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Sport Relief, celebrities, challenges. Tony James talks to Greg Whyte

What do Jo Brand, David Walliams and Cheryl Cole have in common, not to mention Eddie Izzard, Chris Moyles and Gary Barlow?

The answer is that they’re just a few of the celebrities hardly known for their sporting prowess, who have been coaxed and cajoled into achieving extraordinary feats of endurance by a man who believes that virtually anything is possible if you put your mind to it.

In the process, Professor Greg Whyte has helped raise a staggering £35 million for Comic Relief and Sports Relief projects – and not done any harm to his reputation as a world-renowned sports scientist and a motivator with a magic touch.

After all, he got John Bishop to run, row and cycle to Paris after his knees went and David Walliams swam the Thames after being up all night with diarrhoea and vomiting. And Cole, Moyles and Barlow admit they only reached the top of Mount Killimanjaro thanks to Whyte.

A former Olympic pentathlete and now a supremely-fit 49-year-old, Whyte fits more into a week than many of us manage in a year.

He’s a professor in applied sport and exercise at Liverpool’s John Moores University, and a director of the London centre for health and human performance and sits on countless august medical and scientific bodies.

He’s also found time to publish 200 scientific papers in the area of sport and exercise and medicine, and eight books with titles like Achieve the Impossible.

“It’s busy, very busy,” says Whyte, who now lives in Buckinghamshire with his wife and three children.

“But it’s good fun. Perhaps I get a bit bored. Maybe that’s my problem.”

If it is a problem, he certainly thrives on it. Then there’s what he calls his “media work”, which includes a recent link-up with Merrell, the leading outdoor footwear brand, to spread the word about the benefits of getting out and enjoying all that “nature’s gym” has to offer.

Merrell will use Whyte’s expertise and motivational talent to highlight the health and fitness benefits of outdoor pursuits.

“We are delighted Greg has joined forces with us,” says Merrell marketing manager, Hugh Sweeney. “His industry experience and credibility will enable Merrell to amplify its mission to get the nation outdoors, whatever sport or activity they choose.”

“Physical activity is my great passion. It forms the basis of much of my work and Merrell shares this vision,” Whyte says. “Nowadays we are surrounded by technology and devices which enable us to be less active.

“Being involved with Merrell will mean that hopefully we can persuade people who normally wouldn’t think about exercise to get fitter and enjoy physical challenges.”

Whyte has worked as a consultant physiologist in Olympic and professional sports, and pioneering exercise therapy for cardiac patients, cancer sufferers and anyone who can be helped by becoming more active.

But it is as the man behind the Sports Relief challenges that his skills have hit the headlines as he cajoled over 50 mainly unsporting celebrities to achieve extraordinary feats of endurance.

Under his guidance, Eddie Izzard ran 43 marathons in 51 days and Davina McCall rode her bike through 60mph winds when professionals would have given up. Jo Brand confounded everyone by walking from Hull to Liverpool.

For the challenges, Whyte donates his time and expertise for free.

“One of my goals is to persuade people in the public eye who don’t think they are up to doing exercise to have a go and see how it changes them.

“Exercise is for everyone and Jo Brand is a great example.

She hardly walked at all before the challenge. Now she’s regularly out with a group of friends.

“All the celebrities I’ve worked with have wanted to give up at some stage but none of them have. These are really tough challenges normally done by top endurance athletes and these guys are a long way from that.

“Tough times are going to happen – the question is what are you going to do about it? My job is to be confident because they look to me to know whether they can do it or not.

“Not only am I doing it with them, but my job is to motivate and support them and also strategise as we go.”

He’s always there in the background and while the celeb gets the glory, Whyte is the one who keeps everything going.

“I take a scientific approach – my preparation and planning is meticulous and I lead by example.

“The motivation for me is that what we do really does make a difference to people’s lives. I’ve had the chance to see how and where the money is being spent. I’ve been to Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia. It sounds trite to say that £5 can change someone’s life but it’s true.”

He tells the story of an elderly woman in Ethiopia who spent her £5 on putting a new roof on her house.

“She said the previous winter she hadn’t slept because she had been bailing water out of her house but this year she could sleep. Her life was completely transformed for a fiver. I was welling up.”

Whyte understands these things. He’s from a working class family.

“What my dad gave me was a sense that you have to work hard. He had two jobs. One was in a car factory for 43 years. We’d be up at 5.30am for swimming training. He’d come home, grab a meal, go to work all night and come home to take me swimming again.

“Sport was very much a part of what we did. Most sport is classless. It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got, if you work hard you will achieve. It’s a great leveller. It’s all about tenacity.”

His family supported his sporting ambitions and Whyte will always be grateful for that.

He was an Olympic pentathlete in 1992 and 1996 and won silver in the 1994 world championships. Since then he’s kept ferociously fit and can’t resist a challenge.

He’s swum the Channel, done the Race Across America and an Ironman contest and last year ran the Marathon des Sables.

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