Next month, Greg Rutherford will aim to make history at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing.
He will also be out to erase the bad memories from the previous time he competed in a major championship at the Bird’s Nest: the 2008 Olympic long jump final. Stood on the runway preparing for his opening leap, Rutherford was suffering. He had felt the physical pain of ruptured ligaments and tendons before. But this time it was not his body that was in agony – it was his mind.
“I was a drained, emotional wreck,” he recalls when Sport spends a morning with him at the cottage he shares with his girlfriend, nine-month-old baby Milo and three man-sized dogs. Shortly before the Great Britain team left for Beijing in 2008, Rutherford’s grandfather – with whom he had always been tremendously close – passed away. Under the heightened stress of his first Olympic final, the then 21-year-old went to pieces. He recorded a no-jump, then a disappointing 5.20m, and finally registered a relatively average 7.84m to finish 10th. In a results-driven business, Rutherford’s performance was labelled as another disappointment for an athlete whose career seemed destined to become a story of what might have been.
Four years later, Rutherford tore up the script, winning Britain’s first Olympic long jump gold in 48 years at London 2012.
“Nobody expected me to win this,” he beamed on a surreal Saturday night in Stratford. “I think it was just me who thought I could be Olympic champion. This is just the start for me. I want to become double-Olympic champion, triple-Olympic champion, five-time world medallist. These five years, I want them to be my glory years.”
Rutherford’s high lasted just a few months before the departure of his coach Dan Pfaff (the man he credits with turning him into an Olympic champ), a ruptured hamstring and the return of his doubters threatened to derail his golden plans. But last year saw the Olympic champ get back on track. By the end of 2014, Rutherford had set a new British long jump record, in San Diego, and added two more gold medals to his tally by winning the Commonwealth and European titles. He also became a father for the first time when he and girlfriend Susie welcomed baby Milo into the world in October.
All of which means that, as Rutherford starts his build-up to the competition that could deliver him a unique full house of gold medals (Olympic, European, Commonwealth and world), he is an entirely different athlete to the one who “buggered it up entirely” in Beijing seven years ago. He remains hungry for success, however – mainly because he feels there are many who still believe his Olympic victory was a fluke.
“It’s about proving myself again,” says Rutherford, who is determined to win over the doubters. After all, he’s won almost everything else.
Ahead of Beijing, all the talk is about you potentially holding all four major titles. Is that important, or do you simply want to be world champion?
“It’s a mixture. I try not to get too hyped up about the things that come with holding all four at the same time. Ultimately, I don’t have a good reputation at the World Championships. I think fifth [in 2009] is the best I’ve ever done, and I normally get injured in qualification. So touch wood that doesn’t happen again. On one level it’s like proving myself again, because every time I win something I get called a fluke or something similar. I’m not sure what I’ve done to annoy people. But, whatever it is, it has cut them deep. I get a lot of stick.”
Do you find that stick comes from the general public, or from people within the sport?
“It’s a bit from the general public, but a lot of people within athletics as well. They always have a little dig at me. Things went so well for me in 2012; I won nearly every competition; I became world number one and won an Olympic title [above, right]. It was the best year of my career. Then, in 2013, because of circumstances I had no control over, I lost my coach, my physio, my set-up – it all disappeared. I also picked up a major injury, rupturing a hamstring. It all went wrong. I got slated beyond belief [after failing to qualify for the final at the World Championships in Moscow – not least from British rival Chris Tomlinson, who publicly declared he should have been granted the sole Team GB spot] and I thought it was incredibly unfair. It seems we are a country of building people up only to destroy them, and I’ve experienced it firsthand. It’s not nice. In the USA, if you do well, they champion you. Here it’s: ‘Yeah, you’ve done well, but keep quiet about it.’”
Do you think your achievements get overlooked because of the event you compete in?
Would it be different if you had won what you have in the 100m, for example? [Laughs] “Yeah, I’d be living in a mansion! Ultimately, long jump is never gonna be a blue-riband event like that. Obviously I think it’s great. But, when they show it on TV, the coverage is pretty awful. Nobody ever gets an idea of what’s actually going on and the battles happening out there. The 100m generally takes less than 10 seconds. We’re out there for an hour and a half and often five or six people will have been in the lead at some point, then others have to respond. But no one ever sees that. All they see is the odd athlete run down the runway and jump. The general public can’t relate to it. Everyone at school ran, but jumping is a bit of a niche thing – so we need to build it up. We need to show those head-tohead battles that are going on because I think that’s a bit more relatable to general life – rather than just showing who can jump the furthest.”
Do you think having a rival would help?
“That does help. In previous years there was me and Chris Tomlinson, and now Dan Bramble is coming through – but it’s still different. No disrespect to them, but if you’re really pushing the distances that I’ve been doing and bettering or equalling them, then it turns into a real rivalry like [Seb] Coe and [Steve] Ovett – with one person winning one week and someone else the next. That’s what you need for a real rivalry.”
This season is your first as a father. Has it had a big impact on how you train and prepare?
“Yes, from the point of view that I was so keen to have more things located closer to home. I used to travel into London and train with my group there. But on a bad day you spend three or four hours travelling and I don’t think you feel very good from that. Now I’ve got Milo, I wanted to be at home a bit more. So, naturally, you build a track and long jump pit in your garden. I started off by putting a gym in last year. It just has some weight plates, barbells and a rack, but it’s everything I need. Once the pit is finished I’ll be very self-sufficient and able to spend as much time as I can with Milo. The nice thing is that when I’m with him I’m completely switched off from the track. I think you need that.”
Will it be tough training on your own, as opposed to with a group?
“I do like having a group around me – it’s good for having a laugh and sharing the pain you sometimes go through. But I’ve been used to training on my own at different times of my career, so I’m not too worried about it. Motivation-wise, I never really struggle. And I’ll bring people in – either my coach, Jonas Dodoo [with whom Rutherford started working with at the end of 2013] or a biomechanic called Paul Brice, who’s worked with British Athletics for a long time – to keep an eye on my technical sessions. And I can always rope my dad in, too, because ultimately he’s been watching me since I was 10 years old – so he’s got a good idea of what things look like.”
You seem like an athlete who thrives on the big crowds and atmosphere of a major championship. Is that something that has developed over time?
“I actually found really quickly that I loved big stadiums and big crowds more than anything else. I’m quite good at separating myself from what’s going on. I tell myself that people aren’t really worried about me anyway. We do the long jump, there’s not many people watching, so it doesn’t matter. As a kid, I was in no way a performance type – if anything, I was usually hiding. Even now, when I have to give a speech or something, I get exceptionally nervous. But when it comes to jumping in front of a massive crowd – I think because I know it so well – I don’t get as nervous.”
Do you have to love having a crowd to do an event where the focus is only on you for a good 10 seconds at a time?
“Every time you step on the runway, it is just you. But what’s fascinating is you see other athletes who don’t enjoy it at all. They look like a rabbit in the headlights. There was an Australian called Chris Noffke who went to the 2010 Commonwealth Games. I remember being out there with him and the whole time he was really wide-eyed, saying: ‘I think I’ve forgotten how to jump.’ I could see the moment really getting to him. He was an incredible junior, but when it came to big crowds he didn’t respond well at all.”
You had junior success too, winning the European title and setting a British junior record [8.14m] in 2005. But after that you began to pick up injuries. How frustrating was that?
“It was incredibly tough. After 2005 went so well for me and, though 2006 started terribly [Rutherford tore his hamstring in the second round of the Commonwealth Games final in Melbourne], I went on to win a European silver medal and was still 19. I thought: ‘Brilliant, I’ve won my first senior medal and I’m still super young.’ I went on to say stupid things like: ‘I reckon I could probably jump nine metres.’ Then 2007 came about, and that was by far the worst year of my career. I ruptured an ankle ligament, which put me out for a long time. Then I came back and tore my hamstring a month before the World Championships in Osaka.”
But you were still selected for the GB squad...
“Yes, and because I was a bit young and naive I thought: ‘I’ll go anyway, I’ll be fine.’ But I got knocked out in qualifications, and finished 21st. That was a hard one to take. It just felt like a waste of my time. I’d spent a month away from home to crash out after three rounds and be an absolute joke, really. All because the injury had meant I’d hardly trained.”
When you suffer repeatedly from injuries like that, how hard is it to stay motivated?
Did you consider leaving the sport? “Completely. In early 2008, I was considering looking for a job in marketing or sales and started searching online a bit. I wasn’t happy at that point, and I wasn’t enjoying the sport at all. The scenario I was in at that time – coaching and where I was living – it didn’t work for me. I was training at Brunel and living in Uxbridge, where I didn’t know anyone. So I was just this incredibly sad young man, sitting in a flat, knowing nobody, doing nothing and constantly injured. It was because my grandad got seriously ill that things changed, because I moved back home so that I could visit him every day in hospital. It was a really tough time. I’d still train when I could, but to me it wasn’t important at that time.”
How did you turn things around?
“At the end of 2009, my racing agent took me to meet [American athletics coach] Dan Pfaff at this grimy Harvester restaurant near Lee Valley. I knew who Dan was and had read lots about him, but I was sitting there thinking that he’s come from California to this horrible restaurant in the middle of Picketts Lock with this kid going: ‘Can I please join you?’ He must be wondering: ‘What on earth am I doing?’ Fortunately, he said yes. It’s no lie to say that if Dan hadn’t come to the UK, there’s no chance in hell I’d have been the Olympic champion. He changed everything for me – my running mechanics and how I jump. I fell in love with the sport properly again after joining him, and that has followed through to today.”