THE eyes of the world will be on Australia next week as Prince Harry and wife Meghan open the Invictus Games.
Here author Boris Starling explains how the Royal - a former army officer and tireless advocate of veterans' issues - created and spearheaded this extraordinary athletic event, in an edited extract from his new book Unconquerable: The Invictus Spirit.
THE FELL CLUTCH OF CIRCUMSTANCE
Three snapshots of a prince
September 1997. Not quite yet a teenager, Harry walks behind his mother's coffin. His fists are balled by his side and he stares straight ahead. He walks with his brother, his father, his grandfather and his uncle. His brother William is already as tall as the adults, but Harry is a head shorter, a break in the line which draws your eye. More words have been written about this day and the ones which preceded it than about any other week in modern British history, and amid the whirling vortices of public emotion and devotion, of recrimination and accusation, nothing is purer and simpler and more important than the fact that these two boys have lost their mother, and your heart breaks for them over and over.
Fast forward 10 years: September 2007. The halo is somewhat tarnished: allegations of underage drinking and smoking dope, clashes with paparazzi, wearing a Nazi uniform with a swastika to a fancy dress party. The sanctimonious members of the public, of which there are millions, chunter away about spoiled rich kids, irresponsibility and Hooray Henrys. The more charitable members of the public, of which there are also millions, recognise that this is a young man growing up in an unrelenting and unforgiving media spotlight, and that few of us would come out smelling of roses if every one of our youthful indiscretions was splashed across the front pages.
Fast forward another 10 years: September 2017. On the eve of the Toronto Invictus Games, Harry's charm, charisma, decency, empathy and sense of fun win people over wherever he goes. You can see it in the way they respond to him: not the reverential and deferential forelock-tugging of old, but a genuine happiness to be in his presence, to hold their hands to his incandescent warmth, to be sprinkled with his stardust.
So what changed?
On one level, nothing, apart from the obvious: the passage of time and a young man maturing. He's always been loyal, generous, gregarious and a good friend to people. But between the second and third snapshots came the bulk of his service in the Army, including both his combat tours, and it's hard to dismiss this as pure coincidence. It wasn't just that the Army gave Harry what he'd always sought, the chance to prove himself, and that his fellow soldiers - who have a lower tolerance for bullshit than almost any other group of people - accepted him for the man he is rather than the title he bears.
It was also that he was genuinely good at his job. On his second tour of Afghanistan in 2012-13, he co-piloted Apache helicopters. Any idea that this was some kind of sinecure is ludicrous. Only the very best pilots in the Army Air Corps (AAC) get onto the Apache programme. And they're rated not just on their own skill but on their effect on their colleagues. Lt Col David Meyer, who oversaw Harry's training before that deployment, says, 'Harry's course - and I do genuinely believe it had a lot to do with his influence - was incredibly well-galvanised and they tended to galvanise around him. That was one of his key strengths, as he wasn't better than anyone else at flying or anything like that, but he just understood the whole team ethic, how to win together.'
He just understood the whole team ethic, how to win together. Could there possibly be a better description of what the Invictus Games are all about?
Prince Harry's turning point
In May 2013, the Prince attended the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs. The Warrior Games are an annual multi-sport event for wounded, injured and sick Service personnel, and this was their fourth edition. 'I was hooked,' Harry wrote in the Sunday Times in August 2014. 'It was one of the most incredible and inspiring things I had ever seen. It made me appreciate the simple things in life, the things we take for granted. Some of those competing had been lying in a bed no more than eight months earlier, being told they would never walk again, and now here they were, winning medals in front of a community of supporters. The passion, determination, teamwork, resilience, inspiration and just downright fun oozed out of this competition.'
There were two problems. First, the competitors were almost exclusively American, with only a handful of British invited. Second, competitors pretty much outnumbered spectators. There were only a few hundred watching from the stands, and no wider coverage worth the name - no TV cameras, precious little social media. And all this in the country which reveres its military more sincerely and openly than anywhere else in the Western world.
The execution of the Warrior Games might have left something to be desired, but there was nothing wrong with the central concept. It was a good idea, it was a great idea. And Harry knew there was only one thing to do with an idea as good as this.
Actually, the Warrior Games were an older idea than they seemed. The North-West of England Limbless Sports Club had held a sports day for disabled ex-servicemen as far back as 1922. It had been opened by Earl Haig, who had commanded British forces on the Western Front during the Great War, and included football, obstacle courses, high jump and 'a well-contested walking race'. Interestingly, the day's two main remits seem to have been the promotion of sport as part of recovery programmes and the showcasing of the latest technology in prosthetic limbs.
Sport as rehabilitation for injured servicemen was also the focus during World War Two of the neurosurgeon Ludwig Guttmann, who established a spinal injuries treatment centre at Stoke Mandeville hospital. Dr Guttmann organised the Stoke Mandeville Games, which began in 1948, and in 1960 they were for the first time held alongside that year's Olympic Games in Rome and became the Paralympics. (The mascot for the London 2012 Paralympics was called Mandeville.)
'If ever I did one good thing in my medical career,' Guttmann said on retirement, 'it was to introduce sport into the treatment and rehabilitation programme of spinal cord sufferers
and other severely disabled.'
But what Harry had in mind was much larger than either of those events had been, at least in their early incarnations. Just because it had been done before didn't mean it would be easy to do again.
The three questions
Before firing a weapon, Apache pilots ask themselves three questions: Can I? Should I? Must I? Only when the answer to all three is yes, do they fire. When it came to the Invictus Games, it was these same three questions which needed to be asked and answered (under slightly less time and situational pressure than an Apache pilot usually gets, granted).
If anywhere could host an international sporting event at short notice, it was London. The year before the 2013 Warrior Games, the city had hosted what was by common consent the greatest Olympic and Paralympic Games of modern times.
Even the Australian press, who were justifiably proud of the show that Sydney had put on in 2000 and hand out praise to the Poms through gritted teeth, conceded as much. 'As awful as it is to admit,' said The Australian, 'London 2012 was bigger, slicker, almost as friendly and more thoughtfully planned than Sydney ... There is one simple indication of the success of the past two weeks. That is the feeling of surprise among ordinary Londoners and people close to the Games that after all that anticipation and all their doubts, they had pulled it off so well. It is not a sense of "We told you so", more one of "My God, we actually did it!"'
Everywhere you looked during those two weeks, you saw magic. The main stadium was packed full, day and night: 90,000 people were there even for the morning sessions, which were just heats rather than finals. There was the Dorney Roar out at the rowing lake: the pressure waves of 30,000 screaming voices reverberating across the water in a sport where some regattas attract one man and his dog and you're lucky if the dog turns up. The stillness and beauty of the archery at Lord's cricket ground, as iconic a sporting arena as the country has to offer. And of course that glorious, madcap, bonkers, exuberant Opening Ceremony, whose most iconic moment had been a certain grandmother leaping from a helicopter with a reasonably famous secret agent. One of the reasons behind the Games' success had been the
Army itself. All the military talk beforehand had been of terrorist threats and missiles being stationed on the roofs of tower blocks.
Then, with literally a couple of days to go, the contractor G4S had admitted it couldn't provide all the security personnel it had been contracted to provide. Into the breach had stepped the Army, and in doing so had snatched victory from the jaws of disaster.
The soldiers were exactly what was needed: bright and breezy, cheery and friendly, their kaleidoscope of accents proudly heralding that this may have been London but it was a tournament for the whole country. They checked bags and manned metal detectors with slick thoroughness, and yet you knew that if by that million-to-one chance the worst did happen, there was no one else in the world you'd want dealing with it. The spectators loved them.
But it had not necessarily always been that way. It would have been interesting, for example, to have seen the public's reaction to uniformed soldiers at Olympic venues had Manchester won either of its 1996 or 2000 bids to host the Games. But in the few years before the Olympics, public sentiment had swung firmly behind the actual soldiers in combat, even - especially - when attitudes towards the conflicts themselves were ambivalent. You might have opposed the political rationale for intervention in Afghanistan or Iraq, but you still recognised the bravery and professionalism of the boys on the ground doing the job.
The first real sign of this sea change came in the summer of 2007, when members of the Royal British Legion in the town of Wootton Bassett began to formally pay their respects to the Union Jack-covered coffins of British soldiers passing through the town en route from RAF Lyneham to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. The simple dignity of the gesture struck a chord, and soon hundreds or even thousands of ordinary citizens were lining the route, which in turn made national headlines on the evening news.
Not that television was merely reflecting the change: it was driving it too. If the embedding of journalists with frontline troops had been a first step in showing something of the reality of war, then the extraordinary series of documentaries which the actor Ross Kemp filmed in Afghanistan from 2008 onwards took this forward several steps. Watching Kemp and his crew filming a real-life contact between Royal Anglian soldiers and the Taliban - filming it right on the spot, not from a mile away - yanked audiences from the comfort of their living rooms and made them feel that they were there with them. The crack of the bullets - they sounded like nothing ever heard in a movie, that was for sure - the urgency of the men scrambling for position and returning fire, the gut-clenching fear but also the supercharged excitement, it all came bursting out of the screen.
Kemp deliberately steered away from the usual conventions of traditional documentary. There was no discussion of Western policy in Afghanistan, no attempt to fix the narrative within a wider discourse and no concession to 'balance' by matching supporters of the war with its opponents. His focus was on the men in theatre, and on them alone: 'What we tried
to show was what the ordinary soldiers are facing, what they are going through. I have seen incredible bravery from very young guys, the young generation that people write off.
Look what they are doing in Helmand, and they are doing it for such appallingly low pay. Others in public services - nurses, teachers, the police - have a voice. These guys don't and I hope I can help. We tried to show the reality they are facing on the ground. They're not asking for sympathy, just a little respect, and they certainly deserve that.'
His rapport with them was genuine, as was the banter: the soldiers took the mickey mercilessly for his role as SAS Sergeant Henno Garvie in the ITV series Ultimate Force, and he gave it back with interest. But as much as the whizz-bang spark of contact it was the quiet moments which stayed with you, none more so than seeing how the men seemed to age years in just months of deployment: thinner, more weathered, more prone to the thousand-yard stare. The news could give the impression that 21st-century war was fought almost exclusively by remote, video game-style. Kemp's footage showed that not only was this not true, but that stifling heat and the constant threat of landmines, IEDs, enemy snipers, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attacks and even friendly fire took a severe and very real toll.
A gentler counterpoint came in the winter of 2011, when the nation's favourite choirmaster, Gareth Malone, went to the Royal Marine Barracks at Chivenor in Barnstaple, Devon - not for the Marines themselves, but for their wives. Anyone who'd seen the preview tapes would have been well advised to buy shares in Kleenex! Malone took a bunch of women who hardly knew each other and who in many cases felt defined by who their husbands were. He transformed them into not just a sisterhood but a choir of genuine talent and emotion. When he auditioned for soloists, he was looking for those whom the whole group supported rather than setting singer against singer. It was collaboration rather than competition, and a rare insight into what wives and girlfriends go through while their men are away for months at a time. Their single 'Wherever You Are' ended up as the Christmas number one that year, with proceeds from the sales going to the Royal British Legion and SSAFA Forces Help.
So yes, Harry could stage the kind of Games he had in mind: both the public support and the infrastructure were there.
There would certainly be no shortage of people eligible to compete. One of the knock-on effects of the extraordinary advances in battlefield medicine was that many more people were surviving than had ever been the case before. This is not comparing Afghanistan with the Falklands or Vietnam or World War Two: this is comparing Afghanistan 2009 with Iraq 2003, for example, because that's how fast the game was being moved on.
Harry knew that this progress came at a price. In that Sunday Times article of August 2014, he wrote: 'With survival ... come higher rates of life-changing injuries - whether visible or invisible. They are injuries that the news will forget, injuries that we will all forget as the world moves on to the next conflict or natural disaster. But those limbs will not grow back, friends will not return and many will be left with horrifying images and memories ingrained on their minds. It is hard for any of us to comprehend what these guys have been through.
'There is no comparison to the scale of other conflicts, the Great War, for example, and I understand that - but one life is just as important as 10. They were someone's father, brother, son, daughter, sister, mother. I have often thought: how do you get over that? How do you move on and clear your mind of such painful images? How does someone who has lost a limb find the motivation to move on and avoid being defined by that injury: to be recognised for their achievements, not just given sympathy post-injury?'
This was the crux. There was no point doing it unless the competitors would benefit, and Harry was in no doubt that they would: 'I saw [at the Warrior Games] the power that sport could play in the recovery of both mind and body. Sport is surely the best way to support recovery. The premise is simple: set yourself a target, take your mind off all the negative thoughts and concentrate on the challenge in front of you, all while relearning to use your body.'
The Invictus Games would be a way of aiding recovery rather than an end in itself. If some of the competitors also became Paralympians then that would be great, but that would never be the intention. Participation would always be more important than sheer performance (in fact, the increasingly elite performances in the Paralympics were leaving more room for an Invictus-style Games). Someone battling the daily fires of post-traumatic stress or the difficulties of life as a triple amputee would not suddenly find themselves cured by competing at the Invictus Games. But the experience would help them on their path back to as normal a life as possible, and this would hold true no matter whether they were two days or two years into a rehab course. It wasn't just the physical aspect of the Games which appealed to Harry, but the mental and social ones too.
There is always a void when one retires from active service, and that void yawns deeper and wider when retirement has been forced on you in your prime. The Invictus Games would fill that void. It would offer, if only for a few days, the things which its competitors had been missing: their country's flag on their chest or left arm, being part of a team, the quickfire dark humour, the camaraderie. It would give them that military fix which they yearned for; it would not patronise nor infantilise them. If they needed help, it was the help to let them help themselves. Allowing them that was as crucial as any minutely measured conventional progress towards rehabilitation.
But the rehab aspect was not all that mattered, or else they could have held the Games in a sports centre on an RAF base. The whole point of taking it out to the public was to allow the
people to show their support for, to paraphrase George Orwell, the men and women who let us sleep soundly in our beds because they stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.
It would be a chance for the public to say thank you and for the competitors to put on a show for them: a perfect feedback loop of spectator and gladiator. And therefore it wouldn't be just the competitors who reaped the benefit. Someone sitting in the stands seeing the inspirational stories being played out right in front of them: who knew what effect that might have? Or someone watching on television at home, maybe someone disabled, who would see these men and women and think they could follow suit. Who knew whose lives might be changed by what they saw rather than what they did?
So, yes, Harry should hold the Games, of course he should.
In some ways this was the easiest one to answer of the three. If he could, and he should, then surely he must? Indeed: but in this case the emphasis was as much on the 'he' as the 'must'. It is not fanciful to suggest that the Invictus Games would simply not have happened without Harry. No one else, literally no one else, had what he had: the royal title, the military experience and the natural charm. There were those who had two of the three, but only he had the lot. He knew he was in a fortunate position, one which came with a name and a
lineage and access to all sorts of different areas. He also knew that he had a responsibility to use that position in a positive way, in the right way.
The Invictus Games would be different because it would be forged not perhaps strictly in his own image but certainly according to his own values. It would be fiercely competitive,
but it would also be fun. It would leave no man or woman behind: there would be medals of gold, silver and bronze, but there would also be medallions for every competitor in recognition that for many it was the start line rather than the finish line which was the real achievement.
Most of all - and the comparisons with his mother are very clear here - it would be Harry giving a voice to the damaged and the forgotten, just as he has in Lesotho by setting up the Sentebale charity with Prince Seeiso of Lesotho to benefit orphans and vulnerable children, many of whom are affected by the country's HIV/AIDS epidemic. Harry is very good at making connections with people and putting them at their ease. Part of this is the fact that he's tactile and relaxed, a normal person in an abnormal position. But it's also because
he's genuinely interested in people: he wants to know their stories, he wants to know what makes them tick. He looks out for them. His emotional intelligence is extraordinary.
I saw a small example of this when I went to talk with him for this book. It was an unseasonably warm day in March, and early on in our chat I quickly wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. Harry was answering a question at the time, but without breaking his reply he got up, went over to the window, opened it, came back and sat down. It was a minor thing, sure, but what was interesting was what he didn't do as much as what he did. He didn't draw attention to my (very mild) discomfort by asking me if I was OK. He didn't ask anyone else in the room to open the window. He just got up and did it: thoughtful, scrupulously polite and totally without airs and graces.
Can, should, must ... The Games were on.
Now all Harry had to do was organise them. And he knew the best man for the job: Sir Keith Mills, the man who had invented Air Miles and had more latterly been deputy chairman of LOCOG, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games.
They met in November 2013. Harry said he wanted the Games to be held the following year, 2014, and in the interests of the competitors it shouldn't be too deep into winter. September seemed like a good month. How about September?
September was possible, Mills said. But with no venues and no funding yet in place - at that stage there was literally nothing other than two men talking in a Kensington Palace drawing-room - it'd be tight. It would be very tight. They were looking at an event only 10 months away. Harry would have to be involved every step of the way. 'If we're going to do this,' said Mills, 'you really need to be hands-on and involved. You can make things happen more quickly than I can.' But Harry didn't even need asking. He wanted to be in among it just as he had been in the Army, feeling the team working together. In fact, he quit active duty military service in January 2014 to devote himself to the Invictus Games fulltime.
Neither the competitors nor the spectators would have given this much thought, and understandably so, but events like the Invictus Games don't happen just like that. They take an extraordinary amount of organisation across a multitude of different areas.
Corporate sponsorship was the obvious avenue for the bulk of the money needed, but at such short notice that was easier said than done. Most corporations had their budgets for the next 12-18 months already sorted and signed off, and even the largest and wealthiest companies can't just find the odd million or three stuffed down the back of the sofa. In came Jaguar Land Rover as official presenting partner and BT, Fisher House Foundation, Ottobock, PwC and YESSS Electrical as Official Supporters. The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry and the Ministry of Defence were the founding partners of the
2014 Invictus Games.
Next, they needed a name. Numerous suggestions were bandied around, many of them variations on recognisably military words - 'soldier', 'warrior', 'army' and so on - until Major-General Buster Howes, the Defence Attaché at the British Embassy in Washington, DC, who had first invited Prince Harry to the Warrior Games, suggested 'Invictus'.
Invictus had most recently been a Clint Eastwood film about post-apartheid South Africa's famous victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela (a role he had surely spent much of his life waiting for) and Matt Damon as a surprisingly convincing Francois Pienaar. The title - the word invictus is Latin for 'unconquered' - had come from a poem of the same name by the Victorian writer William Ernest Henley, which Mandela liked to read both to himself and his fellow prisoners during his decades of confinement on Robben Island.
Out of the night which covers
me, Black as the pit from pole
to pole, I thank whatever gods
may be For my
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried
aloud. Under the bludgeoning of
chance My head is bloody, but
Beyond this place of wrath and
tears Looms but the horror of the
shade, And yet the menace of
the years Finds, and shall find
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the
scroll, I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
As a summary both of what the competitors had been through and the values they still held dear, it was note perfect. And so 'Invictus' it was: the Invictus Games.
As for the 'brand' itself, getting that right was absolutely crucial. Harry wanted it not just to capture the spirit of the event but also to be cool and funky, something you'd actively aspire to wear rather than just shrug it on without being especially bothered one way or the other. The logo that was created, picking out 'I AM', so prominent in the last two lines of Henley's poem, from the middle 'I' of 'Invictus' and the 'AM' of 'Games', was spot on.
But the success or failure of the Games would ultimately rest on a group of people who'd been scarcely involved with all this frantic preparation. Indeed, some of them hadn't even heard about the Games until a few months beforehand.
They were, of course, the competitors.