Leap of Faith

looks at Greg Rutherford’s excellent comeback after a tough season and questions the knee-jerk mentality within modern sport

Image: Phil Rogers

Image: Phil Rogers

Marginalised somewhat by a terrifically close Premier League, Watson winning his second Masters with phenomenal style, and the Chinese Grand Prix, was the spectacular achievement of a British athlete in San Diago recently: namely, Greg Rutherford soaring to 8.51 in the long jump to smash his own British record.

Following his major contribution to the elation of London 2012’s ‘Super Saturday’ – a victory snatched from a world class field with a leap of 8.31 – and contrasting the colour of his medal, things have not all been golden for the Milton Keynes athlete, who has struggled since the Olympics to both keep sponsors, and receive the recognition he deserves for his achievements.

A hamstring tear in early 2013, commentators Jonathan Edwards and Denise Lewis suggesting that his medal-winning performance was partly down to luck, and Nike offering him a contract so restrictive and financially unrewarding that he was forced to turn it down: it’s been a struggle, even for the famously cheerful and optimistic competitor.

Furthermore – in a vicious circle – he has had to take time out of training and rest days to make multiple television appearances and speaking engagements, suddenly necessary to pay his mortgage, transport, and all of the other costs involved in training as a full time athlete.

After last year’s IAAF World Championships, in which Rutherford failed to even make the final – the biggest casualty on a morning in which only three athletes made the automatic qualifying standard of 8.10 – it is astonishing that the man has gone away and put in such a hard winter’s training, introducing much more speed-work to his usual routine, and now come back to prove his doubters wrong in the best possible way: a lifetime best, British record, and world-leading jump.

To followers of athletics, none of this is news. Rutherford’s struggles have been well-documented, despite the jumper’s reluctance to blame those who have made his past 18 months such a struggle. Nike explained their reduced contract offer as the result of focusing their attention and funds more upon young, up and coming athletes, which clearly suggests a lack of faith in the future of Rutherford’s career (which has just been gloriously disproved with his recent vein of form), and that the athlete was so poorly-supported by kit suppliers that he wore his old club vest from Milton Keynes AC at the Diamond League opener in Shanghai last season is a terrible reflection upon a sporting world obsessed with instant gratification for investment. Just because he’d had an injury-blighted season that saw no major jumps or titles, our London 2012 golden boy was abandoned.

Rutherford has been dignified and optimistic about all of this, but his recent exploits suggest a need to question the sporting industry’s tendency to abandon anyone who seems to – even for an instant – not give substantial returns for any support given.

The most glaring example of this – that of the British footballing world – is epitomised in the website thesackrace.com, which documents the fates of football managers, and even offers odds on the next to fall in the cut-throat world of football. According to the site, 36 professional football managers have been sacked or replaced this season, and the propensity of top-flight clubs to change managers several times a season is infamous. Similar changes of personnel in cricket, rugby, and the directors of performance in individual sports in Britain, all show how commonplace knee-jerk firings have become at the first sign of poor performances.

Yes, some of these changes are for the good – Moyes, for instance, had to go (but that’s a whole other article) – but the impatience of today’s sporting world, driven by the ever more commercial nature of the industry, must have significant ramifications on the performances of those cast aside, some of whom don’t have the resilience of Rutherford to keep training and prove their opposition wrong.

When Roger Federer lost to Nadal in that epic 2008 Wimbledon final, people threw up their hands and declared his career to be over. He has since won four grand slams. McIlroy’s ‘Masters meltdown’ in Augusta 2011 saw people hastily denying that they had ever predicted great things for the young player, but he then used the memory of the defeat to storm to a US Open victory, and a US PGA title, too. Eric Cantona’s antics make Suarez look like a saint, and yet, after an eight-month ban, he returned to lead Manchester United to an FA Cup Victory. And now Rutherford proves all of the doubters wrong by returning to stunning form right before the Commonwealth Games.

What is concerning, therefore, is how many potential Olympians and record holders are giving up on sport as an unforgiving industry that will only support them when the personal bests, goals, and titles are coming in thick and fast. If any of the above sporting stars had walked away from their profession, the world of sport would be a much-diminished place, and who knows how many Federers, McIlroys and Cantonas we have already lost as a result.

Yes, sport is dynamic, changeable, unpredictable, and all the more amazing for it, but it is also unstable and fickle. It takes years to build a successful athlete, and title-winning teams need long term schemes and gradual development to ensure sustainable, upwards progress. Change is needed to keep approaches innovative and fresh, but – if made too often – surely they are more destabilising than they are beneficial?

Let’s see how Rutherford does this summer – I know I’ll be rooting for him – and, on a wider scale, let’s show a little more faith, and have a little more patience with our sporting stars.

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