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George Bovell is in a class by himself when it comes to representation at the Olympic Games. The 33-year-old swimmer is now a five-time Olympian, an unprecedented achievement from a Trinidad and Tobago athlete.

Bovell made his debut on the world’s biggest sporting stage as a 17-year-old at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia. When he dives into the pool at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, here in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, next Thursday, in the men’s 50 metres freestyle heats, Bovell will become the very first athlete from T&T to compete in five Games—an appearance for each of the Olympic rings.

“I’m fortunate to be blessed with good health and longevity,” Bovell told the Express, in an interview at the Olympic Village, yesterday. “It’s a challenge. It’s one thing to be good, but quite difficult to stay good. Life happens, so there’s no real four-year-plan. Sport is a lifestyle and an experience. The enjoyment of it gives you longevity. And the enjoyment comes from the process, not the result.”

Bovell heads the T&T class of multiple-Olympians. Montreal Olympics 100 metres gold medallist Hasely Crawford, cyclist Gene Samuel, quadruple Olympic medallist Ato Boldon and double sprint relay silver medallist Marc Burns have all appeared at four Games. Sprinter Kelly-Ann Baptiste and shot putter Cleopatra Borel will join the “Four-Club” in Rio, taking the membership to six. At the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece, Bovell earned bronze for T&T in the 200 metres individual medley, becoming the county’s first Olympic medallist in the sport of swimming.

“That podium moment was absolutely surreal. It’s like trying to remember a dream. You can’t quite get it back. But I don’t define myself by it. When you are defined by what you do, when you stop doing it it’s difficult to exist. When you say I practice swimming or I practice law, as opposed to I am a lawyer or I am a swimmer, when you are doing good or when you’re doing bad, it’s still the same. We are so much more than we do. We’re the entire sum of our potential.”
Another highpoint in Bovell’s Olympic career was carrying the T&T flag at the opening ceremony for the 2008 Games in Beijing, China.

“People are united by flags. It was a great honour to walk into the Olympic Stadium and be the standard bearer for the country; to carry the hopes and dreams of 1.3 million people.”

But while Bovell cherishes his Olympic career, the experience has not been an entirely positive one.

“I came into the Olympics thinking it was ancient Greek legacy, heroic, the highest level of glory to be possibly attained. Now, I realise it’s more of a show and less of a competition: Swimming after midnight; I’ve seen cheaters doping and getting away and allowed to compete. I still enjoy the immense thrill and huge honour, but it’s a glorified reality TV show.

“What really matters,” he continued, “is not the medal or time. Did you enjoy yourself? Did swimming at the Olympics enhance your life? For me, it did. I feel fulfilled and incredibly grateful. I’m resolved to finish well.”

Michael Phelps, the most prolific Olympian in history with 22 medals, including 18 gold, will also compete at his fifth Olympic Games here in Rio.

“Another reason to respect Michael Phelps as an athlete,” declared Bovell. “He has proven his greatness and also his sustainability. I do respect that Michael Phelps can do that. It’s not easy. Believe me, I’m in awe of Michael Phelps.”
At the 2004 Athens Games, Phelps struck gold in the 200 IM, ahead of fellow-American Ryan Lochte and Bovell.

Five-Ring General Bovell offered some words of advice for the debutants on the T&T Olympic team.

“Keep it simple. Don’t get caught up in the hype. We have a very dangerous tendency to define ourselves as athletes. When medals are given out, we tend to believe the better athletes are the better people.

“You must stay in the process and enjoy it. Swim fast, run fast because you love to. Don’t run to get a medal. You’ve worked hard for four years,” Bovell ended. “This is a celebration of your sacrifice and hard work.”