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Blackburn Harrier Alison Leonard and the Olympic Dream

Alison Leonard is a Blackburn Harrier who has reached a point in her athletic career where she is in a position to challenge for a place at the Olympics. She already has an impressive list of achievements. Alison had been working towards qualification for Rio and it didn’t work out for her, and by the slimmest of margins. You could imagine that she would be down in the dumps a little after coming so close. As she speaks to us all, her words need to resonate with every member of Blackburn Harriers and beyond. The piece she has written, expressing her feelings, dealing with the ethos of the sport, encouraging all those involved who are striving to be successful, showing how to deal with the ups and downs of life in the sport, whilst at the same time still having goals to work towards is magnificent and inspirational.

Alison in her own words……………..

“So I’m not going to the Olympics and I’ve got all the feelings 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.

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(Alison in International Competition)

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.

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(With Club mates)

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.

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(Alison supporting another young Blackburn Harrier)

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.

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(Competing for the Harriers in the Northern League 2015)

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”.