Jamie Baulch, Dwain Chambers, Jason Gardener are all names etched into athletics history, yet Bristol's Allyn Condon, despite being a Summer and Winter Olympian often seems to have been forgotten.
Perhaps coming from the wrong side of the tracks in down at heel Runcorn, or the constant battles with the athletics establishment, or perhaps simply being seen as just a relay specialst means Condon's place in that history feels to have been largely overlooked.
From club to country
“I was probably about ten when I started to go to a running club,” recalls Condon, now aged 42 and working as a gym manager in Bristol. “I had watched the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics and the whole razzmatazz caught my imagination. I didn’t do athletics at school and schools at that time didn’t really take much notice of it. For example, when I was 15 my dad went to a parents evening and the teacher said: ‘I think Allyn’s a bit lazy when it comes to sport’. My dad replied: ‘do you realise he’s ranked number one in the country for his age over 400 metres?’. Everything at school was focused on football but I didn’t mind because it stopped anybody being better than me.
“I remember trying to enter the county schools' athletics tournament. When I asked a teacher whether they could register me, he said ‘no’. So I entered myself without telling the school. I won the Cheshire Schools' and then English Schools' and they didn’t know what I had done. I think they had an idea that I just ‘did athletics’ but no more than that.
“My turning point came at age 15 when I won the English Schools Championships. I then moved from my local club in Runcorn to Sale Harriers, where I joined some of the best lads in the country. “I worked hard with my dad [Morris] as my coach,” he added. “I was very competitive and would run to come first even when I was told I wasn’t supposed to be trying. Interestingly, my dad didn’t push me so much but he had a plan for what I should do. “Since then he has coached three or four other athletes to the Olympics.”
Juniors to adults
“I won the European Junior Championships 400m at 15 and then over the next three years the Europeans again and the Junior World Championships. I was racing with Darren Campbell and Jamie Baulch, a really strong group of runners. Finally, at 18 I was called up to the senior relay team in Cuba and won a bronze medal in the World Cup. But the step up from juniors to adults is hard. You go from being a big fish in a small pond to lining up alongside people like Linford Christie, so for a time I struggled. When I got to 24 I knew I either had to knuckle down and train hard throughout the winter or give up.”
Going for gold
Condon chose to knuckle down and it was an effort that really paid off. The following season, he won the 200m bronze medal at the 1998 European Indoor Championships, followed by gold medals in the 4x100m relay team at the 1998 European Cup, the IAAF World Cup and the European Championships. The highlight of his season should have been the Commonwealth Games in Malaysia, where, despite being the in-form athlete, he was not selected by England for the relay. His country won but, angry at not being selected to run, Condon threw his team gold medal away. Notwithstanding his spat with the selectors, success continued with a bronze medal the following year at the World Indoor Championships and then silver in the 1999 World Championships in Seville. After such performances, it was little surprise that he achieved selection for the 4x100m relay team at the Sydney Olympics.
Injury and rebellion
An injury before the Olympics meant a poor season which then culminated in the British team, also featuring Bath Bullet Jason Gardner, Marlon Devonish and Dwain Chambers, being disqualified in the heats. Then in August 2001, after competing in Manchester, Condon collapsed and was rushed into hospital with renal failure and endocarditis (an infection of the lining of the heart). After spending seven weeks in hospital, doctors told him that he would never run again. Despite that warning and a car crash that followed in January 2001, Condon ignored medical advice and in August came back to win gold in the 4x100m relay in his ‘home’ city of Manchester at the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
However, by Condon’s own admission his relationship with the sport’s national governing body was often far from smooth. He said: “The set-up in UK Athletics was changing and I was not renowned for having great relationships with the Federation.”
Following his illness, he lost his National Lottery funding and then, at the European Championships, was not selected for the relay team. He flew home the day before the race was to take place and, as a consequence, was informed he would never compete for Britain again. Despite that threat, the following year he won the indoor 200m trials and consequently UK Athletics had no choice but to allow him to run in the World Championships in Birmingham. Two disputed false starts saw Condon disqualified there but he refused to accept the decision and leave the track, despite the fact his blocks had been taken away. Live on television, the argument continued for a considerable time until eventually the officials relented and he was allowed to race under protest.
“In the end I came in fifth, was disqualified and lost my prize money,” he said. “I don’t know what made me do it but after that I think my love of athletics drained away. I carried on racing but my heart was not in it and in 2005 I called it a day. At that point athletics had been my life and when I gave up everything just fell apart.”
Bob, bob, bobbing along
Yet it was not the end of Condon’s sporting career, one that was to include a second Olympic Games appearance. “I had fancied the idea of doing bobsleigh for some time,” he said. “I phoned up the guy running the team and before I knew it I was in the British squad. I was too light for the two- man bob but became either number three or four in the four-man team. The first time I went down a proper slope was in Italy. I got in okay but didn’t quite know where to put my hands and feet; the seat just felt too big. I wasn’t that comfortable but when it picked up speed after bend three I thought I had better get my head down. Somebody had said to me: ‘take the worst fairground ride you have ever been on, multiply it by 1,000 and you still won’t get close'. By now I’m wobbling around in the sled, my head is between my legs and the pressure is building up. Then it gets worse. You hit the crizel, which is a big loop, and if there wasn’t a floor on the sled your head would be on the ice.
“I stumbled out at the bottom of the track and Lee Johnston, who was in the team at that time, said to me: ‘what did you think of that’. ‘It’s the last ****ing time I do that,’ I replied ‘I’m never going down again’. I went back and watched the other lads but despite my initial reluctance the sport grew on me very quickly.
“The track at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics was really fast, where you are travelling at about 90mph. The pressure for a short time is about the same as a fighter pilot at about 6G. Somebody [Georgian luge slider Nodar Kumaritashvili] had died the week before and some of the bobsleigh teams pulled out. We crashed but it was still a great event and I wished I had taken up bobsleigh before I did.”
Rebel with a cause
Condon's love for athletics, however, has not been rekindled post-retirement. “Overall, I loved athletics as a kid, watching it as well as doing it,” he said. “But it has changed now and become much more elitist. They justify it by saying: ‘if we have won medals at the Olympics we have done well’, but I don’t believe that we have. We don’t support the grassroots any more and they always try and control the coaching.
“As for me, some people just get on with it and accept a lot of things, whereas I’m somebody who would stand up and say my piece if it needed to be said,” he added. “I remember years ago picking up four athletes for a meeting. When I put my expenses in, which included collecting the others, one of the administrators at the time came to me and said ‘whose expenses are these? I will pay you from your home to the meeting but not for getting the others’. I protested, saying ‘look, I picked up all these people and it cost me in petrol’. He replied ‘when you are Linford Christie you can demand what you like from me’. Quick as a flash I came back saying ‘when I am Linford Christie I won’t need you’. I was 17 at the time.”