Eleven months out from the 2012 Games, there is just the one British track-and-field athlete getting ready to defend an Olympic title on home ground. When Christine Ohuruogu flew down the finishing straight of the Bird’s Nest Stadium to win the 400m final in Beijing in 2008, it seemed that the Stratford girl would be the face of what for her would be a close-to-home Olympics.
Three injury-plagued years on, she is preparing for the 2011 World Championships – which open in Daegu, South Korea, on Saturday - not as a golden hope but as something of an afterthought.
For a third successive summer, Ohuruogu has been firing on less than all of her cylinders. “Many times I thought, ‘I can’t be arsed to do this any more – scrap the season and just worry about next year’,” she confessed. “Many times.” “But then, “ she said, proceeding in contradictory fashion, “ it was always my plan to try to make the championships. No matter how, I wanted to make it.”
It is little wonder that the poor woman has been somewhat confused. She happens to be the reigning Olympic 400m champion and yet is ranked only 36th in the world in 2011, and a mere fourth in Britain. Her best time this summer is 51.49sec. Six of her global rivals have broken 50 seconds.
When Ohuruogu emerged victorious from the Barcelona International Meeting on 22 July, it seemed that she was starting to regain something like her old form – form that took her to Commonwealth gold in 2006, World Championship gold in 2007 and Olympic gold in 2008. But then she could only finish third in the national championships in Birmingham – behind Perri Shakes-Drayton, who will be concentrating on the 400m hurdles in Daegu, and the American-born transferee Shana Cox, who is ineligible to compete for the British team in South Korea.
There was another backward step at Crystal Palace a fortnight ago. Running in the Aviva London Grand Prix, Ohuruogu finished eighth and last in 51.87sec. The truth is the 27-year-old Londoner is still struggling to regain sharpness, with only a limited amount of training behind her since recovering from the blunting setback of a detached quadriceps muscle.
“I know the reality of the 400m,” Ohuruogu said. “It’s one of the toughest events and you have to follow one of the toughest training regimes. If you haven’t put the work in, the other girls have.
“This is a big girl’s game. You have to bring everything and be ready for it. You can’t miss training sessions here and there. You have to be on it all the time, because these girls are all pretty much after what I have.”
What Ohuruogu got in Osaka in 2007 was the world 400m crown in quite exceptional circumstances. She emerged from the one-year suspension she served for missing three drugs tests to take the gold ahead of her British team-mate Nicola Sanders. Hampered by a hamstring injury, she lost the title to Sanya Richards-Ross of the USA in Berlin two years ago, finishing fifth in the final.
Having finished two seconds down on the victorious Richards-Ross at Crystal Palace, it would be one of the upsets of the 2011 World Championships if Ohuruogu were to regain her crown. At the start of the summer she said that “nothing less than a medal” would be acceptable to her in Daegu. Now, despite her continuing struggles on the comeback trail, she is reluctant to revise her target, in public at least.
“My focus never changes for any championship,” she said. “My focus going into this championship was always going to be the same. I feel that I’ve done enough work for me to go out on a good day and run well.
“Other people’s expectations don’t really matter to me. When I know what I’ve been through, the only expectation I deal with is the one that I put on myself. “
So what is that personal expectation, then, for the reigning Olympic champion and 36th fastest 400m runner of 2011 in Daegu? “I expect that I go out there and do my best,” Ohuruogu said. “I want to leave the track knowing that I did everything I could with the time I had.”