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Interview: Former Olympian and artist Roald Bradstock

Former Olympian and artist Roald Bradstock showcases his works for the first time in Hong Kong as part of a campaign to promote and recruit fellow athlete-artists

Written by
Olivia Lai

Despite appearances, Roald Bradstock is as much an artist as he’s an Olympic athlete. True, he stands at just under six-feet-tall and has a sporty, stocky build that screams star of track and field. But what you can’t see when you first meet him is this Brit’s creative mind. Not until you’re introduced to his paintings, that is. These are works that have earned him the title of the ‘Olympic Picasso’ and now, to coincide with the imminent start of the games over in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he’s just launched his first Hong Kong exhibition alongside other athlete-artist talents.

Bradstock, who broke a world javelin record at the tender age of 50, competed in his final UK Olympics trial in 2012 before taking over the position of executive director at Art of the Olympians, an organisation that promotes Olympic ideals through education and connecting athletes to art. Bradstock arrives in Hong Kong with the Art of World Sports exhibition, which features the works of Olympians as part of a global campaign tour to recruit new athletic artists. “Right now,” he says, “the Olympics, the Paralympics and culture in general are three different entities. We’re not looking to change the art world. What we’re trying to do is change the sports world. And we want to create a platform for artistic expression for athletes, so they can showcase their work.”

A two-time Olympic competitor in the javelin, Bradstock represented Great Britain at the games in 1984 and 1988. He broke a world record in 1986 as he became the first man to surpass the 80m barrier with a ‘new rule’ javelin. But, out on the field, he may be best known for his so-called media stunt in 2008 when he dressed like no athlete has done before in the Olympic trials, wearing three outrageously self-designed patriotic outfits that matched beautifully with his artistically painted javelins. “I wanted to respect the sport,” he tells us, “but, at the very same time, I wanted to do something that expressed myself. As an athlete competing out there, you don’t get to see all the work that’s gone in before. Painting the uniform was a way to show that I’m an artist on the outside.” Bradstock actually did it in the 2004 trials too but it went largely unnoticed, and he repeated it again in 2012 with some new designs. 

Bradstock says he doesn’t believe that his athlete and artist identities are separate. They are both equally important to him. “I’ve been both all my life,” notes the Olympian. “And I’ve always really struggled with this as they both require much time. When I’m focused on the sports, I can’t do much art. When I’m doing art, I can’t do as much training. It’s never one and the other.” But Bradstock never realised his actual potential as an artist until he entered and eventually won the 2000 United States Olympic Committee Sport Art Competition. Afterwards, it wasn’t then long until he received the prestigious International Sports Artist of the Year in 2003. He found his true calling in searching for ways to reduce the gap between sports and arts.

Though conscious of the differences, Bradstock has found that training and competing in the Olympics is hardly that much different from the world of arts and culture as most would imagine. He says he finds it surprising that there are not more athlete-artists out there. “When I see a javelin runway, I see a fashion runway,” he says. “And sporting venues are like a stage. And team sports are similar to theatre productions because the movements are rehearsed and choreographed.” There are also plenty of overlapping skills and disciplines between the two practices. “The way I work creatively is the same as the way I trained,” he says. “It’s about visualising the final product and embracing failure and repetition.”

Those ideals, particularly repetition, are evident in Bradstock’s artistic style. Bold colours, high expressivity and dense lines are common features in his artworks when it comes to depicting subjects like landscapes and figures. “In sports,” he says, “in order to get stronger, you have to lift and repeat over and over. In my arts, the one reason why I repeat lines and shapes is to pay tribute and homage to athletes on what they have to do, and the time and effort they spend. Repetition is so ingrained in me. It’s part of my aesthetic. It’s part of who I am.”

Heavily influenced and inspired by artists like Jackson Pollock and Vincent Van Gogh, Bradstock incorporates drip painting techniques and fractured lines that are vibrantly coloured in his paintings. From a distance, it’s not unlike something from the pop art era. But what makes it identifiable as a Bradstock piece is the sports-related subject. From fencers in action to javelin throwers going for the world record, athletics is often in the picture. “I found it comforting carrying the sports side over in my art,” he says. “I also didn’t want my of my work to look like other people’s. I want my art to be something that they can feel when they see it.”

The Art of World Sports exhibition at Landmark North’s gallery in Sheung Shui also features original pieces by fellow Olympic athletes, including French long-jumper Kader Klouchi and British judo star Neil Eckersley. Bradstock says it’s all about promoting talented athletes as part of a global campaign to recruit more Olympians and Paralympians with artistic talents or inclinations. Only 15 countries are represented at Art of the Olympians, so Bradstock is here in the city looking for more Asian athletes to add to the mix. He’s already recruited two swimmers. Hong Kong Olympic athlete Alex Fong and Paralympic star Cheung Ho-lun are bringing their easels to the international artistic team. “There’s always artists out there,” says Bradstock. “If we have just one artist from each country who’s participated in the Olympics and the Paralympics, that’s about 400 artists all together.”

Clearly it’s a personal mission for Bradstock to create a comfortable environment for athlete-artists to share their works with each other and express their creativity together. “You have a group of people at different ages, from different countries and doing different sports coming together,” he says. “It’s the most amazing experience because we have this connection. You can really feel it, being a part of something. What I’m trying to do is maintain that feeling. Before all this, I thought I was alone.”

Some athletes have been hesitant to dip their toe into art, many believing that they’re simply not good enough, but Bradstock believes this is what Art of the Olympians is here for. “We’re not here to judge,: he says. “We are about learning to embrace mistakes. When you do the 10-second run at the Olympics, you have to spend billions of seconds training for that and endure lots of failure. It’s the same with art. If you’re afraid of making mistakes, you’ll never succeed. You won’t know what your limit is.” Beyond art sharing, Bradstock has a goal of creating a platform to educate the public on issues like doping, always a hot topic in sports. He says: “We want to teach people about honesty, ethics and Olympics values, and get kids excited about arts and sports.”

With the Rio Olympics just around the corner, Bradstock has contemplated creating another painted outfit to celebrate the event. “I have thought about it but I’m also thinking ‘when do i need to let it go’?” he jokes. “I’ve already done it now three times in 2004, 2008 and 2012. It served its purpose of doing it on a stage, with cameras and taking advantage of the attention at the Olympics.” After a pause, he adds: “For me to do it now, it needs a purpose and I haven’t figured out what that is yet. If and when I do it, it’s going to be unexpected...”

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