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My Summer Highlight? Speedway.

My Summer Highlight? Speedway.

Right.  Speedway.  What’s that about then?

Four motorbikes race around an oval track? Gotcha. Sounds simple enough, kind of like Days of Thunder on two wheels.

And they hit 70mph on the straights..? Ok, that’s fast. They’ll need to brake pretty hard when they go round the bends, I’m guessing.

What?

None?

Any spurious aspiration I might have had to try the sport is dashed as it turns out Speedway bikes have NO brakes. It’s at this point that I’m starting to think that this hasn’t been thought through very well and/or it’s a sport for the self-destructively inclined. Once you actually watch Speedway though (and you really, really should), you’ll see that somehow it all just works, in a strangely effective combination of awesome acceleration and a whole lot of sliding.

That’s how you solve the ‘no brakes’ conundrum, you see.  Riders appear to be doing a kind of controlled skid around the whole course and races are seemingly won and lost on the back of risk taking, AKA how long a rider waits to take his foot off the pedal at the end of each straight.

There are crashes of course, as you’d expect. Most are due to wheels clipping each other as riders come round each bend. I was lucky enough to have my first taste of Speedway recently and one of the more heart-in-mouth moments came when a bike got clipped and its front wheel wobbled around crazily as the rider fought to regain control, reminiscent of an angler trying to hold on to an electric eel, while at the same time sliding on some loose gravel at high speed. This time the rider brought his steed back in line in time to avoid a fall, but there were a few who weren’t so lucky, spinning out on corners and into the barriers.

I’m no petrolhead.  I don’t watch Formula One a lot, rallying, or many motorsports in fact, but back in July I went to the British Speedway Grand Prix in Cardiff’s Principality Stadium, something a bit different and new. I’ve lived in the city for years and seen (from a distance) the noisy, colourful crowds that fill the streets of the city when the Speedway comes to town. Of course, I’ve seen up close the hysteria associated with Wales playing rugby at home in the Six Nations, with its sea of pure red, replete with the rampant roaring of spontaneous singing.

russians

This was in the same vein, but with an international flavour. It’s fair to say that Eastern Europeans, and the Polish particularly, REALLY like their Speedway.  The fervour for it among their fans matched anything I’d seen in rugby crowds.  The numbers were smaller, but those coming from Poland, Russia, Slovenia and across the UK are really dedicated and more than passionate about their sport. I never used to know what the attraction was, but now I do, and am so glad I took the time to immerse myself in this strange new world.

Though the Speedway itself started at 5pm, the vuvuzelas and chanting filled the air for hours before and the streets around the Principality Stadium were full of oversized flags and novelty wigs as far as the eye can see. There is a varied crowd too, with plenty of families and children in the mix, which meant that the atmosphere was boisterous, while feeling friendly and safe. Even as a newcomer, I felt drawn into the occasion before I’d even entered the stadium.

As we went in, I still had my doubts about the sport itself though.  I didn’t know the rules and I didn’t know the riders. I’d been put off some motorsport racing partly by the length of the races, so when I heard there were 20 heats, my heart sank. But this is part of what makes Speedway so watchable. Every race is short and concentrated, and you’re never left waiting long for the next one. And having a lot of races means you start by fairly arbitrarily backing riders based on skill and daring exhibited over the qualifying heats, forming temporary emotional bonds with previously unknown Eastern European sportsmen.

Woff InterviewTwo-time World Champion Tai Woffinden is interviewed before the races start

The rules are simple.  The track is simple. There’s little to learn. You’re left to simply pick your rider and urge them on to victory, to cut their corners as fine as possible, push the limits and just collectively revel in the intensity of it all.

So, you don’t need to be a motorsport fan to enjoy Speedway. You can enjoy the energy, noise and excitement without prior knowledge and age ain’t a barrier either (the family sat in front of me ranged from three to fifty-three).

The Grand Prix will be back in Cardiff next summer and I urge you to give it a go – you might well just fall a little in love with it as I did, and crave another dose.

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Volunteering: Return on your Investment

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Volunteering: Return on your Investment

Volunteers are a lovely bunch, aren’t they? Very nice I mean. Like, AA man nice (for those who don’t recall the old ad: https://goo.gl/V2A8c).

 

They are those selfless Samaritans who give so much in so many areas of modern life, across a range of communities and sectors, from offering practical assistance to charities, to helping educate and care for others. A huge amount of time is given over to volunteering. Many evenings are relinquished when full days have already been worked and weekends given over to benefit others.

And the reasons for doing it are varied. For some, it’s helping out with an activity that their child is undertaking (coaching a sports team for example). For others, the work done for free supports or makes up for a lack of services that might otherwise be provided by a council or health trust (another social topic entirely…)vols

Whatever the reasons, there are millions of awesome folk across the country that lend a hand regularly. And that’s heart-warming to hear in these times when fear, mistrust and negative news is spread in much greater volume than positivity and when nations and ideologies clash, making social cohesion feel reduced or under attack.

That makes it all the more important to remember that there are around 15 million people in the UK regularly (monthly or more) giving up their time for others, and this altruism often spans boundaries of age, race and religion, which in turn breaks down barriers and can bring people closer together.

Back to the ‘niceness’ though. I’m not about to dispute my opening statement, but we do need to add something to the mix. You see, much of the conversation you’ll hear centres on thanking volunteers for what they give and about how the hours they put in contribute to improving lives for others. And of course they should be appreciated; it goes a little way to repaying them for all that they give. It’s important too, as volunteers are so vital to communities that we simply cannot risk losing them due to them feeling under-appreciated.

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But volunteering is not a one-way street. It’s easy to see it as a simple process where volunteers put time and energy in, and others reap the rewards of their efforts. But there’s more to it. Much more. Volunteering brings with it a host of benefits to the volunteers themselves. It is often highlighted that through volunteering you can grow in confidence, learn new skills and make new friends. All of this is true, but there are further well-being boosts, that are less well appreciated.

As an example from the world of sport, a survey by Join In provided some great facts and figures showcasing the benefits to be gained from giving. Volunteers reported having 10% higher self-esteem and were 15% less inclined to worry than those not involved. Their scores were FOUR times higher for the level of trust they felt in their community and EIGHT times higher for the influence they felt in their community.

Even if you were to be a bit cynical (which I am, to a fault) about the quantifying of emotional responses, it still paints a clear picture of how volunteering makes you feel better about yourself and more connected to those around you. Volunteers don’t so much GIVE their time as INVEST it. Because there is a very real, highly valuable return on that investment to the volunteer, the organisation and the community. It’s a win-win-win.

Given that volunteering is beneficial to all parties; charities and community groups could maybe think about not just asking people to give up their time, but rephrase it as offering people an opportunity to be involved and be part of a team. This is important as not only does this give greater recognition to the volunteer, but it also acknowledges the gains to be made, both practical and emotional, from giving your time to a good cause.

Paid staff are often seen as the organisation itself, and the volunteers as a support, valued but separate. We need to ensure that the definition of an organisation includes everyone who contributes to, and benefits from its success, and that includes some of the most important people of all – the volunteers.

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