Exclusive: The former Olympic long jump champion will retire after the summer due to ongoing injury and has his sights on cycling by Sean Ingle
“At times I am in so much pain I can’t even sit on the floor and play with my two kids,” says Greg Rutherford as he revs himself up for his greatest leap into the unknown. “I still feel I am fast. I still feel as if I am super strong. But whenever I try to sprint or jump I have to take three days off because I am limping so much. In the end it wears you down.”
Suddenly it all comes rushing out: how the long jumper has been wrestling with retirement for three months because of an injury to his left ankle; how he has gone through the five stages of grief – from denial, anger, bargaining and depression to, finally, acceptance; and then, for the first time, how he will definitely end his career this summer.
“I keep asking myself, what’s more important to me – trying to be a mediocre athlete holding on to past glories or moving on?” he says with unflinching honesty. “I’ll be 32 later this year. I don’t want to be the old man on the team who is making up the numbers. I want people to remember me for the good times.”
There have certainly been plenty of those along the way – including, of course, that London 2012 gold medal, sandwiched neatly between those of Jessica Ennis-Hill and Mo Farah, during 46 minutes of cacophony and wild delirium at London’s Olympic Stadium.
The internet snarks and fly-by-night fans dismissed his performance on an instantly anointed Super Saturday as a fluke. Rutherford’s response? To recover from a career-threatening hamstring rupture to win Commonwealth and European gold and set the British record of 8.51m in 2014 – and then, for good measure, to claim the world and Diamond League titles a year later. It made him the first British athlete to hold all the major outdoor titles at the same time. He was not finished there either, winning European gold and Olympic bronze in 2016, to confirm his status in the pantheon as one of Britain’s greatest track and field stars.
Along the way, however, his body has broken down more times than he can remember. And even totting up all his operations takes some calculating. “I have had four surgeries on my right ankle and one on my left,” he says, sipping a large coffee. “Then there was the groin reconstruction, which is as painful as it sounds, as well as having my stomach wall knitted back together. I’ve had my foot opened up, too. And earlier in my career I had all sorts of hamstring problems as well.”
They have not promoted the other kids coming through enough. Unfortunately we have a professional sport run by amateurs.
He had hoped that the surgeon’s knife would work its magic on his left ankle last autumn but a pernicious problem with the cartilage refuses to budge.
“As an athlete you often have pain, whether it’s training niggles or serious injuries, but with my ankle it is like having a dull toothache all the time,” he says. “I just don’t want to be in pain every single day of my life, which is how things currently are.”
In the past Rutherford would sprint in training three or four times a week as well as jumping once or twice. His injuries, however, mean that he trains mostly on an exercise bike and has to restrict his jumping into a sandpit to competition this summer. No wonder, then, that his best leap in 2018 is only 7.89m. Yet while the prognosis is gloomy, he still hopes for a final shot at glory at this year’s European championships in Berlin.
“I would love the opportunity to become the first man to win three successive European long jump titles,” he says. “And if I think I can win, I will go. But I am also going to be realistic. If my form isn’t there, I won’t stand in any British athlete’s way.”
Rutherford will, however, definitely compete at the Anniversary Games in London next month and the Birmingham Diamond League in August. “Making this decision now gives me enough time to compete around the country and say thank you to everyone who has supported me throughout my career,” he explains.
Yet Rutherford is worried about the state of the sport he is about to leave behind. “It’s probably a sign of the times that more people want to talk to me about Strictly Come Dancing than athletics,” he says. “Can you imagine that happening in the era of Seb Coe and Steve Ovett, or even Sally Gunnell and Linford Christie? Back then the sport was always on the BBC and on the back pages. Now nobody cares about athletics.
“At the weekend a 19-year-old Cuban, Juan Miguel Echevarria, jumped 8.83m in Stockholm – the longest since 1995 – and yet no one knows about it. The guy almost went out of the pit and could easily become the first athlete to jump nine metres. Everyone should be raving about him.”
When asked if British Athletics has squandered the legacy of London 2012, he nods. “To a certain degree, yes,” he continues. “There was a period of time where they were relying on Jess, Mo and myself to carry on winning medals – and we did – but they have not promoted the other kids coming through enough. Unfortunately we have a professional sport run by amateurs.”
Rutherford points to the likes of Dina Asher-Smith, who broke her British record last week, Zharnel Hughes, who ran 9.91sec at the weekend, and Sophie Hitchon, who won an Olympic hammer bronze in Rio, as athletes who should be better known. “But if you asked people in this coffee shop who they were, I’m not sure they would know.”
Some of the blame, he believes, lies with athletes for not speaking out more. “Many of them seem to have almost a fear of revealing their personalities,” he said. “I can be chatting away to them, yet I see them five minutes later when the camera is on them they have nothing to say. It drives me crazy.
“They can’t figure out that by being outspoken, and having things to say, it will promote the sport. I tell young athletes that without them there is no track and field, so they should be more forthright in evoking change. Because if you don’t, you are just going to be happy living your 10 years as a British athlete, retiring and having to get a normal job, which is what so many do.”
Rutherford, however, has never been one to follow the herd. He has several retirement plans lined up – including TV and training work. But he has not completely given up on remaining in elite sport and has even talked to British Cycling about travelling to Manchester for testing later this year.
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“I used to do a lot of BMX as a kid and I’ve been a mountain biker all my life, so the idea of seeing what I can do on a track bike really appeals,” he says. “Of course I am realistic but, given I can produce a very large amount of power on a Watt bike, I want to see what I can do.
“I know some people will dismiss the idea but I can’t understand the negativity,” he adds. “After all, other athletes have switched sports. Look at Marquise Goodwin, who was a London 2012 finalist in the long jump and is now an NFL wide receiver. I do a lot of bike workouts at the moment and it doesn’t hurt my body. So why not give it a go? The people I’ve spoken to at British Cycling have not said, ‘no chance’. They’ve said ‘try’. So I am going to do some lab testing.”
Rutherford made his decision to retire only this week and, when asked what his legacy will be, he exhales loudly. “Oof! I hope people will see me as somebody who was always able to produce his best when it mattered most – an athlete who had a dogged determination to win, no matter who I was up against.”
For someone who was frequently dismissed as a fluke, he sure got lucky a lot of times. He laughs. “What was it that Gary Player said? ‘The more I train, the luckier I get.’”
His voice suddenly goes quiet. “I have always had the tendency to put my career down, probably because I had this desire to always prove people wrong,” he admits. “But if you had told me 10 years ago I would be a five-time major winner, I would have bitten your hand off. I am very content with everything I have achieved. It’s the right time to move on.”