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June 03, 2020

Do not flinch in the face of adversity

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June 03, 2020

An open letter to sport #BlackLivesMatter

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UPCOMING OLYMPIC GAMES

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Imagine being so dedicated to realising your dream that you would haul yourself to an athletics track, no matter what the weather, just to grind your body into the ground. Every single day.

Imagine not drinking at your friends’ weddings, missing birthdays to attend training camps, being woken at the crack of dawn on any given morning to give anti-doping blood samples all because you want that end goal so badly.

Imagine being indisputably the third best at your discipline in the entire country – so good that you only missed out on a place in the European final by 0.10sec.

Then imagine doing all this without any funding, getting by on savings from your part-time work with the British Red Cross and donations from your parents.

Almost every single moment of your life exists for the sole aim of competing at the Olympics. But when the time comes and that third spot is available you are told you are not good enough.

In fact, you are so inadequate that the selectors would prefer not to take anyone to the Olympics than take you. You just aren’t worth the money. Sounds pretty devastating, does it not?

“To leave a space empty on an Olympic team when several athletes have the qualifying standard is an insult to the effort that athletes put in to the sport,” wrote Alison Leonard, Britain’s third best 800m runner, on website Eightlane this week after she was left off the team for the Rio Olympics in favour of an empty spot.

“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 third in the trial – well clear of fourth place, despite have six qualifying times in the qualifying period, despite having made significant steps forward in sports psychology 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.”

Leonard is by no means deluded. She readily admits that she will never win an Olympic medal and, in actual fact, she is unlikely to stand on a European or Commonwealth podium without significant improvement in the next couple of years.

To her, and to thousands of athletes worldwide, the dream does not so much involve gold, silver or bronze as having the opportunity to forever call herself an Olympian; to reach the zenith of her sport.

Such aspirations are trivial to British Athletics, and UK Sport who allocate their funding based on medals alone. Last year Leonard was omitted from the World Championships team, only to unsuccessfully appeal the decision and find out that one selector deemed her incapable of ever succeeding at elite level. She did not bother going through the rigmarole this time around.

The trouble for Leonard, and for 400m hurdler Rhys Williams who had his appeal rejected after he was denied a vacant third Olympic spot, is that the selectors have done nothing wrong.

By not finishing in the top two at the British trials – which would have secured them automatic places to Rio – and failing to prove themselves of Olympic medal standard, Leonard and Williams do not meet the selection criteria.

When the selectors spent an entire day agonising over the 80-strong British squad last week, they looked at their guidelines and followed them to the letter.

“I wanted to be an Olympian,” said Leonard, in her heartbreakingly eloquent piece, remarkably devoid of malice. “I wanted to represent my country 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.”

But Leonard is not a winner, so she does not matter.

In the eyes of British Athletics, she is a loser – and they would rather have no one than a loser.

Imagine that.

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