To get a true taste of the Olympic experience, county teams now stay in hotels. In the 20th century, athletes who could not travel to the championships on the day were ‘billeted’, this means that they stayed with local families. Organisers had to find hundreds of volunteers who were prepared to host competitors and team managers, and so the venues could vary. Somerset’s team manager, Richard Bowden, remembers hospitality in such diverse accommodation as a farm near Plymouth in 1983, a convent in Hull in 1985 and an independent school in Telford in 1994.
Everything about the ESAA was exciting.
The travel, the teamwork. From having the meetings to get your tracksuit – to staying with families you didn’t know! What nice families to put up unknown kids in their homes so they could compete! It taught me a lot.
400m Bronze Medallist, 2000 Olympics
Stay-cations definitely aren’t a new idea; local authorities were keen to use the championships to advertise their town as an attractive holiday destination.
Competitors at Plymouth in 1956 were given a publication listing everything from hotels and restaurants, to the city amenities, and even a list of opticians. For those seeking some downtime before or after their competition, the booklet tells us that a beach hut would cost 5 shillings per day to hire.
Waiting to meet your host family, clutching your billeting ticket, with its stern rejoinder to “Please remember that you are being billeted through the generosity of your hosts and that you should do everything you can to inconvenience them as little as possible” could be a nerve-wracking experience.
Donna Fraser remembers feeling “like a child of World War II waiting for my name to be called and allocated to a family; completely different circumstances but equally scary.” The experience was a positive one, however, Fraser won 6 out of 6 ESAA titles between 1986 and 1991,
I was very lucky to have wonderful families, some of which I stayed in touch with for long after my ESAA days.
Those families would follow Fraser’s achievements as she won medals in all four major championships.
Fitting into life with your host family could mean some unexpected adjustments. Mike Fleet’s trip to Plymouth in 1956 from Croydon meant a long coach journey. “It was a relief when we drew up in the gathering gloom outside The Victoria Road School, St Budeaux, our billeting centre, to meet our hosts.
No University accommodation or the current luxury of hotels for many back then. It was thanks to the good folk of the city that the athletes had roofs over heads. Mr Martin took me home to meet the family, and a generous fry-up followed, leading to a late night! I was expecting a 7.00am alarm the following morning but was more than surprised when awoken at 5.30am with a “Good Luck” wish, by my hearty, dockyard-bound host. Thankfully Mr Martin was not working the next day!”
Finally, teams made their way to the stadium and even this journey could be an eye-opener. One of Richard Bowden’s duties as a Billeting Officer in 1981 was to accompany the visiting teams to the Championships, “I remember well the astonishment on the faces of the West Midlands athletes when the coach stopped en route to Yeovil to allow a herd of cows to cross the road. Welcome to Zummerzet!”