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Retiring hero Greg Rutherford still driven to prove people wrong

The Guardian logo The Guardian 10/09/2018 Sean Ingle
Greg Rutherford competes in his last long jump competition as part of the Great City Games on the banks of the Tyne. © PA Greg Rutherford competes in his last long jump competition as part of the Great City Games on the banks of the Tyne.

You know how Greg Rutherford celebrated his first day as a retired athlete? By turning up at the Whitley Bay junior Parkrun on Sunday morning to be a tail walker, chatting to kids from four to 14, and turning what might have felt like a 2km slog into a chance to high-five an Olympic champion. But Rutherford gets it. He understands that being a role model starts – not ends – with winning medals, although he was damn good at that too.

Has any British sports star squeezed so much pith and pulp from high class – if not truly exceptional – natural talent? Or been able to so consistently rise to the big occasion, when the heart is performing a particularly discordant drum’n’bass track? Even now, his achievements do not get the credit they deserve.

Some of that surely stems from Super Saturday, those 46 minutes of glorious mayhem at London 2012, when Rutherford’s gold medal alongside Jessica Ennis-Hill and Mo Farah was branded a fluke by those with barely a passing interest in track and field, given it was the shortest winning long jump at an Olympic final since 1972. It didn’t matter that it was unseasonably chilly. Or that Rutherford had jumped further than anyone else that year. The die was cast.

Related: Greg Rutherford retires: ‘I just don’t want to be in pain every day of my life’ | Sean Ingle

When I spoke to Rutherford recently, he confessed to constantly having “this chip on my shoulder, this desire to prove people wrong”. It helped him recover from a career-threatening hamstring rupture in 2013 to take Commonwealth and European golds a year a later – along with the British record of 8.51m. World and Diamond League titles followed in 2015, making him the first British athlete to hold all the major outdoor titles at the same time. That achievement alone secures his place in the pantheon.

Rutherford had hoped for another Olympic gold in Rio two years ago, only to aggravate a groin injury in his warm-up. Yet somehow he still managed to claim bronze, which spoke volumes about his extraordinary powers of self-belief. If you needed someone to nail a 10-foot putt, most would choose a peak Tiger Woods. Ditto Rafael Nadal when it came to break-point on clay. Yet Rutherford was just as impressive during clutch moments.

He also had the unerring knack of making himself believe the impossible was possible, until he turned out to be right. For every day from the end of 2011 to the London Olympics, Rutherford would mentally rehearse winning gold – even going as far as assuming the role of stadium commentator to talk about jumps and those of his competitors when he trained or took the dogs out. Sometimes he would add a twist, like having to make a massive last-round jump to claim victory, but each visualisation would always end with him saying: “And Greg Rutherford has won the Olympic title.”

It might carry of a whiff of Alan Partridge, but it worked. Rutherford never had a sport psychologist. The only time he saw one, early on the job, they talked about sucking a lemon and rambled on, so he decided he was better off learning on the job.

Arguably what he did away from the runway was just as impressive. Anyone who has attended a major athletics meeting will have become familiar with the sight of Rutherford spending at least 30 minutes posing for selfies with spectators – aware that without the next generation of fans, athletics could die.

He was frequently prepared to stick it to the Man too, falling out with Nike in 2014 over its reluctance to offer him what he thought was a decent contract. A year later he criticised British Athletics when it replaced the Union flag on world championships kits with its logo – which resulted in him being blanked by members of the sport’s hierarchy. But these were only some of the battles he had with authority.

As he told me: “You wouldn’t believe the number of times I have seen emails pinged around that say: ‘Make sure you don’t talk about this, don’t talk about that, we don’t want to bring any negatives.’ You are often not allowed to say what you want to say, or get across what you want to get across, because so many people frown upon it.”

Yet Rutherford was always his own person: unafraid to call out Tyson Fury when he made disgusting comments about gay people, despite the subsequent abuse his family received on social media, because he knew it was the right thing to do. Perhaps understandably many athletes stayed quiet, not wanting the hassle or vitriol.

In his autobiography, Unexpected – which I played a part in helping him write – Rutherford argues “too many athletes forget the struggle” when they hang up their spikes. Yet he has already talked about helping to set up an athletes’ union; of finding a way to ensure that some of the $4bn the Olympics makes finds its way to participants who currently get nothing; of wanting to replace “dead wood” in the sport.

Rutherford also intends to go for lab testing with sports scientists at British Cycling shortly to see whether he could make it as a track cyclist. He also wants to be a serious broadcaster. He knows critics will scoff at the audacity of his ambition. Don’t be surprised if he proves them wrong again.

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