Tim Don: 'If there is a stigma stuck to me, I hope it is that I was foolish'

The Briton, who is the world's top triathlete, was shocked when he was banned for missing drug tests. But, he tells Mike Rowbottom, he's learned his lesson and is now aiming for a golden summer
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The Independent Online

Tim Don is sitting in his garden in Loughborough, basking in the early summer heat. Whoa! Steady! For your average sportsman, sunbathing at home would appear harmless, even relaxing.

But for the 30-year-old who is heading towards this summer's Olympics as the world's top-ranked triathlete, such an activity is fraught with potential danger. Might the sunlounger collapse, ricking his back? Might an insect sting bring on a harmful reaction? What about that old tree next door? Might it fall on him?

Don, who effectively secured his third Olympic appearance on Sunday at the World Cup event in Madrid which doubled as the British trials, has a long history of injuries – none of which were incurred while he was either training or competing. There was the broken nose he sustained when he walked into a glass door a few years ago. Easily done. Then there was his unfortunate incident a couple of years ago involving dogs near his home, when he was chased while out for an "easy" run. "I don't really like dogs, so I speeded up a bit and tripped over a log," he says. "Well, it was a tree root actually. I went flying and I took all the skin off my left hip, leg and elbow. I had to go out and join my new French team later that week. I got some looks when I turned up bandaged like a mummy. But they liked me more after I finished second in my first race."

Last March, at his training venue in Stellenbosch, South Africa, Don broke a rib walking to a coffee shop.

"I had my hands in my pockets and I just tripped on the pavement," he recalls, with a faintly unhinged giggle, before concluding: "The more training I do, the less time I have to be injured."

Don has been doing plenty of injury-avoidance this winter at his warm weather home from home in South Africa – so much so that, whisper it, he has managed to avoid any injuries at all. "On average I run about 100 miles a week, I cycle 400 miles, and I swim 30 kilometres," he said. "There's no rest for the wicked."

Don's proneness to accidents has not, of course, been restricted to physical damage. Two years ago, a couple of weeks after he had secured the world title in Lausanne, Don got a phone call from Norman Brook, the then chief executive of the British Triathlon Association, which filled him with shock and anxiety. He had failed to be where he was scheduled to be on three occasions when doping inspectors made random visits, thus triggering disciplinary action under the recently introduced ruling of the World Anti-Doping Agency. He was in big trouble. "At first I thought I was looking at a two-year ban," he recalls. "Then someone told me it might be less time. The next thing I heard about was the British Olympic Association's ban on athletes who had committed doping infringements. I didn't know anything about all of it, and suddenly I was having to see solicitors and I was going to a QC to represent me and paying him hundreds of pounds an hour."

Don was the second British competitor to fall foul of the new arrangements – judo player Peter Cousins had the unhappy distinction of being the first – and he was soon joined by a higher profile third in the form of 400m runner Christine Ohuruogu.

But while Ohuruogu, under the jurisdiction of the International Association of Athletics Associations, had to spend a year out before returning to claim the world title last summer, Don was back in the running after a three-month suspension, although there was still a year of uncertainty before he managed to reverse the BOA ban on appeal, something he achieved in May last year.

The British Triathlon Association and an independent disciplinary tribunal attributed Don's anti-doping violation to "a combination of forgetfulness on the athlete's behalf and his lack of understanding of the new testing system". While Ohuruogu seemed curiously unwilling to take any responsibility for her fate, Don ticked all the boxes in terms of what one might expect a competitor to say in the circumstances.

"I check my whereabouts details religiously now," he says. "I'm more aware of what I need to do. I've bought a new top-of-the-range laptop and whenever I'm at an airport, I log on and check I'm on the way to where I said I'd be going.

"The ban made me more aware and I hope it's done the same for the juniors. I've had a few meetings with coaches at the high performance centre in Loughborough and told them: 'It is not a joke'. It was a very new system at the time, and it was not always clear what athletes were supposed to do. You had to find a computer, log on, change your details, save them then send them on to UK Sport.

"The system has changed three times since. On one of my missed testing dates, the computer in my hotel in South Africa went down the night before I had to fly to Melbourne for the Commonwealth Games. By the time I changed my details, it was too late – the testers had chosen that day to call. Now you can update your whereabouts by text or phone message at any time. If there is a stigma attached to me, I hope it is that I was foolish but people can learn from what happened to me."

One of the hardest parts of the whole episode for Don was having to break the news to his mother, Judith, and father, Philip, the former head of Premier League referees who had a reputation – in a career which included the 1992 FA Cup final and a World Cup quarter-final two years later – for going by the book. "My dad was very supportive," Don says. "He knew I was not technologically minded. I was never one of those boys who had a PlayStation or anything like that. He told me, 'You'd better not let this happen again. You've learned your lesson'."

Tim Don has done his time. And his fourth place in Madrid on what was the anniversary of his successful appeal to the British Olympic Association has merely underlined the standing he established on 26 April when he won his first World Cup event in three years, at Tongyeong, South Korea, to go top of the world rankings.

Curiously, his father's background tended to turn him away from playing football – or even supporting a team – in case it occasioned too many comments or questions from his peers. He did, however, see his dad during his moment of glory at Wembley in 1992.

If he had been anything other than a triathlete, it would have been an athlete – but the presence at his school of Ben Whitby and the late Sam Haughian, who both established themselves as British internationals, meant he could never be top dog. And he does like to be top dog, although on Sunday he was happy just to get round in a qualifying position during a race in which two of his British colleagues were forced to drop out during monsoon conditions.

"The race was pretty crazy when the rain came pelting down," he said. "It was like being up Ben Nevis. But I felt good when I hit the run and just battled through as best I could. To come down the finish straight in fourth was a huge relief."

Don is as confident as he should be about Beijing. That said, a discipline that requires competitors to swim, bike and run always retains a large measure of unpredictability, and the memory still resonates of how a former British world champion, Simon Lessing, was lionised on the eve of the Sydney Games before managing only ninth place.

The man who currently tops the world rankings was just one place behind Lessing on that occasion, and four years later in Athens Don took 18th place. This time around, he knows exactly what is likely to be in store.

"Generally speaking in a World Cup event there are about 10 to 12 guys who could make the podium, and around six who could win it," Don says, adding that there are four athletes who are likely to be "there or thereabouts" at the Olympics – Javier Gomez of Spain, Australia's Brad Kahlefeldt, New Zealand's Olympic silver medallist Bevan Docherty, and, naturally, himself.

Once in China, however, Don will strive to regard the biggest race of his life as being nothing out of the ordinary. "I try to treat competitions like another training day," he says. "I don't get caught up in any of the hype. It works really well for me." It's an unusual attitude. But then Tim Don is out of the ordinary.

Dandy Don: Life and times of triathlete

1978 Born London, 14 January.

2000 Finishes 10th in the Olympic triathlon with a time of 1 hour 49 minutes 28.85 seconds.

2004 Finishes 18th in the Olympic triathlon with a total time of 1 hr54min 42.13sec.

September 2006 Becomes world champion in Lausanne, finishing 17 seconds in front of Hamish Carter. A few weeks later is banned for three months for missing three out-of-competition drugs tests within the 18- month period before the World Championships.

25 December 2006 Ban expires, but a bylaw means that Don remains ineligible for Olympic selection.

25 May 2007 Appeal against ban upheld – is cleared by the British Olympic Association for selection for future Olympics.

25 May 2008 Finishes fourth at Madrid World Cup meeting, achieving the Olympic selection criteria.