Greg Rutherford was athletics' answer to the fifth Beatle, the third British Olympic gold medallist on Super Saturday who barely merited a second glance. Given the chance to become first amongst equals, on his return to the scene of his greatest triumph, he endured painfully symbolic failure.
His third place in the long jump at the Anniversary Games will be an irrelevance should he win the world title in Beijing next month and complete the set of major gold medals. But his inability to seize the moment made the distant memory of the events of August 4, 2012 all the more poignant.
Rutherford had the air of an Olympic tourist, lingering for more than an hour with spectators as the stadium emptied before finally fulfilling his professional responsibilities and putting the afternoon into some sort of perspective. He was emotional rather than analytical and struck a bitter-sweet tone.
“It was an incredible atmosphere when I came out to jump and the emotions were running high,” he said. “The crowd were out of this world, but this is very frustrating, not acceptable at all. It has really hurt me because the last time I was here was obviously the greatest day of my sporting life.
“This is what can happen if you don’t get your run-up right. I jump again in five days, so hopefully I will try to right the wrongs there. I am confident that by the worlds, all will be fine.”
You wanted to share his optimism, but starting with three no jumps was a shock to the system. It smacked of an athlete struggling with himself, to find the marginal excellence so important in a highly technical event.
Athletes are too often defined by bombast and braggadocio. Rutherford is a more measured individual, popular because his thoughtfulness is unforced and manifestly genuine. The approachability, which led him to sign every last autograph, should not, however, be confused with weakness of character.
He could so easily have succumbed to the slurs, the cynics who suggested his Olympic gold medal, secured by the shortest winning leap in 40 years, rewarded a freak performance. He embraced the responsibilities of sudden fame but saw others profit more readily.
His commitment to his craft was tested to breaking point in 2013, when he lost his coach and physiotherapist and failed to reach the World Championships final. He ruptured his hamstring just before the inaugural Anniversary Games that year and was therefore unable to bask in the reflected glory of reminiscence.
He had the mental strength to renew himself in 2014, winning European and Commonwealth titles in addition to setting a new British record of 8.51 metres. He has learned to listen to his body and adapt to a physiological flaw which leaves him susceptible to muscle strains and tears.
His aims for the day were clear: he wanted to regain sole possession of the stadium record he shares with Aleksandr Menkov, at 8.31m, and prove his technical problems had been solved. Ultimately, he did neither.
His hopes of recreating what he admitted was “the best night of my life” were dashed, but he was not the only one indulging in nostalgia. Despite the broader lack of an Olympic legacy, this was a day to dig out the 2012 merchandise and make the most of an admittedly impressive setting.
The sun shone, families enjoyed picnics on the riverbank and the chaos of the previous evening was forgotten, if not forgiven.
Long jumpers operate on the margins. The eight-strong field was suitably esoteric, ranging from South Africa’s Khotso Mokoena, a former ballroom dancer who won national titles in the Tango and Cha Cha, to Christian Taylor, the reigning world triple jump champion.
While he waited his turn to jump, Rutherford attempted to zone out by lying on a towel with his eyes closed, using his rucksack as a pillow. He knew victory was essential for his wider credibility yet put himself under inordinate pressure by opening with two foul jumps.
He did not need the encouragement of a public address announcer who made Alan Partridge sound like Aristotle. “Here he goes,” he wittered, as Rutherford returned to the runway for his third attempt. “Must nail a jump this time.”
He didn’t. “What a shame,” intoned the disembodied cheerleader over the public address system as a red flag fluttered. The timing was excruciating, since it coincided with acclaim for Jessica Ennis-Hill, an infinitely more successful graduate of the finishing school of 2012.
Rutherford was downcast and leaned over the barrier to conduct an earnest inquest with his coach. Both knew normally that would have ensured exclusion. Yet, since the field was so small, there was no cut-off point. He had three more opportunities to impress.
His first legitimate leap of 8.12m in the fourth round was good enough for fourth place. He moved into second with a subsequent jump of 8.18m. His witless chum on the public address system again did him no favours when he prefaced his final attempt by describing him as “one of the greatest British athletes we have ever seen”.
The anti-climactic outcome, a jump of 8.13m followed by America’s Marquis Dendy snatching victory with a leap of 8.38m, made such praise seem sadly misplaced. Rutherford faces being remembered as a nice guy, but a nearly man.Reuse content