floor.

A week or so before competition started, we began to assemble and breathe life into the massive kit of parts that makes broadcasting possible from remote locations, and on a scale such as this: in total, OBS would deliver over 9,000 hours of televised sport from 40 venues in Japan, to more than 3 billion viewers world-wide.

Just to finally be on site, in a CCR, after the jeopardy of wondering whether the Olympics would go ahead, whether I would even be allowed to leave Australia (and then having got here, the question of whether I would be fit enough to work), was a blessed relief; and it seemed everyone on the OBS team, who had travelled from all over the planet, had their own stories about getting here.

At the Cycling venue, our Broadcast Manager was Australian, our Technical Manager was Portuguese, our Logistics Manager was Italian, and our Broadcast Information Officer was from Korea. The sound and camera crew were from Belgium and the Technical Operations Supervisor, whose area brought together the field of play sound, our commentary feeds and the picture signals, was from Russia. My colleagues in the CCR team were an international collective, too: Manager Greg is from Baltimore, as Greg’s deputy I’d arrived from Brisbane, our installer / operator George was from Swindon and our two student CCR operators, Thay and Marjorie, are from Rio de Janeiro and Hong Kong respectively. This is also what the Olympics does, unseen, behind the scenes. It grants opportunities for young people to travel and learn new skills; as well as bringing together highly experienced practitioners from around the world in a spirit of harmony and collaboration. It’s basically how you’d hope the United Nations would work.

And the adversity of our quarantine restrictions bonded us closer together, with ‘when does your 14 days end?’, ‘have you submitted your temperature today?’ and ‘have you registered your PCR test?’ quickly becoming regular questions of each other. In our first 14 days in Japan, we were only officially allowed out of our hotel rooms to go to work on an OBS coach, and then we had to return to our hotel room. I say officially, because food in the evening became a challenge: the hotel didn’t offer room service, or in fact, evening meals at all… And whilst my suitcase was well stocked by Heather with packets of dried noodle meals, a few cans of tinned fish (and a few Cherry Ripe chocolate bars for emotional emergencies), after a week of this diet it became decidedly repetitive. However, a special exception was granted to us, so that we could use either the 7-11 or Lawson convenience stores close to our hotel, providing we went straight back to our rooms after shopping. I’m sure that those two stores had never done such business between the hours of 8pm and 10pm, as OBS staff arrived home from work and descended on them on mass; and it was thanks to this welcome dispensation that I discovered the sublime experience that is a Lawson’s egg sandwich. Which I found was even better when enjoyed with a can of Kirin beer (it’s fluid, right?)

‘Four wheels good, two wheels better.’

The opening event at our venue was the Men’s Cross Country, ridden over an absolute beast of a circuit – something the Mountain Biking riders clearly relished. This race ended-up boding well for British hopes of success in the rest of the games – because Team GB rider Tom Pidcock took the gold medal in a time of just over 1 hour and 25 minutes; and it caught me by surprise to feel a momentary pang of national pride when I found myself close to the winner’s podium, as the Union flag was raised and the national anthem was played.

The next day didn’t go quite as well for the Brits however, as the Women’s race was a clean sweep for the Dutch team. And then, seemingly no sooner had we started than we had finished with Mountain Biking, and we headed across to the Velodrome for what promised to be an exciting and much fuller programme.

I’d never been to a velodrome before, and the speed and power generated by the riders accelerating off the 45° banking took me by surprise; I found it utterly compelling to watch the practise sessions and I knew that come the competition itself, the experience would be intense. It certainly was.

Pain is temporary, Gold is forever.

Each Olympics brings to light great stories from behind the scenes, of how athletes overcome tremendous adversity and challenges to become Olympians, and maybe even Olympic champions; and some of the stories I discovered about the women track cyclists were extraordinary… Sanne Braspennincx of the Netherlands, for instance. She won Olympic gold here in Tokyo, in the women’s Keirin (more about this type of race in a moment), six years after she thought her career was over: in 2015, after a particularly hard training session, she said she felt unwell and was taken to hospital as a precaution. She was just 24 and suffered a heart attack in the hospital. Sanne still needs to take medication to keep her heart properly working but said in a recent interview ‘I take prescription pills, but I go full gas in races. Otherwise, you can’t be an Olympic champion’. And she should know.

And then there was the horrific high-speed crash in the quarter final of the Keirin competition (the one that Braspennincx eventually won), between Great Britain’s Katy Marchant and another Dutch rider, Laurine van Riessen. Avoiding a clash of wheels meant van Riessen moved straight across the path of Marchant (the gold medal favourite) which resulted in a huge pile up. Katy eventually re-mounted and finished the race, albeit hopelessly behind and her medal hopes dashed; however, Laurine was taken to hospital unconscious. Thankfully she made a swift recovery.

Not all crashes have such a fortuitous outcome. One of ‘our’ commentators at the Velodrome, working for the German broadcaster ARD/ZDF, was the totally lovely Kristina Vogel. Kristina has two Olympic gold medals and one bronze medal for cycling, and she is an eleven-time UCI world champion. Her career was cut short by an accident on the track in June 2018, when she collided at high speed with a Dutch cyclist who was practising a standing start. The velodrome they were riding at, in Cottbus, Germany, is a concrete track and the impact caused many fractures to Kristina, and her spinal cord was severed, causing paraplegia. Whilst the Dutch cyclist was uninjured, Kristina was left paralyzed and is confined to a wheelchair. At 28, it was a tragic and untimely end to a glittering sports career.

When they look back on the Tokyo 2020 campaign, Team GB’s cycling team will surely view it as a successful Olympics: a magnificent gold medal win by the tag-team of Laura Kenny and Katie Archibald in the Women’s Madison competition (two riders on the same team take it in turns to go hell for leather for a couple of laps and then the other one takes over until between them they’ve completed 120 laps of the track) hopefully made up for Laura’s disappointment at being one of the riders brought down in a huge accident in the opening round of the Women’s Omnium event, the title she was defending from Rio 2016.

Meanwhile, in the Men’s competition, Matt Walls won gold in the Men’s Omnium, a gruelling series of four long-distance races, with points accumulated throughout the rounds, and made all the more difficult by the four races being held in one day.

However, the race that everyone in the stadium (well, almost everyone) wanted to see won by a Brit, was the Men’s Keirin event. Jason Kenny – the husband of gold medal winner Laura Kenny – was not only defending his Olympic title from Rio, he was also hoping to win a record 7th gold medal and in doing so become the most successful British Olympian of all time, beating Sir Chris Hoy’s 6 gold medals for cycling. And win it he did in a no-nonsense fashion, leading from the front. Memorably, with two laps to go, he took one last look over his shoulder, put his head down and powered his way to what was in the end, a comfortable win. I can’t imagine that there is much room left on either the fireplace or the sideboard in the Kenny household…

But what about this Keirin style of racing? As I said, all of the track racing was new to me, but this was something that looked really unusual.

It is a massed start of 6 riders, and in the Olympics it’s basically a sprint event of 6 laps in length. However, during the first 3 laps the riders are kept together by something called the ‘Durny’; an electric bicycle that acts as a pacer, to keep the riders together. Traditionally it is a small motorcycle, but for Tokyo, a green alternative was favoured. The powered bike’s speed starts slowly at 20 kph on lap one, builds to 30 kph on lap two and gradually accelerates to 40 kph on lap three before it pulls off the track, leaving the riders to sprint for the finish. It’s mayhem, it’s mad to watch and it bears more than a passing resemblance to horse racing on an oval track. Which is exactly what it was supposed to resemble. It was created in 1948 as a way for spectators to gamble on the outcome of cycle races, and the Japanese love it; so much so that there are 43 professional Keirin tracks operating in Japan; and just like horse racing, they run various distances of races.

Jason Kenny’s win in the gamblers favourite – the Keirin – brought a fabulous week-and-a-bit’s worth of racing to a close. It had been an absolute pleasure to be a part of, if not filled with more than just a little private anxiety over whether my kidneys would stay the course without complaining spectacularly again.

I’d been gambling on copious amounts of water to keep things on an even keel; but I now faced the prospect of ten days to kill in Tokyo before reporting for Paralympic duty at the Olympic stadium; and then a further three weeks of work before I could board a plane and return back to Brisbane. Once again it would initially mean a quarantine hotel, but then, eventually, the joy of being reunited with Heather would come.

A taxi collected me from my hotel in Izu, to take me to my new accommodation in Tokyo, and we drove carefully in the howling wind and rain of a typhoon that overnight had started to sweep the country. But spectacular and concerning as the weather was, the only thought going through my head as we travelled north was whether or not I would make it through the intervening weeks, without a recurrence of my rolling stone taking part in its own version of a kidney Keirin. In water I must trust.

Coming up…

Having made it through the Olympics, would my luck (and my kidneys) hold for the fabulous Paralympics? At the time of writing, the opening ceremony has just been broadcast – so getting through the next 16 days at the stadium is going to be crucial.

Cover picture: Inside the beautiful Izu Velodrome. [All pictures © Neil Hillman 2021]

I live and work on the lands of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and I recognise them as the Traditional Custodians of this country.

Neil Life

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