A pregnant Orla Chennaoui at the Team GB Ball, September 2018 / Picture Credit: Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images
A pregnant Orla Chennaoui at the Team GB Ball, September 2018 / Picture Credit: Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images

After swapping London for Amsterdam, presenter and journalist Orla Chennaoui thought it was going through one of the most stressful periods of her life, but it instead meant she was able to live her dream – present cycling coverage for Eurosport.

Chennaoui is currently part of the Olympics coverage for the sports channel which got underway last weekend and has already witnessed an abundance of Team GB athletes stood on the podium with gold medals around their necks.

Her passion for cycling is undoubtably a massive part of her life – moving to the most bike friendly place in the world surely reflects this – but the Northern Ireland-born sports broadcaster has plenty more to her.

The 41-year-old explained why she’s just as excited to be covering the Tokyo Olympics as she was for her first Games in 2012, revealed why she thinks it’s so important to encourage women into the sporting world and spoke about how her love of cycling came about and why it’s still so prominent in her life today.

Why did you want to pursue a career in journalism?

I think I’d just always been a really curious person and I’m interested in other people and in other people’s stories. The older I get the more I realise it’s just in my nature because I see that my mum is exactly the same. She can sit beside someone for 10 minutes on a bus or a plane and have their entire life story. And I see it now in my daughter as well, she’s constantly asking questions to people. So, I think it’s just something in my nature, I like to ask questions, I’m very curious and I’m also just a huge fan of stories and storytelling – it’s just a fundamental part of what makes us as a species and what sets us apart is that need to connect and that need to share stories. I think it all comes from there really.

How did your passion for cycling come about?

It was the journalism that came first but I was always passionate about sports as a kid, I absolutely loved it and track and field was my sport and as a family we were hugely into Gaelic football, so we used to go and watch Gaelic football every Sunday. So, sport was a massive part of my life as a kid, but cycling wasn’t really. But when I started covering sports journalism – because I had been in journalism first – it was ahead of the London Olympics and because Team GB had done so well in Beijing at the cycling, that was one of the first sports that I became involved with. As soon as I started to read a little bit about it, understand a little bit about it and then go to actual bike races I was completely in love.

I just found that it ticked all my boxes really because it’s sport, live sport, but because it’s such a complex sport – it looks very simple on the surface, a woman or man on a bike riding from A to B as fast as they can – but the team tactics that are involved in it and all of the stories that are unseen that are hidden in the middle, that are hidden in the back that you never get to see on television, those are all of the threads of the tapestry of cycling that make it so beautiful to me. That as well as the complex history I just found as a journalist is such a rich bed of stories.

Was it a big confidence boost for you when you found out Eurosport wanted you to be their lead presenter for the cycling coverage?

Yeah, massively because cycling became such a massive focus in my career for a number of years presenting cycling on Eurosport was my dream job, that’s what I wanted to do. I had been working at Sky Sports News for quite a while but with a side eye on how I could manage to get this dream job of hosting the Tour de France and the Grand Tours for cycling for Eurosport. A woman hadn’t done that before, we hadn’t had a female presenter of the Tour de France in this country at least and I’m not sure anywhere else actually, certainly not before I started. We do now in Spain with Eurosport. I wasn’t quite sure how realistic it was going to be so whenever it materialised it was truly just a dream job. It’s been as amazing as I hoped it would be.

You’ve been covering the Olympics in Tokyo since it got underway but are you as excited about this Games as you were about your first Olympics in 2012?

I am in a totally different way. London was so exceptional because it was a home Games, and we had no idea how magnificent those few weeks of sport were going to be. I remember reporting in the run up and there were so many negative stories about empty seats or tickets that were too hard to get, and the cost of the Games and people didn’t want the Games. And yet when that opening ceremony started it was just phenomenal and it was biggest feel-good boost in society that I’ve ever lived through.

But these Games are so entirely different and for me that makes it so intriguing and so interesting. On a personal note, these are the first Games that I’m actually doing the coverage of. I’ve worked as a reporter for the other Games and so I’m incredibly excited to get the honour of actually leading the coverage of an Olympic Games.

What I find really interesting is the fact that they are a complete one off. It’s completely unique. There are so few people who are going to get to go to these Games and so I feel such a responsibility and we all do as a team to be able to bring the excitement of the Games to everyone watching at home. In a way these Games are more special because of everything that – I was going to say that we’ve just been through – we’re not through the pandemic yet but I think we so desperately need the excitement and the escapism of sport now more than ever, so I think these Olympic Games are really going to matter. Just to be able to celebrate again, to get around the television with your friends, your family or your children and cheer your favourite athlete that maybe you didn’t even know about two weeks ago suddenly you’ve fallen in love with, and you know their entire backstory and entirely invested in whether they’re going to get a medal or not. There’s something so special about that and the Olympic Games has that in a way that no other sport does. I’m really excited about it for that reason, it’s going to be totally different, totally unique and no less wonderful because of it.

How important is it for you to inspire women to get involved in the sport world and improve opportunities for women?

It’s really important to me actually and it’s become more important the older I’ve become. We all go into whatever career we choose with wide eyes and a lot of naivety and think that if we’re good enough and work hard enough that will be enough. As a woman in sport, it has changed massively now and we’re only talking a few years ago since I got into the industry, a decade ago with my sporting career anyway. And yet we’re still so far off.

Why does it matter? Because I want women to think of sport as being a safe space for them, a space of expression, something that belongs to them in the same way that men naturally believe that sport belongs to them. It brings such goodness to our lives. It makes us physically strong; it makes us mentally strong. It’s a wonderful platform for connecting with people, for building community. On a grassroots level and a community level only good comes from sport really and I want women to know that that’s available to them.

I do think that’s why it matters to have women broadcasting in sport because if you turn on your television and see only men presenting any sport then you think, that’s not for me, as a woman you think well that’s not the sport for me because I don’t see me, I don’t see me represented in any way. When you turn on and you see a woman presenting even if you’re not necessarily interested, that’s one barrier that’s gone without even realising it. Because you know that that’s a place in which women have a role, they have a function.

That matters so much to me individually, but it matters as a mother as well because I have a son and I have a daughter, my daughter’s the eldest, and I’ve always been so conscious, whether she wants to get into sport or not it’s entirely up to her, but I want her to know that it’s an avenue for her. I’m so conscious as well of when girls become teenagers certainly in the UK it’s a huge drop-off age for females in sport.

I’d love to just be a part of changing that and be a part of empowering girls and women to continue sport throughout their lives because it’s been such a force of good in my life and I always think if something is good in your life you want to share that.

What was it like to host your own podcast, When Orla Met…, and get to hear amazing stories from interesting people?

Such a privilege. I feel like I use that word too much really, but it is. I was really lucky to have some amazing guests on and I just reached out individually. I didn’t have any broadcaster behind me I just reached out to people and said would you tell your story, and they did.

There’s something so intimate about a podcast, there’s something that’s so natural in a strange way even though you’re fabricating a conversation just for that podcast. I felt that people really let their guard down with me and they were really honest, and I got to see parts of them that they wouldn’t necessarily share with other people.

The other thing which is funny I think is athletes or sportspeople or celebrities of any kind are just normal human beings, and they go through the same, or similar at least, struggles and troubles that all of us do. They’re human in the way that they want to share their story because that need for connection is just being a human being and sometimes the athletes just aren’t asked the questions in the right setting or in the way right and so we often get athletes at a press conference which is normal and you get your stock answer. But if you actually break down the background of their stories it’s so interesting and I want to use those stories to show people whatever walk of life you come from that there’s something to learn, that these people that are put on a pedestal for their sporting achievements have gone through so much to get there.

I find that personally a massive force of inspiration and I’m constantly getting inspiration from people that I interview and the battles that they’re having to face and overcome and the battles that they don’t overcome are just as inspiring because again that’s what makes them more like me and you because they are like me and you, it’s just that they’ve got more sporting ability or they work harder at their sporting ability.

Why did you decide to move to Amsterdam and what is it like to cycle everywhere and not need a car to get around?

I moved to Amsterdam because my husband had been offered a job in the Netherlands, he doesn’t work in Amsterdam but maybe about an hour and a half away. He’d been offered a job there and he had been spending the last few years looking after our daughter essentially while I was working and he’s a scientist and he really wanted to get back into research and get back into the working world again.

Any relationship is ebb and flow, it’s give and take and because he looked after our daughter for a bit we just support each other it whatever we’re doing because that’s what you have to do if you’re in a proper partnership. So, he wanted to go to the Netherlands, so I was like well if you want to do it then we have to make that work. I was full time employed at Sky Sports News at the time, I was pregnant with my second child, I didn’t know anyone in the Netherlands, I didn’t know anyone in Amsterdam, I didn’t speak a word of Dutch and all my friends, and my professional network were all based in London.

On the outside I was saying yeah let’s give it a go and, on the inside, I was like oh man what am I doing! Also, I’d been a mum before, and I know how hard it is to be a new mum and you need a network of people around you. I was wilfully going to a country where I didn’t have that network. And we were taking our daughter there, she was just about to turn four and, in the Netherlands, you start school on your fourth birthday, so she had to go to school straight away so it was a huge upheaval.

But with any change if you look at it the right way you can harness it for good so I thought this is a chance to do something totally different and I had been wanting to hosting cycling coverage for Eurosport so that was a chance to say to them: “I’m probably going to be leaving my job because I’m leaving the country so could we make something work?” They were in the right position for me to join up really and as soon as that block fell into place, I thought okay this is going to work now.

We moved to Amsterdam two and a half years ago and just haven’t looked back. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, it’s absolutely wonderful and part of that is the fact that people are riding bikes everywhere. It’s not just because I work in cycling that that makes a difference, it changes society, it changes how people are with each other because for a start we’re not stuck in traffic, so you don’t have that extra stress in your day for 10, 20, 60 minutes, you’re constantly moving. It’s also more of an outdoorsy life which makes it healthier, if we’re healthy we’re happier.

I don’t know if it’s just me but when I’m stuck in traffic, I get such road rage or road frustration and you can express that, you can toot the horn, you can shout and raise your fist – you can’t do that on a bicycle without people looking at you strangely or more often than not you know the person you’re doing it to. It makes you much more considerate of others because you can’t scream at people down the street if you’re on a bike because there’s nowhere to hide. Also, it makes life much more sociable, so for example my daughter goes to hockey on a Saturday morning and if I lived in the UK still, I would drive her to hockey I would meet my friends who’s kids also do hockey at the hockey pitch and drive home again. Whereas in Amsterdam you all meet up and we ride there together, the kids go in front of our cargo bikes, they’re in the bucket in the front with their hockey equipment and we the parents whether that’s mums or dads are riding along chatting to each other as we go. It makes what is a chore, taking your kid to hockey, so much of a weekly outing, it’s the highlight of my week.

It’s life changing, it’s a beautiful place to bring up kids and I think a big part of that is that it’s so focussed on sport, and it’s focussed on sport for kids, and I think that’s a really healthy way to bring up children. We love it, we absolutely love it. I still need to work on my Dutch, my daughter is constantly telling me off for my terrible pronunciation but I’m getting there, we’ll get there eventually.

Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will be available to watch on discovery+ in Denmark, Finland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Spain and United Kingdom. In all other European markets, except Russia, Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will be available on Eurosport.

Words by Lucy Roberts for Female First, who you can follow on Twitter, @Lucy_Roberts_72.

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