The last of the great amateurs

Dr Mark Precious, old boy of Scarborough College, ex-Oxford don and Olympian, looks back over a glittering academic and sporting career that runs from dreaming spires to winning Bronze for GB Men’s Hockey at the 1984 Summer Olympics. Alex Diggins hears all about it

To say that Mark Precious has led a rich and varied life would be an understatement of Olympic proportions. But it would also be true.

After all, few people can claim that glory on the cricket pitches and hockey fields of their youth would lead to such heights as representing GB at the Olympics or their country on the world stage as a successful diplomat. Even fewer would be able to say they have also lectured at Oxford University and forged a career as an investment banker. That Mark is able to say that he has found time to achieve all of the above, suggests either a ferocious work ethic and prodigious talent or hitherto undisclosed abilities to manipulate the laws of space and time. Personally – given his track record – my money is on the latter.

Youthful successes

Mark laughs when I tell him his career is likely to have mere mortals quaking in their trainers. His first sporting memory was far less distinguished, he claims. “It was at Scarborough College’s prep school. I did a dummy at fly half and ran 99% of the pitch before getting tackled, twisting my ankle and dropping the ball on the try line.”

Aside from the odd try-line fumble, Mark looks fondly back on his school days at Scarborough College prep and senior schools. His parents were often abroad, and for Mark and his older brother, Scarborough was a supportive and encouraging environment. “It was a very nice, friendly school, on the south coast in beautiful surroundings,” he remembers. “On the sporting side, we had a hockey master called Peter Shaw. He was a lovely, genial man who was responsible for hockey at the school and making it popular.”

Mark recalls how his brother, two years older and an equal sporting talent, pushed his development in cricket and hockey through a combination of rivalry and encouragement. “He and I played in the same teams,” he says. “That meant you get dragged along to things when you’re younger, and you end up playing at a better level earlier. There was fierce rivalry – but it was complimentary; we did and do get on very well. Besides, he was captain, so he told me what to do!”

In November last year, Mark was awarded the Old Scardeburgians’ Alumni Award by Scarborough College, and he spoke in assembly to the sixth form about his career and life lessons.

It means you’re always fit and healthy; and if you’re fit physically, it helps you perform mentally

Oxford calling

Throughout his time at Scarborough, both hockey and cricket occupied equal amounts of Mark’s time; and, in fact, he represented England Schools U19s for cricket. It would take a move up to Oxford to complete a degree in PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) for hockey to take centre stage. “The hockey sort of took over. Partly because there were two terms of hockey, and partly because the cricket season clashed with the exam term in the summer.”

Though Mark was awarded his first blue for hockey in his second year, he remembers how it was only with the arrival of fresh blood into the team in his third year that they started to be a force to be reckoned with. “In particular, it was the arrival of David Westcott,” he notes. “He went on to captain Team GB and was already on the fringes of the England team. Over the subsequent three or four years, he really showed me how to play. That spell hugely aided my development as a player.”

Mark then spent the best part of a decade at Oxford. His academic achievements – an MPhil in Economics, a much-coveted Junior Research Fellowship, and finally a DPhil in Economics and a lectureship – running parallel to his progress on the hockey field. Focusing on hockey at Oxford he gained seven blues, moving on to play for Hounslow.

After lecturing at Oxford for two years, Mark moved into the Foreign and Commonwealth office where he had a distinguished career with several foreign postings. Latterly, he transferred into the city and now works as an investment banker. I ask him how he balanced these demanding professions with his hockey career, and how the two sides of his life – professional and sporting – intertwine. “I’ve been very lucky,” he says with typical modesty. “I was on the periphery of most teams and chance has played a big part in my career.”

Roll of the dice

Chance certainly played a part in what he identifies as the highlight of his sporting career: winning Bronze for GB at the 1984 Summer Olympics. Mark was working at the Foreign and Commonwealth office at the time, and geopolitics fittingly paved the way for his participation. “Team GB only qualified because the Soviets pulled out at the last moment in retaliation for the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.”

This last-minute roll of the dice meant that the GB Team had to scrabble frantically to pull together a squad in the three months before the start of the games. Mark remembers this period as a heady, halcyon time though. “We were the last of the amateurs – we all had jobs, you didn’t get paid,” he says. “You fitted your training around work, training in the early morning and evening. It was a very intense period, but it paid off. Other teams had been plodding along for four years or more, whereas we were as fresh as daisies and raring to go.”

Despite this hectic schedule, Mark recalls savouring the unique atmosphere of the Olympics. “Los Angeles was very welcoming. The Olympics had been in trouble after they bankrupted Montreal in 1976 and the Moscow boycott in 1980.

But this was the first one with private sector sponsorship – the food hall was good, there were volunteer physios, accommodation was decent. In comparison to today though, it wasn’t isolated luxury. We were in bunkbeds, four to a room in UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles).”   

In addition, unlike athletics, with its brief bursts of action and long, stomach-churning waits to perform, for the GB hockey stars, the Olympics was a busy tournament of 12 matches. “You’re playing every other day. We were full-on all the way through. It was generally building to a high.” Mark played in all the games, and though it was a disappointment to lose in the semi-finals, winning Bronze was “fantastic”. “There was a great team spirit and some very talented players,” he said.

Triumph and disaster

Mark, though, reflects candidly that the life of an athlete is shaped as much by its disappointments as by its triumphs. Mark now captains the England Masters hockey team (players over the age of 40, spilt into five-year age bands) and recently took a squad to the World Cup in Barcelona, only to lose to the Dutch in the final.

“It was incredibly disappointing. It was a traumatic time – my rucksack got robbed, my passport and money stolen. That’s a recent low point that looms large.”

Though a sporting career has its inevitable disappointments, Mark would not trade it for anything, he says. “It means you’re always fit and healthy; and if you’re fit physically, it helps you perform mentally. Clearly as well there’s the competitive element which carries through into one’s professional life, including the need to work in a team.”

Touchingly, however, Mark says the greatest lesson a lifetime of sporting success has taught him is the value of companionship. “Wherever you go in the world, if you can play sport, it’s a great way of meeting people more informally – and making like-minded friends.”

Mark may have been one of the last of the great amateurs, then, but there is nothing amateur about his approach to sport – and how it can enrich one’s life.