When chasing gold is no longer the goal

Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, our most successful paralympian, breezes into Essex soon. She tells Steven Russell about the drugs-in-athletics furore and why she's glad she won't be competing in BeijingIT appears all hell is breaking loose.

Steven Russell

Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, our most successful paralympian, breezes into Essex soon. She tells Steven Russell about the drugs-in-athletics furore and why she's glad she won't be competing in Beijing

IT appears all hell is breaking loose.

Sirens are sounding at the chemical plant that's a festering sore on the edge of Redcar, adopted hometown of Tanni Grey-Thompson. “It usually means something's leaked that shouldn't have. What you're meant to do is go inside and shut the windows. Everyone usually ignores it . . .” she explains with the cheerful assurance of someone who has won 11 Paralympic gold medals and the London Marathon six times.

She knows what she's talking about, too: husband Ian, an industrial chemist, works at the sprawling Wilton complex. “Sometimes it's just because they're testing the alarms. If it was something really dodgy we'd have seen the flames by now!”

It would be hard to shut the windows, seeing as she's outdoors and braving the near-gales to put athlete Brian Alldis (from Suffolk, incidentally, and one of the nation's top up-and-coming paralympians) through his paces.

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While Brian whizzes up and down in this Godforsaken landscape, Tanni's happy to chat on regardless - breaking off to shout the odd instruction at her young charge: “Three on, two off, but the 'two off' really steady. OK?”

She might have retired last summer, but the pace is still frenetic. She was giving a motivational talk at a women's prison in Lincolnshire yesterday, today it's coaching in windswept Cleveland, and tomorrow she's off to Budapest.

A few weeks ago she was in Beijing with the BBC's Inside Sport team, to see if attitudes to disabled people had changed since she was in China just over two years ago. The trip had its lighter moments - like sampling unusual delicacies.

“Scorpions were like crackling. I only tried the baby ones. I could have tried a big black one that was six inches long, but I completely wimped out.”

Wimping out hasn't really ever been part of the Grey-Thompson make-up. Born with spina bifida, she could walk until the age of about five or six, when her legs could no longer support her bodyweight and she slowly became paralysed. She wrote last year in her book Aim High: “For me, becoming a wheelchair user wasn't an awful experience. Although I had stopped walking I didn't feel that something had been taken away . . . Having a wheelchair gave me a renewed sense of freedom.”

She added: “To be honest, I didn't really know what spina bifida was until I was about ten years old. I didn't actively try to find out because it didn't matter to me what had stopped me walking. I just knew that I couldn't walk, and that there was nothing I could do to change that, so I just had to get on with it. This wasn't a conscious decision. There were simply lots of things that I wanted to do, and I wanted to spend my time doing them, not sitting around thinking about what I couldn't do.”

That single-mindedness was still there later, as an athlete. It was the medals that mattered. She wasn't there to win friends but to win races. Fellow athletes were advised that, if they were going to compete, there was no point doing it “half-arsed”.

And is it true that she and Ian, a former paralympic athlete, chose their Swiss honeymoon setting because a great training camp was on the doorstep?

“Absolutely true. We basically stayed five metres off the marathon course! There was a track and swimming pool 200m from where we stayed. We based the date of our wedding around our competition schedule.”

Tanni even timed her pregnancy around sporting dreams.

“Basically, I had a two-month window. If I hadn't got pregnant that year, it was going to wait three years. I kind of laugh about it, but I'm not the first female athlete to have done that; not by any stretch of the imagination. Slightly obsessive and a bit strange, but hey!”

It's almost unimaginable, then, to swap single-mindedness of Michael Schumacher proportions for retirement. Athletic cold turkey. For it was little more than a year ago that Britain's most successful paralympian announced she was quitting international competition after the World Cup last May.

How has she coped with the contrast?

Well, she says, she'd known in her heart since the previous September that she didn't want to do it anymore, but kept it quiet so she could mull it for six months and make sure she was doing the right thing. “By the time I announced it, I was absolutely ready to walk away.

“I don't miss it at all. There is not a bit of me that wants to be in Beijing competing. I had my time, and I had a great time doing it, but towards the end I knew I was finished. The mental effort and the stress, and the kind of fear as well, didn't make it fun any more: that fear of failure, wanting to be the best I can, wanting to win.

“And age . . . age was just against me. It was taking me longer to recover from training sessions. There'd be a group of 20-year-old girls recovering in 12 hours; I was taking twice as long. It just wasn't what I wanted to do any more.

“My last race, it was quite emotional. Volunteers were coming up to me and saying really nice things - 'we've watched you through your career' - and I spent a lot of it crying.

“My husband said to me 'You can change your mind, you know. You can stay.' I was going 'I don't want to do this ever again in my life!' The thought of the preparation . . . you can't keep up that level of physical and mental pressure for ever.”

There was a lot of pain in her elbows, neck and shoulders, “and the first hour and a half after I woke up every day I would barely move. It's fun when you're 25 but not as much fun when you're 35”.

Nowadays the thrills come from media work, coaching, motivational talks at conferences - that sort of thing. And then there's her place on the board of UK Athletics, the national governing body, and the perhaps unenviable task she's been handed: trying to sort out the muddle over the punishing of drug cheats.

It all blew up, of course, thanks to shamed sprinter Dwain Chambers. He served a two-year ban for using the steroid THG and it looked as if athletics had seen the last of him when he tried his luck at American Football. But then he returned to the track - and with success. Officials were obliged to include him in the British team for the World Indoor Championships in Spain earlier this month.

Chambers took silver in the 60m final, for good measure setting a new personal best time of 6.54 seconds. Opponents railed that a convicted cheat should never be allowed to wear his nation's vest, and that UK Athletics' selection rules needed to be strengthened.

Which is how Tanni comes to be leading an anti-doping review.

She's drawn up her suggested terms of reference and they should go before the board of UKA this week. Once they're approved, she'll put together a panel of five or six people and they'll get cracking.

“It's going to be relatively quick, because I think we need to be making recommendations prior to the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics.” (August 8 to 24 and September 6 to 17 respectively.)

It's going to be intriguing to watch. Tanni goes into the exercise with tough views. She's spoken in the recent past about either an eight-year ban, which would rule out two Olympics, or even permanent exclusion, and admitted her approach can be “Stalin-esque”. But she warns us not to expect too much.

“The review's going to be really interesting because I have quite a hardline view on it - I would like to see drugs cheats never allowed to compete again - but we have to be able to come up with a set of recommendations that fit within the legal framework; and there's no point me coming up with recommendations that are legally challenged all the time.

“A big part of it is providing clarification of the rules. Some of them don't quite make sense. I think the media and some people in the sport would love for the recommendations to say 'Let's life-ban people and let's do this and let's do that,' and I think the reality is - now that I'm into looking at it - that the recommendations will be quite small changes to internal policy practice: education, external stuff. It might not be the big hit that people are looking for.

“For me, I'd rather not life-ban any athlete. It's about stopping them taking drugs in the first place, not penalising them at the other end.”

How do you crack that nut?

“I think it's part of the education process. It's not just about how you pee in a bottle and what the A and B samples mean; it's about athletes understanding what he rules of their sport are. You can't barge someone out three lanes on the track and you shouldn't be taking drugs that are illegal.

“I think the difficulty is that as soon as you start talking about ethics and ethical education, a lot of athletes will just switch off, so it has to be couched in more approachable terms, really.”

What she is convinced about is that athletics can't be allowed to bounce from drugs controversy to drugs controversy because of great big grey areas in its procedures and policy.

“It doesn't happen often - that's the other thing. The way we've been talking about it in the last few months, you'd think it was every other month we were getting hit by a drugs crisis. It's the terminology that people on the street, the media, governing bodies, use. You see stuff - 'athletics in crisis again' - well, actually, it's not in crisis. It doesn't change the number of young people who turn up at their clubs every week; it doesn't affect the number of people who turn up for the London Marathon.

“It's sad for the sport that there have been more column inches in the last few months about drugs and cheating than there have about athletic performances, and that's what I'd like to see it come back to.”

It's impossible to prise apart sport and politics at the moment. The staging of the 2008 Olympics in China has led to protests about the country's human rights record.

“I think every athlete has to make his own choice about whether to compete in certain countries or not, and I'm sure there are athletes who are having ethical dilemmas about it. But, for me, I think it's important to go there and to compete and to learn about other cultures.

“I've been to China twice now. I didn't know much about it beforehand - just what I'd seen on the news - and I think it's important to go there and experience it.

“I don't think an athlete at a Games should use the time as a political platform. If you choose not to go, then I think that's entirely different. I think athletes should learn and educate themselves to provide greater change through their athletics endeavour, and a great way to do that is win a gold medal, because that gives you a platform to speak from.”

She remembers speaking to a group of disabled people very keen for the Paralympics to happen because they wanted the outside world to see what it's like there: “and that's their greatest chance of change, because they can't leave China - there are all sorts of reasons - and they don't have the political power to highlight what they live (through) on a daily basis.

“That was really moving for me, actually. In this country we moan about all sorts of different things. Some of the athletes I work with say 'Uh, I haven't got the latest iPod; I want this phone', but over there it's about access to education; they struggle to get jobs. One woman I spoke to wasn't allowed to get married because she's disabled. We should wake up and see what's happening in other parts of the world.”

Tanni will be in Beijing for both the Olympics and Paralympics - in a non-competing role, of course. She'll be accompanied by Ian and their daughter, though Carys isn't over-thrilled.

“I said to her 'Honey, we're going to the Olympics; it's going to be really good, then you'll come back home and start school. And she sort of went 'Uh, right.' 'Aren't you excited?' 'Well, I've been to one . . .' (She was in Athens in 2004.) 'Well, they happen every four years.' 'Do I have to go to another one?'”

Carys has just turned six. Is she much into sport?

“I don't think so . . . but, thinking about the taxi service we've become, the answer is yes. Monday's dancing, Tuesday's gymnastics, Wednesday's swimming lessons, Thursday's a rest day. Friday at its worst is ballet, football and dancing; and Saturday morning, cycling. She's very determined; got many of my characteristics. We both like our own way!

“She summed up my career really quite well when a journalist said when she was four 'Don't you think your mummy's amazing?' Carys looked at him and said 'Mummy just goes round in circles.' You know, actually, I don't think there's a better way of describing it than that, really.”

DAME Tanni Grey-Thompson is giving the 2008 Colchester Lecture in May. It starts at 6.30pm on Thursday, May 8 and is being held at the town's Mercury Theatre.

The lecture, now in its 28th year, is run by Colchester-based PR agency Mosaic Publicity and frequently focuses on topical and controversial themes.

Tanni will talk about her career and achievements. Tickets are on sale for £10 (£9 concessions) from the Mercury box office on 01206 573948 or online at www.mercurytheatre.co.uk

Tanni talk

Born July 26, 1969, Cardiff

Won first Paralympic Games medal, a 400m bronze, at age of 19, at Seoul in 1988

Total haul: 16 Paralympic Games medals, including 11 golds, across five Games

Won London Marathon six times between 1992 and 2002

Made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2005 New Year's Honours List

Likes reading, and 1980s music such as Soft Cell and Depeche Mode

“Tainted Love's my favourite song ever”

(Lolita Dicks Syndication)

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