SJA members voting for the British Sports Awards, sponsored by The National Lottery, need to recognise the achievement of an athlete who is now the world, Olympic, Commonwealth and European champion, says STEVEN DOWNES
It was the morning after the night before. That night of nights at the 2012 Olympics.
It was only a few hours before that I had packed up the lap-top and headed for the Tube, meeting up along the way with my two sons after the sole session in the entire London Olympic Games for which I had managed to get them tickets at the Olympic Stadium.
“That was the best day of my life,” said Tom, more Tigger-like than usual.
After an afternoon in Hyde Park for a particularly dramatic triathlon, they had just witnessed the greatest day in British Olympic athletics history. Three gold medals in a single session, won through a dominating performance by Jessica Ennis, after 25 laps of ever-increasing tension by Mo Farah, and also, somewhere over the far side of the Olympic Stadium, there had been a long jump going on, and the British bloke had won…
It was easy, three years ago, to overlook Greg Rutherford as the first British man to win Olympic long jump gold since Lynn Davies nearly half a century before.
The following morning, back at the wordface for heats of the women’s synchronised shot put or the triple jump artistic event or some such, I’d nipped down from the press seats to nab a coffee. The caffeine might help wake me up so that I could check that the previous few hours had not all been a dream.
And there he was. Hair slicked down, bright-eyed, team tracksuit on and medal hanging around his neck, and looking very lost. “Good morning, Greg,” I said, trying to sound as matter-of-fact as I could. “How are you today?”
I’d known Rutherford, in that occasional acquaintance sort of manner that we hacks sometimes have with the people we write about, since his junior days at Milton Keynes. Dutifully turning up for press conferences at which no one else feigned real interest, or trying to ask at least one question as he made his way through a mixed zone in the undercroft of one faraway stadium or another.
I’d been alerted to Rutherford by the man who had helped found an athletics club amid a town known for its concrete cows. Tom McNab gave me a nudge about this youngster who was the real thing. And McNab knows his stuff, after all: a former national coach, he had been the technical adviser to the late Colin Welland on Chariots of Fire, and while McNab didn’t quite go all the way back to Abrahams and Liddell, he’d certainly worked alongside Ron Pickering when he’d been coaching Lynn the Leap.
And here he was, Olympic champion. I handed Rutherford a press area complimentary coffee. This, I told him, was the perk of the job.
“I’m supposed to be doing a radio interview, but I don’t know where I’m supposed to go,” Rutherford said, having been summoned to attend the press seats eerie. So much for the red-carpet treatment for our Olympic heroes.
I showed him to the gangway where all the broadcasting positions could be found, and looking down, we spotted where he needed to go. Shaking his hand as he started to go to where he needed to be, I said, “Outstanding last night.”
“Yes, it was a terrific night, wasn’t it?” Rutherford replied.
“No: I meant you were outstanding last night. Well done. I’m sure it won’t be the last,” I said.
Except I wasn’t.
Maybe he had just got lucky, winning Olympic gold with the shortest winning performance since 1972… Certainly, that had been the tone of some of the coverage in print and on the airwaves since the night of nights – it was all Golden Girl this, Mo-Bot that, and then a brief sidebar on this other fella had sneaked in a third gold in the sand pit. It was all too easy to overlook Greg Rutherford.
The same thing happened in 2014 when again Rutherford emulated Lynn Davies by winning both European and Commonwealth titles in a single summer.
And then came 2015, and a world championships staged in the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, where seven years earlier, as an international novice, he had disappointed in his first Olympic final. This time, it was a glorious return.
Buoyed with the confidence of his Olympic gold medal and the 8.51m British record he’d set in 2015, Rutherford was the dominant performer in the Beijing final, winning with 8.41m and completing that rare feat of simultaneously holding world, Olympic, Commonwealth and European titles.
Greg Rutherford’s done plenty now to ensure he is never overlooked again.
- Steven Downes is the SJA Secretary and a former editor of Athletics Weekly and athletics correspondent of the Sunday Times
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