No team, no money, no future?
By Ollie Williams
BBC Olympic sports reporter
When you dedicate your life to a sport and make history at your home Olympics, you do not expect your national team to disappear.
Yet within months of London 2012,
volleyball’s legacy evaporated.
The British indoor senior teams folded, as did their English equivalents. No money, so no prospects. No prospects, so no money.
Not great if you are a young volleyball player in the UK. But what if you were already on the team? What has happened since to everyone who played for Team GB at their home Games?
All but a handful have moved on to other things, stepping back from a sport which stepped back from them.
In Italy, though, the flame still burns. One of the few remaining British pro volleyball players, Ciara Michel, has just completed her debut season in the sport’s Champions League – the first British woman to reach that level.
„Coming to Italy was a dream of mine,“ says the 6ft 5in 28-year-old, who plays as a middle blocker for Yamamay Busto Arsizio, based just outside Milan.
„When I signed my contract, I had this overwhelming feeling of excitement. I can’t believe this team wants me, I can’t believe they actually chose me of all the players in the world they could have chosen.
„I was so excited by some of the names on the team – we played against these people at the Olympics and now they are my team-mates. I had goosebumps like a nervous little fan.
‘Soaking it up like a sponge’ – life in Italian volleyball
„Now they are my friends, and I’m getting used to the level and the attention. But I still have moments of pinching myself that I’m really here.“
Living abroad is a fact of life for many British volleyball players, offering the chance to play in professional leagues of a much higher standard than that available in the UK.
But Michel left her home county of Somerset behind aged just 10, making a new life in the United States with her parents. She honed her volleyball at university in Miami before playing in Australia and Germany. As a result, her accent wanders through a peculiar blend of British, American and Australian pronunciation.
In her fourth-floor apartment provided by the team, Michel picks up a card sitting on a shelf. It is from Lucy Wicks, her friend and Olympic team-mate, wishing her well for her Italian adventure.
The card reads: „Dear Ci, I am unbelievably proud of what you’ve already achieved and so excited about your volleyball future. Good luck in your first season in Italy – you totally belong there, among the best players in the world. Soak it all up like a sponge.“
Michel puts the card back. „I remember reading a quote before London 2012,“ she says. „I tried to read it every day. It said, ‘Every member of Team GB has the responsibility to inspire a nation.’
„I’d really like to think I can inspire kids by being here.“
Team GB at London 2012
GB volleyball programme re-established after London wins right to host Games
New GB teams enter world championships for first time
GB women win an Olympic game for first time, beating Algeria and going on to finish ninth of 12. GB men, winless, finish joint-last. Teams disbanded
There is not much else to inspire British children to take up volleyball. Officials pleaded with funding body UK Sport in January but only limited funding for a women’s beach volleyball team was released – the women’s indoor squad has had no cash since 2010.
„I don’t think we as players and staff could have done any more,“
wrote Michel’s GB team-mate, Maria Bertelli,
when the team disbanded after finishing ninth out of 12 teams at the Olympics.
„We delivered our best performances on the court when it mattered. To be in the situation now whereby there will be no competing GB teams, as dramatic as this may sound, with 100% honesty, is soul-destroying.“
Michel knows her own power to inspire is tempered by the dismantling of these national teams.
„There are still people working behind the scenes to try to make something happen,“ she insists.
„I would only have a few more years, maybe, to play. But it’s even sadder to think that the kids have nothing to look up to.
„Maybe there are young girls in England that could have looked up to something to go forward with. Now, there’s nothing to speak of.“
While Michel blazes a lonely trail at the heights of European volleyball, all hope is not quite extinguished back home in the UK.
An English men’s under-20 team made it through to the second round of their European Championships
for the first time
earlier this month, and a junior team based in London
is now raising funds
to represent England at the World Schools Championships in April.
The boys of Chadwell Heath, hoping to represent England at the World Schools Championships
„It is very sad to think that we may not have a senior team to progress into,“ says David Amah, captain of that junior team. The teenagers have raised more than £2,000 but need almost £10,000 to go to the tournament.
„We need to fight to re-establish England and GB senior teams so this tragedy is not a prolonged reality,“ he added. „We need to have an Olympic legacy. Surely a big part of the legacy is that the youth have high heights to aim for.“
Yamamay Busto routinely pack out their own dedicated stadium, decked in the team’s bright pink. When the crowd roars, Michel is reminded of the atmosphere at London 2012, when Britain beat Algeria for their first-ever – perhaps their last – Olympic victory.
„We were such underdogs, completely out of our depth in volleyball, but going out there and gunning for it,“ she remembers.
„We walked out of the tunnel and you could just see a sea, an ocean of British flags and red and blue and white, and people screaming.
„It was unreal to win. That was a historic moment, something that has never been done before.
„The way the funding has gone, perhaps it never will again.“