Athletics: `Even if I were, by some huge fluke, to break the world record, it's definitely over'

Ian Stafford talks to Tessa Sanderson, the British veteran of the javelin, who is confident of a fitting farewell in Athens
Click to follow
The relative gloom on a rather wet, summer afternoon at Battersea Park is lifted by one of the most recognisable women in British sport, all decked out in red and sporting a smile so wide that it virtually touches both ears.

Tessa Sanderson, a "mere" 22 years after making her debut in a British athletics vest, is making final preparations for the World Athletics Championships in Athens for what she insists this time will be her last appearance as an international javelin thrower.

"Even if I were, by some huge fluke, to break the world record and become world champion, I wouldn't come back," she says, performing a series of exercises that has helped to keep herself so amazingly supple over the years. "It's definitely over after Athens."

Well, if this is the case - and let us not forget she said the same thing after the Atlanta Olympics last summer - Sanderson is clearly not flying out to the Greek capital on Monday just for the ride and the warm sun on her face, as I quickly found out.

"Come on then," she pipes up, as she sits herself down and points her legs outwards in opposite directions. "We'll have to talk down here. The final's just over a week away and I've got some serious stretching to do."

Which is why various athletes walked past an empty table at the park's athletics track cafeteria wondering why two grown-ups were in deep conversation sitting on the floor beside two chairs.

The story looked to have finished five years ago, when Sanderson bowed out after the Barcelona Olympics and a final win in the 1992 World Cup. For the next four and a half years she was in very obvious retirement, working hard in a flourishing career in the media and show business, and enjoying life to the full.

"I can honestly say that I never went to an athletics meeting in all that time," she says, shaking her head in disbelief. "Winning the World Cup, you see, was the perfect swan-song for me. There was nothing left to achieve, or to prove. It seemed to be the perfect time to get out. And you know what? I didn't go to athletics afterwards because I just didn't feel like it.

"In fact," she adds, "I was looking forward to finally settling down and having a child as well as working more in the broadcasting world. It was as simple as that."

At least it should have been. Then, out of the blue, Sanderson was asked to stage a comeback and aim to throw again at the Olympics in an effort to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for a children's hospital charity. "I hadn't picked up a javelin for years, but as soon as I did I discovered I still had the zest for competition and for the challenge that lay ahead.

"The fact that there was an important agenda behind my comeback only helped to motivate me, and six weeks before the Olympics I was throwing 64 metres and seriously looking at a medal."

It did not quite work out that way. As a 40-year-old, an age that made Linford Christie look like a baby, Sanderson narrowly missed out on qualifying for the final, finishing one place out of the top 12. For the 1984 Olympic and 1986 Commonwealth champion, it seemed like an ignominious end to what had been a stunning career.

"I still reckon I lost my chance of winning an Olympic medal in the six weeks before the Olympics when, as far as I'm concerned, the system let me down," Sanderson admits. "Having thrown 64 metres I was ready for some top competition to fine-tune me for Atlanta, but the British Athletics Federation failed to find me anything at all. I ended up doing nothing. It resulted in me having a major fight with the board, and far from ideal preparation."

The exit from Atlanta could have been pretty depressing. Instead, and unbeknown to all except her closest friends, Sanderson's sixth Olympics proved to be a motivating spur. "I was initially a little sad that I missed out on the final," she says, still stretching those legs in front of me.

"Then I analysed it. I realised I deserved to get my arse kicked because I hadn't done anywhere near enough conditioning work. That's when I first started to think about Athens."

It was, initially, an off-putting thought. "I was tired, and I didn't want to do the work I knew was needed. I just sat around for a number of weeks undecided, but I knew that I could have done a lot better in Atlanta.

"Then John Trower (who coaches javelin throwers Steve Backley and Mick Hill) invited me down to a squad weekend last December at Alsager College with the rest of the boys. I'd missed the boys and had a great time. They were also very positive about me continuing to throw.

"When I then thought I might give the World Championships a shot, my first reaction was that I would be 41 and could end up looking a little silly. But the age factor didn't seem to come into it. Everybody at the javelin camp, and my coach Peter Yates since, have just told me to get on with it."

What has made Sanderson's selection for the British team even more remarkable, however, is the fact that she slipped a disc in her back in training in March, only to reappear at the Olympic trials last month in Birmingham to win and gain an automatic World Championship place.

"I spent 16 consecutive days on my back and thought that my career was definitely over," she admits. "It proved to be pretty tight, but I was back in training in May and knew about three weeks before the trials that I could win."

Typically for someone so competitive, Sanderson is not ruling out any possibility next week in Athens. "I'm going out there to win as I always do," she states, before adding a cautionary proviso. "In reality, I'll be happy if I make the final, delighted if I finish in the top six and ecstatic if I win a medal. But I'll tell you something - the throwing's been going really well in the past month so anything can happen."

Mischievously, knowing the intense if not sometimes bitter rivalry between Sanderson and Fatima Whitbread, I ask if it is rather nice to be still competing at such a level while her former foe has long since retired. "It's absolutely wonderful," she replies instantly. "I know Fatima wanted to come back as well, and if she could be out doing what I am, then she would be. When she was there, it was great for both of us but I seem to have sustained the pace a lot longer."

Sanderson cannot keep a straight face for long, however, and quickly puts her hand to her mouth as she giggles. "Hey, I'm enjoying myself," she says, in a way of explanation. "Age doesn't come into it. It's mind over matter."

And with that, she cajoles her coach into jogging around the park's sodden track, a flash of red and gleaming white teeth moving steadily around the circuit. After a lap, she adds a final point, as much to herself as to me.

"You know, it's going to be all right in Athens," she says, still with that engaging smile. "I really think it is."