13 Jul Alison Leonard: So I’m not going to the Olympics

So I’m not going to the Olympics and I’ve got all the feels about it, so I’m sharing them with you to get them out of my system, so I can get back to worrying about the really important things in life, like Brexit, and climate change, and my long suffering friends and family. Forgive me being a drama llama – it’s just that I really, really did want to go to Rio….

It’s the hope that gets you. Whether it’s my personality or just an innate human trait, I will hope and hope until the very end. Against my own will, against logic and good judgement, my heart will keep a flame of optimism burning until the last minute.

I did it last year. I waited 24 hours for my phone to ring, not able to steel myself for the inevitable blow; no world champs for me. This year after finishing outside the top two at the Olympic Trials, I knew my chances of getting on the plane were slim, but there was always that third slot… After missing out on a place in the European 800m final by 0.1 seconds last Thursday, I asked UKA to give it to me straight; I didn’t want to hope anymore.

The answer was a kind but firm “not a snowball’s chance in hell” (my words). We talked through the selection criteria, and the reasons below were explained to me to show why I wouldn’t be selected.

  1. I hadn’t come in the top two at the trials – I was third, 0.3 seconds behind 2nd. The women who were 1st and 2nd are truly exceptional athletes, ranked 9th and 3rd on the British all time list and likely finalists in Rio, and I was pleased to run them so close, if disappointed not be beat at least one of them.
  2. I wasn’t ranked in the top 50% of the IAAF invite list, which is made up of the top 45 eligible athletes in the qualifying period, May 2015-July 2016 – to make the cut I would have to have run sub-1:59:1, which only 12 British women have done – ever.
  3. I wasn’t a medal contender in Rio.


Those are the facts, explained to me politely and courteously. I don’t in any way dispute that guidelines are being followed quite correctly. I just think the framework and the ethos behind it is wrong; GB should be filling all available spots. I accept I will never win an Olympic medal. I just don’t think that a global medal is the only goal worth pursuing. Since when has being an Olympian not been an inspiring and lofty enough ambition? The ‘culture of success’ which I believe UKA are building their policies on is valid in many way but it discourages taking large teams; management don’t want to be responsible for athletes ‘failing’ and exiting the competition in the qualifying rounds.

Read that sentence again. Making the start line in the most prestigious elite sporting competition in the world can still be considered a failure in this philosophy – such a failure it’s not going to be allowed if there’s a chance you won’t get through the heat. Ask most people, athlete or not, and I don’t think they’d agree.

To leave a space empty on an Olympic team when several athletes have the qualifying standard (the standard set by IAAF and UKA) is an insult to the effort that athletes put in to the sport. It tells us that the early mornings, icy runs, hill reps, missed parties and every other damn thing we do, are not worth anything if you’re not going to make the Olympic final. For me to be told that the space will be left empty despite being 3rd in the trial – well clear of 4th place, despite have 6 QTs in the qualifying period, despite having made significant steps forward in sports psych in the past two years, makes me feel I am mediocre. I am an also-ran. I am an extra on the stage of athletics and no one cares that I practised my lines over and over – I am not needed and my part has been cut.

This is tremendously discouraging, not just to myself but to my fellow British athletes, and aspiring youngsters. Simple arithmetic tells us that to be an Olympic medallist in any single event, you have to be one of three in 3.5 billion women on this planet. Let’s call it 1 billion women of the right sort of age. Chances are its not going to be you. If you can show talent and commitment to be a junior GB international you are still more likely to get injured and have to leave the sport than you are to get a senior vest. Your chances of making a living from your sport are extremely low (and let’s face it if you’re not a full time athlete you’re almost certainly not getting one of those GB places) so you had better have outside support unless you are in the handful of superstars. So if you somehow manage to fund your daily life and training for years, keep healthy, push your body to its limits, get the Olympic qualifying time (repeatedly) and show yourself the third best in your event two year running you need to acknowledge to yourself that unless GB athletics thinks it can get three people in to the Olympic final in your event you are going to be left at home.

I appealed the decision not to select me for the World Championships last year and got to read the notes from the selection meeting. At least one selector had decided I would never succeed at top international level. I was upset, and angry, but I took a break, got back up and tried again. I’m not sure I can do that again. There are still things I want to achieve, and still so many things I love about athletics that will keep me racing this summer, and training over the winter, but I’m struggling to look at London 2017 as a realistic goal when it’s been made clear to me that giving me opportunities to achieve more is of no interest to the people who make decisions in athletics. The team for the Commonwealths at the Gold Coast will be selected on performances in 2017, which is a goal I can get on board with.

I wanted to be an Olympian. I wanted to represent my country (not British Athletics, no matter what is printed on the GB kit), at the best sporting event in the world. I wanted to stand on the line in that stadium, full of nerves, but elated by the atmosphere, knowing that this was it, this was the pinnacle of my sport. I wanted to try and run the race of my life and get through to the next round, I wanted my parents and boyfriend to be in the crowd, and that to be some repayment for all the money, all the time and all the love they have put in. I wanted them to be proud of me.

I wanted all of that, but I also wanted to matter. I wanted all of my work, and all the work of my coach and everyone who has supported me, to matter. I wanted it for me, but also to inspire others to take up and keep going in athletics. As an athlete not only are your odds of becoming an Olympian low, our governing body has policies to deliberately make them lower.

I don’t matter by this measure, and the efforts of my supporters go unrewarded too. That’s a bitter pill to swallow.

So that’s my moaning done. The more time passes, the easier it gets, as is usually the way with these things. There’s still more training and races this season, there’s still real life to contend with, there are good times to come and bumps to deal with on the way, and one day all this will seem insignificant. I’m hoping I’m still going to enjoy watching Rio, because the Olympics are one of my favourite things, and it seems stupid to not enjoy them. I hope everyone who has been selected has a fantastic time and achieves their goals. Every one of you deserves your place; you’re all heroes to me.

  • Devon

    This made me cry! Those on the Olympic team may be your heroes Alison but YOU are certainly mine. Especially after your persistent class and integrity when being wronged by selectors again and again. The spirit of the olympics seemed to have been forgotten by those who run the sport in our country but as long as it’s kept alive by inspirational athletes like you then we still have some hope xx

  • http://www.thepowerof10.info/athletes/profile.aspx?athleteid=602465 Steve O’Brien

    Appeal again and join our training group. We’ll get you down to 1.58 in time for the World Champs next year.

  • Jo Barker

    How utterly disappointing…..they obviously need guidelines and criteria to follow but how many races/heats/finals have we witnessed where things don’t go to plan and where athletes have won medals they weren’t predicted to win? What’s wrong with going and trying your very best.
    Shame the same theory isn’t applied in football where our players are overpaid and each time they play don’t meet the standards they should….perhaps we should apply the same rules for all sports and not enter a team!

  • Patrick Cain

    Reminds me of Eddie the Eagle the establishment tried to stop his dreams of being in the Olympics, he made the Olympics memorable that year, the winner fades into history but everyone remembers Eddie; best of luck in the future never give up on your dreams Your family and freinds ARE proud of you!!

  • Ben PF

    Finally a UK athlete with the guts to say it how it is. I’m an American surrounded by top British athletes that are treated the very same way. I find it incredibly ironic that one of the most democratic countries in the world can have such an absurd and irrational selection policy. USATF is by no means perfect, far from it, but our selection of top three is as fair as it possibly gets. If you have the time and finish top three you go, simple as that. UK’s top two plus a possible at large is hypocritical. One of my friends, a top middle distance runner, is currently ranked number two in the UK in his event, but finished outside the top two at the British Champs and is not going to Rio. He is also a European medalist and a world championship finalist. I wonder how much UKA spends on its officials that it sends to these events or on its past champions or on Mo’s handlers for his altitude training stints. The era of Coe and Ovett is over, the UK will never dominate the middle distances that way again, but that should not matter. Wasn’t London 2012 about inspiring a generation? If I were an up and coming athlete, inspiration would be the last thing I would feel. If athletes have the qualifying times for major championships they should be allowed to go. How else will they gain experience? Brits are known for being very pragmatic people, but the actions of UKA are absolutely maddening. I wish more of your athletes would stand up to this publicly funded entity and demand more of what is yours.

  • Chris

    You are SO RIGHT! It’s the same in Australia, too. The athlete has to get the qualifying time, no matter if you’re best in the country. If no-one gets the qualifying time, no-one is sent. We have that with the relay team this year as well as others. Athletes want the honour of representing their country and going to the Olympics for the experience, not just to get a medal! Well done for speaking out!

  • eric cullen

    Keep the faith! Prove them wrong and aim for World Champs in London next year! A disgrace to leave a place empty, use that stupid decision to spur you on and keep you motivated , to get you through the early starts, hard training sessions and sacrifices. Never lose your passion, push on !

  • Kriss Akabusi

    Brilliant Piece Alison thank you for your insights. I do think British Athletics has got this wrong & I don’t know when the ethos changed. In my day the criteria was first two past the post at the trails and one other on merit. It had nothing to do with making finals as they also looked at potential, potential growth and development. I was third in 1984 at the Olympic trails in the 400m but ended up the quickest and only British quarter miler to make the semifinal stage of the games. I came away from LA with a silver medal in the relay and a taste for the big time, I think my history afterwards justified that selection policy as I went on to win relay and individual medals all major champs there after. Alison, don’t give up on your dream, some times it is good to have enemies, people who don’t believe in you as long as you cleave to those who do, keep you head down, work on your strengths you will be surprised by joy in the not too distant future. #selah

    • Allan Wort

      ” I don’t know when the ethos changed”
      That’s easy to pinpoint; when control of the sport was given to mostly quangocrats and political appointees rather than people with the ethos of sport as their primary focus. In other words, when UKS was created as the politically-acceptable route for public money to be trickled-down.

      • http://www.thepowerof10.info/athletes/profile.aspx?athleteid=602465 Steve O’Brien

        Or when the money stopped trickling down to those who benefit from it for development and paid six figure salaries to those administer the sport . . .

        • https://twitter.com/coachanthony79 coachanthony

          Man, I thought USATF was a mess and that British Athletics was so much better at promoting and enhancing Track & Field. Looks like politics and bureaucracy and graft and corruption run deep in many organizations :/

    • Ian Deeth

      Alison – I certainly feel for you and agree that UKA have completely got their philosophy wrong but Mr Akabusi is spot on – don’t ever give up on your dreams and accept you ‘will never win an Olympic medal’ – I really hope you channel your frustrations into proving the doubters wrong! I was at the US trials this year and love the fact that if you are top three and you have the qualifying, you go. Simple. Sometimes harsh. But clearcut. (Maybe another discussion altogether). Best wishes for the rest of this season and beyond!

  • robin dewar-smith

    I struggle to break 3:00 for 800m, so 2:00 for 800m sounds Olympian to me! As has just been mentioned below, it seems plain obstinate not to fill an available 3rd place (is it all about league tables and % medal predictions – just like some of our schools that prevent people taking exams if they believe it will harm the look of their league table position – not conducive to helping people achieve their best potential, nor building self-confidence is it?! Some seem to think that presenting the best-possible league table position means they’re doing everything right – but it doesn’t, does it?!). I’m a (very) amateur distance runner but one who’s seen enough to know something of the huge commitment, and consistency of hard efforts required to get good enough to run for your country – and you clearly are, Alison. As said below, there seems to be something of the ‘stuffiness of the board’ (ala E Eagle) and an unwillingness to see Olympics as an opportunity for athletes, rather than just a means to get UK as far up the medal table with as few athletes as possible. Enough said – just stay cool and be encouraged by your Uncle Akabusi (!) and the others who have posted comments here for you.

  • Philip Thomas

    Alison is not the only one who has been disappointed by this and other decisions. Frankly British Athletics is unfit to govern the sport as its focus appears to be spending money on bureaucratic structures rather than on athletes.
    In addition, it seems in some cases, it’s not what you do but who you know that matters. Having said that I would endorse what Kriss wrote. Don’t give up on your dream. Make yourself number one so they cannot leave you out of the team in future.

  • Kriss Akabusi

    Ok Allan & Steve, I don’t know if you are speaking out of knowledge of conjecture but you make good points too. Its not a good message to be sending to young adults and I don’t see how it inspires any generation to say that all that matters in sport is winning. Of course it is the main thing but is certainly not the only thing

  • Dave F

    I’m sorry that UKA doesn’t see the merit of running 6 QTs and finishing within a hair’s breadth of getting second. I don’t understand when teams don’t take the max number of people who have run qualifying times. The US trials always take 3, sometimes not even the top 3 finishers but the top 3 with a QT. Don’t give up your dream. Just keep going and doing the best you can.

  • paul

    As I calculate risk, her not going is bigger than the risks to me of climate change. Sorry but a serious nation, as the UK was 30 years ago, would send her to Rio. We are in a death spiral where all surplus resources are used to fund dysfunction.

  • Philip Thomas

    Alison it was a pleasure to meet you at Stretford the other day and note how you were still strong in your commitment to the sport. Given the inadequate performance of our 10000m athletes today (highest position fifteenth) it makes the decision not to take you to Rio not simply bad but wrong. I shall be calling for the selectors’ resignation. You deserve better.