Athletics, Ashia Hansen: Hansen remains hungry to make the great leap forward to Athens

Trials and tribulations of life and athletics have given one of Britain's great champions strength to take on world again

We are talking bottoms, Ashia Hansen and I. In an interview she once did with The Independent magazine about self-image, she said that she considered hers to be her best feature. So although we have more important things to discuss, not least the forthcoming World Athletics Championships, it is her bottom, if you'll pardon the image, that I want to get off my chest first.

Does she aspire to the Rear of the Year award, I enquire? She giggles. "I don't think they give that to sports people," she says. "Because if you compare a sports person's rear with a pop star's rear, the sports person would win hands down." While I wrestle with this metaphor, I ask whether she is saying what I think she is saying, that she eclipses the queen of behinds herself, Kylie Minogue? Another giggle. "Kylie is an amazing, amazing woman.

"But compared to any athlete... I'm sorry. It's the same with the men. The sports person's bottom has much better toning." Let us move downwards. Does she have big feet? I imagine that big feet are pretty useful in triple jumping. "Actually, I have little feet," she says.

"But I also have arches. A lot of black people don't have arches, but I do, and they have caused me a lot of problems. That's what I think, anyway." A hoot of laughter. "It's probably absolute balls. But they haven't fallen, even though I was told they would."

It is nice to hear Hansen laughing. We last met four years or so ago and I remember her being delightfully chucklesome then, but she has since been through the mill, in the form of a sensational trial in which it emerged that her former boyfriend, Chris Cotter, had sent her racist hate mail and faked a racist attack on himself, purportedly by neo-Nazis objecting to the relationship between a white man and a black woman.

I have been warned off this emotive subject by her management team, but it would seem like a dereliction of duty not to refer to it at least obliquely.

After all, it was a pretty seismic event in her life, to which she ascribed her failure in the subsequent Sydney Olympics.

I say: "I bet it helped you find out who your true friends were." Her voice drops. "I certainly found out who my true friends weren't. Some of them people I thought I could trust. So I decided to let them go. But I'm sorry. I have refused to talk about it until I'm done with athletics. He [Cotter] has had his say, and it was a pack of lies. I haven't had my say yet. I might do a book... I have to decide how much I want to reveal." Does she have another boyfriend now? "Yeah, he's a copper."

Thus is the painful topic closed, and we return to athletics. Hansen is the Commonwealth, European and world indoor champion. If she wins in Paris that will be some quartet of titles, and some quintet if she then adds Olympic gold next year in Athens.

However, her participation in Paris has been threatened by the heel operation she had directly after the World Indoor Championships. Rehabilitation has been slower than expected, and a decision is expected in the coming week.

Whatever happens, and contrary to rumour, as soon as she is fit again she has every intention of competing up to Athens and beyond. It irks her, though, that when she does retire, it will not be with the comparative riches accumulated by some of her fellow-athletes.

"I feel like I do a lot more work than the sprinters. I do their discipline as well as my own, and I have to fit in a hell of a lot into a short week, as it were. I'm peed off that I get paid a lot less than the sprinters do. I can be world record holder and not get paid half as much as women sprinters who don't hold the world record. I have a little bit of an issue there."

But does she not appreciate that the 100 metres and 200m are sexier events than the triple jump, not least because they require athletes to compete against each other simultaneously rather than in sequence? In short, it's more of a spectacle, isn't it? "Well, yes, and I realise that the public has a short attention span. People like to see something physically happening on the track rather than the long jump or triple jump, and the high jump can go on for ever. It's much easier to watch the 100m or 200m. But I still think we should be paid the same. In major championships you can be out there for two hours, and it's mentally tough as well as physically tough. You can take a no-jump, and you have to wait 20 minutes to get another chance... it's really, really tough out there."

Has she ever regretted choosing the triple jump over a perhaps more lucrative event? After all, she used to be a sprinter and can run 100m in a not unimpressive 11.7sec. With dedicated training, who knows what might have been? She pauses, whether meaningfully it is difficult to tell. "No," she says.

"I'm happy with what I do, that's why I'm still here at the grand old age of 31." We are in a back room at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, where she is demolishing a packet of crisps. Apart from building up strength in her heel, her main task before the World Championships, she says, is to shed some weight. I look at the crisps and raise an inquisitive eyebrow. "This," she says cheerfully, "is considered a meal. It's almost 200 calories."

If she does compete in Paris, her main rivals will be the usual suspects: Tatyana Lebedeva, the Russian, Mbango Etone from Cameroon, and the Senegalese Kene Ndoye. "And there is a Cuban girl, Yamile Aldama, jumping very well, but she is not affiliated to any country. She tried to get British citizenship, but it was denied until November 2004. So she won't be in the World Championships or the Olympics unless she goes back to Cuba."

If Aldama were to get citizenship tomorrow, I venture, it would raise the spectre of Hansen one day being toppled as British No 1. "Well, she's got to beat the British record, and she hasn't yet. But it would be good for me, because I'd have the competition I need in this country. When I'm against people who can only jump 12.70m, and I'm a 15m jumper, it's not very uplifting. I know that as long as I make no mistakes, it will be relatively easy for me."

The idea of the hop, step and jump being relatively easy for anybody, frankly, is something I struggle with. It is a fiendishly difficult manoeuvre to get right, and I invite Hansen - whose personal best is an awesome 15.16m indoors, 15.15m out - to give me some insight into the mechanics.

"My runway is just over 30m," she explains. "And there are three phases in the run; the drive, the relaxation phase when you just keep your speed going, and in the last three to six strides depending on how fit you are, a quickening phase on to the board.

"I take off on my right leg and land on my right leg, then push on to my left. Most of the girls are hop-dominated. I step further than most. It's all about carrying speed between the three phases. When you take off you lose one metre per second, so the idea is to keep your speed going through the jumps. There are ways of doing that but it gets a bit technical." Does she ever talk technique with her male counterpart, Jonathan Edwards? "Sit down with Jonathan and talk about triple jumping? Er, no, it's not the way of the world. I'm not close to Jonathan Edwards and I don't have a role model, but I do look at him, because when he gets it right he really gets it right. His speed and his contact on landing, those are the elements my coach [Aston Moore] and I pick out."

Speaking of coaches, I wonder what she makes of Denise Lewis's controversial decision to engage Dr Arbeit, once linked with the East German doping programmes? In asking the question, I admit that I am trying to stir a little more controversy. For it is well-known that Lewis and Hansen are not exactly soul sisters.

But with a verbal hop, step and jump, Hansen neatly avoids becoming embroiled. "People do stupid things in their past," she says, philosophically. "I have done some stupid-ass things myself." Such as? Another hoot of laughter. "I'm not saying. Too rude." Then, in seriousness, "I don't know the guy, and I'm not going to criticise someone I don't know.

"It's up to Denise to decipher whether he's good for her. The media would love a little bit of friction between us, but it's not like that. We're respectful towards each other, although it's true that we're not friends."

Coincidentally, the pair have things in common quite apart from being prodigiously talented athletes. Lewis doesn't know the identity of her father, nor does Hansen know who hers was, except that he was an American footballer. She was born illegitimately in Evansville, Indiana, and at three months old was adopted by a white Englishwoman and a black Ghanaian, a politics lecturer. She grew up in Ghana until the age of eight, then the family moved to Poplar, in the East End of London, a 1,000-watt culture shock.

As she told me last time we met: "I was the only black kid in junior school, with an African accent too, and I had no friends from the first year to the fourth year. It didn't help that I was good at sport, because the girl I took over from as the number one runner didn't like it, and nor did all her friends. They didn't really pick on me because I was quite hard, and I would fight boys as well as girls, but they didn't talk to me. Also, there was a 15-year-old boy who lived in the same block of flats as us and he used to call me 'coonflakes'. It hardens you up, that sort of thing." At 15, she had another traumatic yet formative experience. Her adoptive father, while away working in Tanzania, was hit by a car and killed.

"Actually, I think I coped quite well with it. And because he never saw me doing well in athletics it sort of spurred me on, because I would wonder, 'what would he think of this?' But that was never my main motivation. I just really enjoyed it." She is still really enjoying it, despite the injury battles. But in track and field terms she is perhaps approaching the final straight of a distinguished career. I ask whether she has started to consider a post-competitive life? "I have plans, yes. But I don't talk about them. I can tell you that they have nothing to do with sport whatsoever."

And what of her biological beginnings? I remind her of what she told me last time, that she intended to find out more about her genetic mother and father, and perhaps track them down. "I have decided not to do anything until I'm completely retired," she says. "In Atlanta [during the 1996 Olympics], things got printed about where I was born, and got a little bit out of hand. That was unfair of the media. They don't think about the consequences. People suffer. I mean, I know my biological father was an American football player, but he might not even know I exist."

Whatever happens, it seems likely that there are several fascinating chapters yet to unfold in the remarkable story of Ashia Hansen. And more gold medals. On that I will bet my bottom dollar; we shall say no more about her top-dollar bottom.

Ashia Hansen the life and times

Born: 5 December 1971, Evansville, Indiana.

Family: Foster parents, English mother and Ghanaian father.

Homes: Lived in Ghana for eight years before settling in London.

Club: Birchfield Harriers.

Discipline: Triple jump.

Sporting influences Butch Reynolds (400 metres) and Ed Moses (400m hurdles).

Notable achievements Represented Great Britain in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, coming 4th and 11th respectively.

Represented England in the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games and in the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games, winning gold in each. Won the World Championships indoor title in Birmingham in February with a jump of 14.71metres.

Hansen broke the world indoor triple jump record in 1998 with a jump of 15.16m.

She was awarded the MBE in the 2003 New Year's Honours.

Personal bests

Triple jump: 15.16m (1998, Valencia, Spain, indoors).

Long jump: 6.47m (1996, Crystal Palace, outdoors).

60m: 7.51sec (1998, Birmingham, indoors).

100m: 11.7sec (1995, Alfaz del Pi, Spain, outdoors).

200m: 24.57sec (1995, Birmingham, indoors).

She says: "We tend to have more fast-twitch fibres than white people, which make the body go faster." (July 2002).

"I've had so many problems. It's been one thing after the other. It's been so hard to stay focused." (March 2003).

They say: "When a coach has an élite athlete on the verge of big things and they have to pull the throttle back because of injury, it's hard." Aston Moore, Hansen's coach (August 2001).

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