One of the best Greg Rutherford quotes – and there is truly a long list – was delivered with customary self-assurance the year after he won Olympic long jump gold at London 2012. “I think I could be one of the fastest sprinters in British history if I trained exclusively for the 100m,” he declared.
It was quintessential Rutherford, whose greatest asset is his inability to see his own limitations. Even if there was a modicum of truth behind the claim he could have been a sprinter, given his personal best of 10.26sec, it was an extraordinary statement, but then this is a man who doesn’t see competitors as better than him, just people he hasn’t yet learnt to beat.
At its heart, the life and times of Greg Rutherford is really a compelling love story, a romance between Rutherford the man and Rutherford the athlete. He is smitten by his own ability, exuding not arrogance so much as brimming self-respect, with an enthusiasm for life which emits like sunshine; a conversation with Rutherford makes you want to get up and do something. And it is only once this is truly understood that you can begin to comprehend the mentality of a man who aims to become an Olympic bobsleigh champion despite having never tried bobsleigh.
He has at least launched himself down the ice before. “When I did skeleton I loved it, the exhilaration of going down was really amazing,” Rutherford says. Now he wants to win a place on the GB bobsleigh team so that he might make history as the first Briton to win both a summer and winter Olympic medal. “I have no questions about the amount of power I can still produce and how strong I can be. I think I can be one of the strongest, if not the strongest on the team. But you need to be efficient actually moving the sled so I need to learn the technique, I need to get that absolutely nailed, and if I can then I’ll have as good a chance as anybody to make the team.”
There are four spots up for grabs ahead of Beijing 2022 but two are almost certainly taken: one by a Grenadier Guard for the Queen and the sled’s driver Lamin Deen, the other by former sprinter Joel Fearon who Rutherford describes as “an absolute specimen”. That leaves six athletes going for two remaining seats. Is Rutherford confident he can oust seasoned sledders? “It’s competition at the end of the day, so I’m sure a couple of them probably aren’t thrilled about me because it makes one extra person. I may not hit the standards that they need, but I fully expect that I will.”
Competing at the Winter Olympics is not a totally fanciful plan. As far back as 2014 Rutherford set his sights on turning his pace and power to the ice, something plenty of other summer athletes have done in the past. Next February’s Winter Games will mark almost a decade since he won gold on Super Saturday, when he became one third of an immortal night of British sport with Mo Farah and Jess Ennis-Hill under the twinkling lights of London’s Olympic Stadium. “If I hadn’t won Olympic gold I possibly would have tried this earlier. But London gave me the fire to want to go and win more things, and after an abysmal 2013 I was then able to become the dominant force in long jump for three or four years.”
European and world titles followed and a personal best jump and British record of 8.51m, as well as a bronze medal in Rio, but by then injuries had started to take hold of his body and would eventually force his retirement. He reveals a recent abductor injury has sharpened his mind to the fact that, aged 34, staying fit and healthy will be crucial to his hopes of making the team when they are put through strength and speed testing over the coming months.
What is most captivating about Rutherford, who will be commentating at Tokyo this month, is that his bullet-proof confidence stretches beyond his own body. He believes there is wasted talent all around us constantly slipping through the cracks, waiting to be discovered. “I think no matter what, I’ve always been a huge advocate of people trying new things and branching out and I hope my involvement with this team gives other people their catalyst to say ‘you know what, I think I can try something else’.
“Once we start having kids in particular and young adults branch out and try new things, we’ll find more champions for sure. I think of the footballers in my school years who didn’t quite make it and then disappeared, and for all we know they could have been remarkable table-tennis players, for example, but they never had the option to go and try that or had somebody helping them go that way. We lose that talent. We need to be better at talent ID and bringing people through.”
The bobsleigh team has gathered up talent from all sorts of backgrounds and includes natural speed merchants like the former European 100m champion James Dasaolu. The problem is not the team, which Rutherford believes “could be the fastest to ever push a bobsleigh”, but their equipment. “The anomaly at the moment is it’s a very dated piece of kit,” he says of their 15-year-old sled. “That needs to be replaced desperately, and that’s the hope before the Olympics.”
But, with a sincerity in his voice and a familiar twinkle in his eye, Rutherford is undeterred. “I think winning or being a previous champion in a different sport which is based on speed and power gives me the confidence of knowing that on my day I can be one of the best athletes in the world. We could have a team that is genuinely one of the best to ever go on to the track, and it definitely means we have a chance of potentially winning an Olympic medal… and who knows, with the perfect run, we could end up doing the ultimate.”
Greg Rutherford is part of the Get Britain Energy Fit For The Future campaign, encouraging everyone to do their bit to help modernise our outdated energy system by getting a smart meter – paving the way for smarter homes and more integration of renewables. More at: https://www.smartenergygb.org/energy-fit-for-the-future