How to fail at sport, or maybe not
12 years ago, I competed at my first real international athletics competition, primarily because the organiser offered to pay for my travel to somewhere interesting and it seemed like a cool thing to do before going to university. The competition was high up in the Italian alps, in Sestriere, a town orignally built by the Fiat family as a nice winter retreat all for themselves. Though I’m sure it wasn’t what their intention, the athletics track in the Fiat family’s town became somewhat legendary in track and field circles for it’s extremely good sprint and field performances (thanks in no small part to the outrageously high altitude of 2,500m) and even more so for the fact the best performance of the day normally was awarded a Ferrari, there and then, for their effort.
I turned up in Sestriere a confused, intimidated and nervous 19 year old.
After running a huge personal best of 46.40 to win, I left two days later an emboldened, €300 richer (no Ferrari) and naively convinced that I was destined to be Olympic champion 19 year old. So began an unexpectedly long stint, 12 years in fact, of deliberately prioritising the pursuit of excellence in the 400m above all other aspects in my life.
To quote the most-quoted and noble quote of all quote’s time —
Here we are, in the last and twelth year of this pursuit. A couple of months ago, I let my guard slip and posted a semi-emotional Instagram post about my impending step away from this priority. The post had a sort of melancholy air about it — maybe the attempt to succeed was worth it alone, without the medals I once envisioned, but I couldn’t quite see it.
But that was then (April 29th), and this is now. Something changed. An announcement on May 17th appeared to rewrite my achievements in the sport, for the better, but without any of trappings of better. Turns out I’ve most probably been an Olympic medalist for quite some time, it was just a secret. Myself, Martyn Rooney, Robert Tobin and Michael Bingham knew it all along, but we really didn’t think anything more than our gut feeling would confirm it. Now we await the confirmation of the B sample to ratify our performance in the 4x400m at Beijing 2008 from “unlucky, lads” to “you bloody well did it!”, but effectively it’s already done in my mind.
It was announced that a selection of samples from the Beijing had been retested, and the rumour was that a member of the team ahead of us had returned a positive test in the first round of testing (the A sample.) This is massive. To my mind now, even if the B sample comes back negative somehow (this is extremely rare, but has worryingly happened twice in this batch of retests apparently), I believe, and the rest of team believe we are the rightful holders of the bronze medal.
I stand to be corrected by particularly eagle eyed statisticians, but I think our performance for 4th place in Beijing is the fastest time to ever not win an Olympic medal. Let’s hope I can no longer use that phrase soon.
So it stands that everything is better now, 8 years later, but is that actually worse?
This weekend it’s the British Olympic trials, which though not the entire picture for selection, any performance an athlete puts forward there will be the strongest case they can make to secure their spot on the team for Rio 2016. Here I am, 8 years later, about to give this Olympic thing one last try. It’s hard work getting to an Olympic games, I wrote about it in 2012 after the biggest failure in my career.
As an athlete you’re encouraged not to vocalise or admit when the odds are stacked against you, when things aren’t going well — but hey, I’m too old for that.
Honesty is far more interesting, and I believe actually far more effective for me. So here’s the truth — things are really, really not looking good. Since that race in Sestriere in 2004, the closest I came to any manner of the satisfaction I’d hoped for in sport was at Beijing 2008. Ability seemed to come easy, in the run up and during that year I spent about two seasons where I couldn’t help but run fast, easily.
Now I’m an old man in athletic terms, at 31 I’ve done more 400m races than I care to think about. The performances I’ve produced to start this last ever season are ominously slower than almost every race I’ve ever ran since I was 16. This is really not how I envisioned going into my last Olympic trials, but such is circumstance.
You’ll hear athletes talking about the concept of a ‘good winter’, which translates as ‘good training this year.’ This is effectively what we’re all chasing — an uninterrupted, uninjured preparation so when we compete, we know it is a fair representation of our capabilities. Perhaps even more so than the end result on the track, the notion that we managed to get out what we were capable of is really where the satisfaction lies. That’s why I’m still here, not to be the greatest, not to dominate the sporting world, anymore. I’m here just to see if one day I might have been able to produce a performance I thought was an accurate representation of my current capabilities.
All I really wanted from my last season was that good winter, that clear shot at the season. It didn’t happen. What did happen rather, was the worst years training I’ve ever had — great! I managed a grand total of around 6 weeks of running all year thanks mostly to a botched hernia operation years prior leaving unable to move without ridiculous amounts of pain relief. So here I am, barely scratching the top 30 in the UK 400m rankings, attempting to pull some magic 400m rabbit out of the hat at the weekend.
As downtrodden as that may sound, it seems all along I’ve been an Olympic medalist, and suddenly I feel a great deal better about this last 12 years than I ever thought I would. I hope the rumours are true, I hope I can change my athletics C.V. from Olympian, to Olympic medallist.
Let’s see what the weekend holds…