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Rio 2016: Bath Bullet Jason Gardener predicts Olympic success for Team GB athletes

Create: 08/13/2016 - 14:49

What does winning an Olympic gold medal actually feel like? Someone who knows the answer is Athens 2004 relay champion Jason Gardener (above, left), who was the lead-off man for Team GB as they upset all the odds to topple a mighty American line-up in the 4x100m final. Now president of UK Athletics, the man known as the Bath Bullet shares his views on Britain’s current track and field stars, doping and Rio 2016

 
The gold medal you won as part of the 4x100m relay team at the Athens 2004 Games earned you a place in a very exclusive club. Are you able to put it into words what having the title 'Olympic champion' means to an athlete?
It was a childhood dream accomplished. It was 20 years in the making, those things aren't easy to get your hands on and it was just phenomenal. Athens was a second chance for us because we thought we might get on the rostrum in Sydney four years earlier. It is the pinnacle. I would trade all of my other medals from championships for that Olympic gold. That is where your career is judged, really.
It's often said that an Olympic medal opens doors that were firmly shut beforehand. Was that the case for you?
My career was recognised and I was given the freedom of the city of Bath, which is a huge mark of respect for me and my family. I'm a Bathonian, born and raised, and still live there. Things like going to Buckingham Palace to collect my MBE are things that you never really dream of. My job was to become an Olympic champion but those are some of the trappings when it comes to the recognition of that success.
 
And, of course, you were also elected to serve UK Athletics as president last year.
To be chosen by the sport to succeed Lynn Davies, the Olympic long jump legend from Tokyo 1964, is a huge honour. It's very satisfying to think that by doing the best you can on and off the track, handling yourself with a bit of dignity and pride and showing respect to your fellow competitors and the people who have helped you in your career, that you can be be repaid in this way. It's satisfying not just for myself but everybody who had worked with me – my parents, schoolteachers, friends, training partners and coaches – because everybody had played a part in enabling me to go on that journey and achieve those momentous, big wins on the big stage.
 
Aside from your presidential role, how else do you stay involved in sport these days?
Darren Campbell and myself own a business called Team Superschools, inspiring the next generation. We and ambassadors such as Amy Williams and Heather Fell are all byproducts of school sport and that's where the opportunity to find a talent and for that talent to be encouraged comes along. It isn't rocket science but it is amazing when young people or adults are given the opportunity to find out about something they really enjoy doing. They all understand the Olympics and seeing that somebody who has achieved a great performance on a world stage is human and to hear about their challenges along the way is a powerful thing. We engage a lot of Olympic and Paralympic athletes to help inspire youngsters and in eight years we have helped schools raise £700,000. I also have other, consultancy roles which keeps my day-to-day life interesting.
 
After Great Britain's impressive performance at last year's World Championships, can track and field athletes improve on their medal tally of four golds, a silver and a bronze from London 2012 in Rio this summer?
Yes, I think they can do that, particularly after seeing the magnificent three of Jessica Ennis-Hill, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford show their dominance on the world stage last year. Jess coming back from having a child to do win gold, in particular, was incredible. We are in a very good place. We have a very good performance programme and we have those three athletes who are delivering time and time again, which is probably the hardest thing to do. It's one thing getting to the top, staying there is a different ball game. We have some exciting talent coming through. If Katarina Johnson-Thompson  beat Jess in the heptathlon, it wouldn't be a surprise, but then it wouldn't be a surprise to see Jess come back and defend her title. Adam Gemili is also an exciting prospect and has overcome damage to his hamstrings. I think he's the only Briton to have broken the 10sec barrier for the 100m and the 20sec barrier for the 200m. It's not going to be easy for him though. On the world stage the 100m is a really competitive event and he needs to go a through more gears to be on the same level as Usain Bolt. We have some throwers coming through as well, which is exciting.
 
Speaking of Bolt, how pleasing was it for you to see him defeat convicted drugs cheat Justin Gatlin in the World Championship 100m and 200m last summer?
It wasn't a good spectacle to watch and the sport shouldn't be reliant upon one person. The only way to save the credibility of the sport is for the sport to have strong rules and regulations for the athletes to follow. If you breach those then you should face serious consequences. 
 
How do you think such offenders should be dealt with?
I appreciate a life ban is very difficult to enforce because we do live in a tolerant society but I do believe that the current bans are not adequate enough by any means and are not protecting the clean athletes. There should be a much, much longer ban. You shouldn't be able to be banned and come back out on top and a two-year ban isn't long enough by any means. If you're on a steroid programme then there is a strong scientific link and perception that you are still benefiting from those programmes when you return.The sport has to address these issues. The new leader, [IAAF president] Lord Coe, has come under a lot of pressure and all eyes are on him to lead by example and to really get to grips with this so that the spectators can believe what they are seeing is absolutely true and for the clean athletes out there to know they are competing on a level playing field.
 
And what are UK Athletics doing to stamp out the issue that threatens the sport?
We at UK Athletics have strong anti-doping programmes and messages, we don't invite offenders to our televised meetings and we come under huge amounts of pressure from other countries about the Diamond League at times. We have been strong and the public support is starting to show we are taking the right approach.
 
Do you feel that level of excitement about the Olympics in Great Britain has been higher than it ever has been before in the light of what happened in London four years ago?
It showed Britain in a different way, the nation came together with a sense of unity and pride and our athletes performed as well. Our athletes have been fortunate that the government have seen elite sport as a key strategy for investment for the nation. They remain absolutely well funded and we are one of the only Olympic and Paralympic nations who are supported to the kind of level they were before a previous Games on home soil. I think that gives us a really great opportunity to go our there and continue to dominate in many of those events we enjoyed success in in 2012. 
 

Your former coach Malcolm Arnold has a couple of hurdling hopefuls. Can any of those emulate your achievement and bring an Olympic gold medal back to Bath?

I'm looking forward to watching Andy Pozzi, who has had a really tough time. He's an amazing talent who has had some really horrible injuries and I would love to see him get the opportunity to go out there and fulfill his potential in the 110m hurdles. Malcolm has always said that he is absolutely special, even more so than Colin Jackson, and Malcolm isn't somebody who messes around with words. Eilidh Doyle posted the world's fastest time of the year in the 400m hurdles and to think what she has achieved since coming to Bath is amazing. Would it surprise me if Eilidh finished on an Olympic rostrum? Absolutely not. Words are cheap, however, and it would be hugely disrespectful not to recognise that the Olympics is the pinnacle. It is so competitive and it is far easier for me to put a medal around somebody's neck. They have got to go out there and fight tooth and nail for it.

About Author

Neil Beck
Neil edited XtraTime magazine across all 11 issues from September 2015 to the spring of 2017. He is a vastly-experienced West Country sports journalist who cut his teeth at the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald before moving on to become head of sport at Bath News & Media.