The media effect on sports stars

Rebecca at the airport on her way to a competition

By Elliot Leadbetter

Often the power of the media is taken for granted when we reflect on the success of our well-known national and international sport stars, but just how important is media coverage and can it be viewed as the catalyst for furthering an athlete’s career?

Rebecca Gurney, a 43-year old office worker from Bedford, certainly feels like her life could have panned out very differently if her area of sporting expertise received more recognition at the time.

At the age of 5 Rebecca joined a local gym club called Falcon S.A (Sports Acrobatics), which was run by Gary Birchall, who had previously competed at national level. After very quickly collecting all of her badges in the beginners group, she was moved up into a more advanced group, she said: “I was pushed through the stages of the club and very quickly it became apparent that this was something I was very good at. It started off as a bit of fun, attending one or two classes a week, and after a few short years I found myself training six or seven nights a week and being entered into national competitions up and down the UK, as the top of a mixed pair with Gary, the owner.”

Sports Acrobatics as Rebecca knew it is now known as Acrobatic Gymnastics. To this day, Acrobatic Gymnastics is not recognised as an Olympic discipline, however in more recent times they have had Sport Acrobats perform at gymnastic events and at the opening and closing ceremonies of Olympic games.

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Rebecca at her house before departing to Russia

An Acrobatic Gymnastics team is made up of a women’s pair, a women’s trio, a men’s pair, a men’s four, a mixed pair and tumblers, who all compete separately in their chosen fields but all fall under the same category – in the same way the GB Olympic team would have 100m, 200m and 400m runners for track events.

Rebecca’s success didn’t come without having to work extremely hard and having to make childhood sacrifices: “I went to school every day like every other child and came home at four o’clock, ate my dinner, did my homework and was then training for up to three hours a night, six to seven days a week.

“Training consisted of circuit training, strength training, gymnastics training and at one point I was even sent off for ballet lessons because it was important to also look like a graceful dancer as well as somebody that can do somersaults and hold incredibly strong positions in the air. This was my childhood, so when my friends got invited to discos and parties, if I had training, I couldn’t go.

“My dad was a huge part of the gym club, picking me up and taking me every single night. He would also drive me to competitions and it quickly became a very large commitment, not just from myself but from everyone around me who was helping me and supporting me.”

As a mixed pair competing at Acrobatic Gymnastic competitions, Rebecca had to do three routines consisting of a balance routine – which is slow and consists of being held in high positions, a tempo routine – which is done at a faster pace and consists of summersaults and throwing moves, and then a combined routine which is a mixture of balance and tempo. All three routines are marked out of 10, making the best possible score for all three pieces 30 out of 30.

The first use of Acrobatics as a specific sport was in the Soviet Union in the 1930’s, and the first World Championship that was ever held was in 1974, coincidentally the year that Rebecca was born.

Thirteen years later, a youthful Rebecca had a chance to compete at the World Championships herself.

She said: “The current British champions and Great Britain team members were coming to the end of their career, and this was now our chance to become the new British Champions.

“We achieved this several times, and became British champions. Then, when selections were made for the GB Sports Acrobatics team we were chosen to represent our country.

“It was a phenomenal feeling, I was still so so young.

“My first ever international competition representing my country came at the age of 14. I took my first ever flight on a plane, which was scary enough in itself, and went to Russia with the GB squad.”

Despite competing at the very elite level of Sports Acrobatics, Rebecca stressed that the media attention was still relatively low – something which she says “just wouldn’t happen these days.”

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Rebecca in Poland, Warsaw, for the European Championships

Shortly after competing in Russia Rebecca competed in Warsaw in Poland for the European Championships, she said: “Despite placing joint sixth in that competition it was an incredible experience again, not only to represent my country at an international event but also because I just felt so fortunate to be able to travel the world doing what I loved.”

The pinnacle of Rebecca’s career arrived shortly after her trip to Warsaw. The main event, the one she had worked so hard for – the World Championships. Still aged just 14 years old, Rebecca travelled to New Orleans in America with her mixed pair partner Gary, and the rest of the GB Sports Acrobatics squad.

She said: “Unfortunately at the World Championships, we placed seventh out of eight nations. Of course, I would have loved to have placed higher, but this was truly a once in a life-time experience, and it did actually turn out to be the first and last time I ever went.

“Every time we left the hotel to train or compete we got onto the GB team bus and was escorted at all times by American Policemen on motorbikes, I felt like a celebrity!

“After the World Championships, I started growing up and became too big for the top of a mixed pair. The ideal weight for the top of a mixed pair is half of the base’s weight, at least, and once I started turning into an adult, this wasn’t really possible.

“They said to me I could carry on but I would have to move to the middle of a women’s trio. I tried this very briefly and after competing internationally as a mixed pair this just seemed too basic and a bit of a back step for me and I lost my passion for it all, it just felt like I had to start all over again.”

Rebecca stressed that she believed she could have done more with her talent if she was living in an era such as the 21st century, where sport finds itself evermore ingrained into various platforms such as social media and TV broadcasting.

Elizabeth Tweddle who was born 11 years after Rebecca, in 1985, is a retired British artistic gymnast and competed at three Olympic Games. She was the first female gymnast from Great Britain to win a medal at the European Championships, the World Championships and the Olympic Games.

After retiring, Tweddle was able to take on a variety of media and sporting work due to her profile and stature as an athlete and ex-Olympian. In 2013, she won the eighth series of Dancing on Ice and more recently in 2016 she participated in the third series of the Channel 4 reality contest show, The Jump.

Rebecca believes the media attention that accompanies the Olympic Games provided a stage for Tweddle to extend her career post gymnastics, something which she wishes she could have done herself.

She said: “In today’s society I think the opportunities that can derive from the media are never ending. Because Tweddle’s style of gymnastics was classed as an Olympic discipline, automatically she received a huge amount of coverage, and rightly so too.

“I just think it’s unfortunate that these opportunities can only arise with certain circumstances. I competed and represented my country, but because Acrobatic Gymnastics isn’t an Olympic discipline and doesn’t have the media circus surrounding it, my career in the field effectively died when I was still so young.

“I’d much rather be taking part in the odd Dancing on Ice series than working in an office!”

Another example of a gymnast who has thrived from the media attention surrounding his career is Louis Smith – a British gymnast who won medals at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics respectively.

Despite being only 28, Smith has already tasted the fruits for what’s to come post-gymnastics. His large media profile offered a number of television opportunities just like Tweddle, and he won the 2012 series of Strictly Come Dancing before even retiring as a gymnast.

Rebecca said: “He is another perfect example of what the media can do for an athlete’s career.

“It’s interesting, I would love to know how my life would have panned out if Acrobatic Gymnastics was viewed in the same regard as other forms of gymnastics.

“I think it’s often taken for granted what all that attention can do for your career, the possibilities are endless now!”



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