When Sport Relief want to take an unsuspecting celebrity and put them through the endurance test of their life, they call Professor Greg Whyte. By Claire Black
Standing in a Harley Street clinic Professor Greg Whyte is scrolling through his phone looking for a photograph of himself that he wants to show to the photographer who’s just taken his portrait. It’s giving me a chance to take in the beautiful, single breasted blue wool suit, the crisp white shirt, the Rolex (an understated one). Whyte is lean and tall and I know he’s as fit as a flea. “It’s definitely in here somewhere,” he says, his finger flicking across the screen. I don’t know why I wouldn’t expect him to look like a hedge funder, other than the only other times I’ve seen him (on TV rather than in the flesh) he’s been wearing a wetsuit, or he’s been on a bike, or doing dad dancing alongside Dermot O’Leary. “Here it is,” he says, showing a black and white portrait of himself with no top on, muscles rippling in a Hulk-like pose. “That’s at the top of our stairs at home.” He beams with pride.
Whyte is the man behind the Sport Relief challenges that have seen David Walliams get hypothermic in the English Channel, and struggle with a vomiting bug while swimming the River Thames, and John Bishop’s knees go as he attempted to row, cycle and run to Paris, and Davina McCall, oh Davina, battered by gusts of wind up to 60mph as she attempted to get from Edinburgh to the Lake District by bike, on her journey to London.“I got such abuse for that one,” Whyte says, now seated for lunch, with a massive grin on his face. “Is he going to kill a celebrity, people wondered? Well, no…” He laughs. “It was 17 hours of non-stop precipitation. Rain, wind, snow, sleet and hail. The mechanic we had with us works on the pro tour, he’d been at the Giro the year before. He told us in that weather they’d have got off their bikes.” He grins again. With McCall it was three hours into the first day when she totally lost it. Whyte decided that they would make an unscheduled stop. “Regather, recoup, go again. There’s no failure in stopping, it’s good project management.” He shrugs and eats a forkful of his fish and chips and I think about how broken McCall looked. I know the answer but I can’t stop myself. Have you ever thought with any of the Sport Relief challenges that they wouldn’t make it? He smiles and shakes his head. “Honestly, no. When David Walliams was up all night with diarrhoea and vomiting and then I had to push him back in the water at 5am, that was really tough. But tough times are going to happen, the question is what are you going to do about it? And do you know it is effective? My job is to be confident because they look to me to know if they can do it or not. They don’t know because they haven’t got the experience.”
And that is where Whyte can be justifiably confident. He started off as a modern pentathlete, representing Great Britain in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games and winning silver at the 1994 World Championships. Now he is a renowned sport scientist, the Director of Performance at the Centre for Health and Human Performance, the clinic on Harley Street where we met. He is also professor of Applied Sport and Exercise Science at Liverpool John Moores University, where he leads a masters in Clinical Exercise Physiology, which is his expertise. He has six PhD students at any time and Post Docs doing research. Then there’s what he calls his “media work”.
“It’s busy, very busy,” he says. “But it’s good fun.” It’s the eclectic nature of it he likes; he always has. He was a pentathlete after all. “Perhaps I get a bit bored,” he says. “Perhaps that’s my problem.” It doesn’t look much like a problem, he looks like he’s thriving on it.
The 18 challenges that Whyte has been involved in for Sport Relief have raised a staggering £33 million for Comic Relief. It’s a colossal amount of money (Whyte donates all of his time and expertise for free) and although the celebrities who’ve swum and run and rowed and water skied and danced and cycled and in various other ways battled their way through the challenges can rightly claim the achievement as their own, Whyte is always there in the background, keeping everything going. They couldn’t do it without him.
He reckons he has to be 100 per cent fitter than whoever is doing the challenge. “Not only am I doing it with them, my job is to motivate and support them,” he says. “I have to strategise as we go. Then at the end of the day, they get treatment, food and to bed nice and early. I come in and go into meetings about fundraising, logistics, all that. I get to bed five hours after them and I’m up two hours before them. The physical bit is the easy bit for me.” And the motivation is simple. “I’ve seen the projects that Comic Relief funds. I’ve been to Africa to Kenya and Ethiopia but I’ve also been to East London. It makes a difference. It really does. It sounds trite to say five pounds can change someone’s life but it’s true. I’ve seen it.” He tells me about a woman he met in Ethiopia. “She was in her mid-60s living in a mud hut. She’d taken a loan of a fiver and through the interpreter we asked her what she did with the money. She put a roof on her house. A corrugated iron roof. She said that the previous winter she hadn’t slept because she’d been bailing water out of her house, but this year she could sleep.” He shakes his head. “I was welling up. There’s nothing better in life than to be charitable.”
Whyte is a serious scientist (although truth be told I think he would probably be quite happy to be known as the Sport Relief man). He is chair of the research committee for UK Active, the government lobby group. He used to be the director of research at the British Olympic Medical Centre. Through his practice in Harley Street he works with the London Oncology Centre and St Thomas’s Hospital, treating people who have cancer.
“At one end of the spectrum I’m doing quite a lot of work on cancer and heart disease and at the other end of the spectrum I’m performance manager for Team England, doing work with the British Olympic Association in preparation for Rio 2016.” It’s an almost ridiculously broad spectrum, which suits Whyte perfectly. The common denominator is physical activity in all of its guises and that, apart from charity, is what Whyte is most passionate about.
“I think it’s alright bashing parents but the difficulty we have is we need to change behaviour,” he says, when I mention our sky rocketing obesity rates and plummeting engagement in sport amongst young people. “Changing behaviour amongst middle aged parents is almost impossible. This is not about sport, it’s about activity – it’s about making room for more activity in the school day, broadening the curriculum so you’re not just doing cross country in December.” The recollection is like a stab in the wind-chilled leg. I have no fond memories of that, I tell him. “Who does? Even the guys who were good at it, like me, don’t have fond memories of that.”
Part of Whyte’s solution would be to change our urban environments so we have to be more physically active. Increasing pedestrianisation, “hiding lifts” so that we have to take the stairs. “I was in Covent Garden tube station the other day and there’s a sign: ‘stairs only to be used in an emergency’. This is an emergency – get everyone up there!” With perfect timing, a man bobs past the window where we’re sitting on a Segway. Whyte looks at me agog. “There is no reason for him to be on that. Walk!” he shouts through the glass.
When he’s working with elite athletes it’s about optimisation – using sports medicine and nutrition, physiology and psychology – to create the best possible chance of success. With celebrities, it’s a similar process – it might be making sure Dermot O’Leary changes his trainers every hour and stretches out his back in his 24-hour danceathon (“He didn’t get a single blister,” Whyte tells me proudly, “and he raised £1.3 million.”). With cancer patients too, Whyte’s approach is similar – it is about doing pre-operative optimisation, getting people into the best condition possible before surgery. “During chemotherapy we know that exercise improves outcome and things like muscle pain and cancer-related fatigue,” he says. Whyte knows that the human body can achieve remarkable things and he knows too how to create the best chances for that to happen.
He tells me about a man who he worked with who had bowel cancer. He was very close to death when he came Whyte’s clinic. After they started working together, he lived for two more years. If that doesn’t seem like a long time then quantify it in terms of hours spent playing with his children and it seems like quite a gift. “We optimised his quality of life,” Whyte says. “I asked him what he wanted and he said to play with his kids. So that’s what we did. I still see his wife around and she’s eternally grateful for what we did. Sometimes we can be quite closed in how we imagine our personal reach might be. Human performance is unbounded.”
He tells me another story of a man who he has just worked with who had a heart transplant two years ago. His donor was a keen cyclist who had been killed on his bike. As a tribute, the recipient decided to cycle from his home in Bristol to where he had the transplant in Newcastle, 340 miles. It’s the kind of effort that Whyte loves. “He wanted to average 13 miles an hour and that’s what he did,” he says. “If he’d been doing the Tour de France it would’ve taken him six months to finish. But for him, that was his Tour de France, his Olympic gold medal.”
Whyte’s family were working class. His dad (originally from Aberdeen) worked for Vauxhall for 43 years, his mum, who died a couple of years ago of cancer, was a homemaker. “They had two boys and they supported them without question,” he says. “That’s why parenting is so important in terms of where people get to – I think it’s more important than having money or which school you go to.
“What my dad gave me was a sense that you have to work hard. He had two jobs. We’d be up at 5:30am for swim training. He’d come home, grab a slice of toast, go to work. Come home, eat, go to a second job, come back and take me swimming again. That sort of approach rubs off on you, you pick it up.” Sport was always around too. His dad had been a boxer in the RAF towards the end of the war. His mum’s brother played for Luton Town. “Still my team, sadly.
“Sport was very much part of what we did. Most of sport is classless. It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got if you work hard you will achieve. It’s a great leveller. It’s all about tenacity.”
Whyte now lives in Buckinghamshire with his wife and three children. I hesitate, I hope imperceptibly but apparently not, when I ask him about how sporty his kids are. “I make them do it,” he says grimly. “I’ve got a stick and I beat them with it. If they don’t work hard they don’t eat.” He guffaws.
He tells me that recently he gave a speech to an audience of women who work in technology. During the Q&A a woman asked him a question, “She said, ‘My son is a sailor and we really want him to get to the Olympic Games, what do you suggest?’ I said, make sure it’s his dream and not yours. There was total silence in the audience. But it’s so true. What do my kids do? They have fun. They access everything. As soon as they stop enjoying it they stop doing it and they’ll access something else.
“They are in the horrible position of having a dad who is an Olympian, World Champion, European medallist and professor of sports science. But equally, I know that in order to make it in sport you have to love it. You can be a great junior and hate it. You’ll never ever be a great senior. It just doesn’t happen. I also know that early specialisation isn’t required in most sports, so what you want to do is have fun.” He takes a mouthful of fish and chips. “And then I make them work really hard.” He laughs.
You can’t doubt Whyte’s skills as a sports expert who can get ordinary people through extraordinary feats of endurance. David Walliams across the 22-miles of open water that is the Channel, or 140 miles up the River Thames. Eddie Izzard, a man who when Whyte met him didn’t even own a pair of trainers, running 43 marathons in 51 days. Davina McCall across 1.5 miles of freezing Lake Windermere. His attitude is that we can all achieve incredible feats. We can all rise to challenges if we plan and prepare and really believe that we can do it. In his book, Achieve the Impossible, Whyte explains how his approach works which is basically: analyse your goal, identify what you need to do and work out how to achieve it. It’s more fun hearing him speak about it than reading it, to be honest, not least because I can see his response when I roll my eyes at some of the phrases. For example, his answer to ‘I haven’t got the time’, a favourite mantra of mine, is: ‘make time’. He smiles. It was what his dad used to say to him. “It’s the most annoying thing that anyone can ever say to you,” he says. “But it’s fundamentally true and that’s the problem. There is always an excuse. I haven’t got the time is basically you saying you can’t be bothered, but if you said that people would say it wasn’t acceptable. It’s about time management and that’s something we do very poorly. It won’t be a great epitaph on your gravestone – never had enough time to spend with my family or look after my health.”
But what about when we do fail? I don’t dare tell him but I’ve always loved Quentin Crisp’s aphorism, if at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style. I’m certain he wouldn’t go that far, but he does stress the importance of being realistic about the difficulties of any challenge.
“Success is not guaranteed. Absolutely not,” he says, explaining that coping when things don’t work out is about being honest about what went wrong. “The question is why did you fail? I won World Championship silver medal, European bronze but I didn’t get that Olympic medal. At the time that felt like failure. Unambiguous failure. But I reflect on it, and I say this to my kids who probably roll their eyes,” he looks at me pointedly, “but when you cross the line if you’ve given it everything you’ve got, if you were the best you could be at that time, then you’re a winner. You’ve got to have done everything you can to deliver success. If you do that you’ve won. You may not have achieved your goal but you’ve won.”
Every other year, when Whyte isn’t preparing some unsuspecting celebrity for the endurance test of their life, he treats himself to a bit of an adventure. He’s swum the Channel, done the Race Across America, an Ironman and earlier this year he ran the Marathon des Sables. “I do it completely under the radar, just me,” he says. “All I’ve got to do is motivate myself, which isn’t easy sometimes.” He laughs.
And soon he’ll begin work on six new projects for Comic Relief this year and although he’s remaining tight-lipped about what they are, it’s clear he is excited. “Now it begins,” he says. “They’ll be brilliant. People will love them. It’s amazing. I love it. It’s the best thing I do.”
• Achieve the Impossible by Professor Greg Whyte OBE is out now, £12.99 (Bantam Press); achievetheimpossible.co.uk