Invictus Games 2023 – Fieldwork in Düsseldorf

On 7th Sept. 2023, the research team involved in the evaluation of the 2023 Invictus Games, lined up at Birmingham International Airport to begin ten days of fieldwork in Düsseldorf. Equipped with Dictaphones and questionnaires, after check-in and security we made our way to the gate of our flight. Upon turning the corner for our gate we were met by a sea of navy and white t-shirts adorned with the British flag as the 59 competitors, 4 reserves, 11 coaches, 41 staff members and an army of supporters in families and friends (our participants for this part of the research), gathered, eagerly awaiting the beginning of what months of work, blood, sweat and tears had led to: the Invictus Games.

The atmosphere was thick with excitement, anticipation, instructions from staff, children’s squeals of play and a cacophony of voices and accents from across the UK and beyond. A wonderful motley crew indeed. However, as so often accompanied Invictus experiences, at times excitement partnered with anxiety as competitors worked to manage past traumas from being on an aeroplane, in a crowded area and/or in a space where they could see no escape. Anxiety also emanated from family and friends as they juggled supporting their loved one, transporting mountains of luggage, over-excited and over-tired children as well as their own emotions. This moment reflected in a few hours the months of anxiety, excitement, stress, joy, sacrifice and dedication that had already been competitors, reserves, coaches, staff and family and friends Invictus journey; a journey that began long before stepping into the sports arena.

After an hour-long flight, the plane safely landed in Düsseldorf which was to host the 6th Invictus Games, presenting itself as a ‘home for respect’. The organisers of the Games chose the ‘home for respect’ motto with the view to raise social awareness and recognition of wounded, injured and ill soldiers and to support their path to recovery. A part of the Invictus effort to increase respect for competitors was to share and pay tribute to their stories and various pathways to ‘recovery’. Recovery journeys were an integral part of the Games and, indeed part of our research. The focus on recovery featured in both the opening and closing ceremonies (Some of the personal stories of Invictus preparation, participation and recovery can be found on the Invictus Games’ blog site –, and for one Team UK competitor meant “finding happiness and keeping it.” Capturing what recovery means for Team UK (family and friends and competitors) is one of our key research questions so watch this space in future!

A unique aspect of the 6th Invictus Games was their emphasis on family and friends and their connections to military personnel’s life. In fact, the Invictus Games organisation scheduled and hosted a pre-game event that specifically focused on conversations around family’s and friends’ vital (often unnoted) role(s) in competitors’ recovery journey. This is a significant development which recognises the fact that wounded, injured or ill military personnel, whether currently serving or veteran, do not go through their post-trauma life completely on their own as family and friends often play a key part in that process. This resonated greatly with us. We had already seen and heard through months of training camps the essential and unappreciated role that competitors’ family and friends had played in the lead up to the Games. Many had sacrificed family holidays to attend Invictus training camps, spouses had become ‘single parents’ during training weekends (and were going to again for the next 10 days), others played physiotherapist, nutritionist, psychologist and coach to their competitor spouse as they devoted themselves to their sports. Families and friends were the team behind the team. Therefore, formally recognising the contribution of family and friends to competitors’ wellbeing and healing is an essential step towards paying appropriate heed to the emotional labour that takes place under the surface of those ‘gold medal moments’. Without that support, those snapshots of triumph, inspirational montages, Netflix documentaries, or indeed the fabric of everyday social interactions that occurred between competitors, families, coaches, and staff of the 21 countries represented would not be possible.

Considering this special focus on family and friends, the research team actively sought out UK team competitors’ families and friends and invited them to undertake an interview to share their experience of the Invictus journey. All together, we interviewed 23 family members (e.g., parents, spouses and siblings) who shared detailed accounts of their own side of their loved ones’ recovery journey and to what extent the Invictus Games had contributed to that journey. During our stay in Düsseldorf, we generated over 30 hours of interview data and were offered some invaluable insight into the challenges and struggles our participants had experienced. This, again, resonated with the unseen gritty, chaotic, laborious, and often difficult periods for competitors, family and friends that led to moments of magic. We also took numerous photos to show the behind the scenes labour that media channels would could not capture, but like an iceberg, was 90% of the whole Invictus experience.  We cheered, chanted, laughed, (some of us – Emma!) cried and shared hugs experiencing the amazing Team UK spirit that celebrated someone battling a fear of water to come last in swimming louder than someone’s gold medal. The spontaneous, immersive moments with family and friend at meals, walking to the stadium, chatting in between matches, co-choreographing the kids’ dance moves (Emma!), and cheering on their loved ones helped us develop a wonderful relationship with the ‘team behind the team’ and earn the trust of many family members and friends. These conversations and the interviews we completed amplified the importance of the Games and the evaluation project. Considering the insight we gained through the data collection in Düsseldorf, we very much look forward to the next phases of the evaluation which will include further interviews and follow up surveys with competitors and other family members.

Finally, to give some general information about the 2023 Invictus Games, Düsseldorf, together with the German Federal Armed Forces, hosted the event and welcomed 513 competitors from 21 nations as well as over 1,000 family members and friends. From 9th to 16th September, the Merkurspiel Arena in Düsseldorf was the venue for the sporting events, where competitors partook in ten different disciplines in 292 competitive events for a total of 666 medals. Furthermore, the Games were also made possible through the aid of more than 1,200 volunteers who came from 30 countries. The Games were attended around 140,000 spectators – the largest number in the history of the event – and over 800 journalists were accredited. Amongst the spectators were 21,800 soldiers from all participating countries as well as around 14,000 school children from all over Europe. The next Invictus Games will take place from 6th to 17th February 2025, in Vancouver and Whistler in Canada, which will be first event to also feature winter sports. Given the growth trajectory of the Invictus project, it is exciting to observe how the Games will expand in the next decade and what recovery paths though sport will develop out of them.

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