How Britain lost a golden opportunity

Fiona May grew up in Derby but became an Italian world champion. Andrew Baker discovers why she was disillusioned
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The Independent Online
RAKING the long-jump pit is not the kind of job for which young athletes volunteer. But at Moorways Stadium last Thursday evening the girls of Derby Ladies Athletic Club were squabbling over who should smooth the sand. In the end, they decided to take turns: "I'll rake, you jump." There was no doubt who they were impersonating as they clambered up out of the sand, arms raised, shouting "6.98 metres!" - Fiona May, who for years jumped in the white and green vest of Derby LAC, and who won the world championship last Sunday in the blue of Italy.

It was touching to observe the inspirational power of May's victory. But it was also impossible to ignore the sense of sadness that she would not be coming back to jump at the stadium where she started out. "Fiona built her performances here," Richard Dunphy, the club's long-serving secretary, recalled. "She's a life member, you know."

But May will never pull on a Derby vest again. These days she lives in Florence and spends three weeks a month training with Giovanni Tucciarona, the Italian national long jump coach. As she triumphantly paraded the tricolore around the Ullevi stadium in Gothenburg, British commentators made much of her origins: "Slough-born", they blustered, "Derby-raised". But the most important question remained unasked: how had Britain so alienated an athlete of this talent that she had to go abroad to realise her potential?

"Fiona first walked in here on 4 May 1981," Dunphy said. "She was 11 and a half years old." Young Fiona quickly made an impression, not only as a long-jumper but as a high-jumper and hurdler as well. But soon her coach, Christopher Cohen, who was also her PE teacher at Derby School, decided that she should concentrate on the long jump.

Her results proved him right. May won the English Schools Athletic Association senior long jump title three years in succession and made her debut for Great Britain in an Under-18 match against West Germany in 1984, when she was just 14.

The hard work on Tuesday and Thursday evenings at Moorways continued to pay off as May jumped further. In 1987 she jumped 6.64m to win the European Junior Championship, and in 1988 she was sixth in the Olympics and jumped 6.88m to win the World Junior Championships in Canada.

But then things started to go wrong. May jumped marginally further, but there was a sense that she was not making the best of her talent. "Fiona was right at the top," Dunphy remembered, "and should really have been jumping seven metres with no trouble. But it wasn't happening in competition. Things weren't progressing."

May's fellow long-jumper Joanne Wise understood the pressure she was under. When May won the world junior gold medal, Wise, who was two years her junior, won the bronze. The two of them often competed together, and they both represented Great Britain at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, where May, Wise and the other British jumper, Yinka Idowu, failed to qualify.

"We all bummed out," Wise recalled last week. Britain's long-jumpers were at a low ebb. "We were all feeling as if we wanted to give up," she added. "People had lost belief in us." The attention on which the jumpers had thrived when they were high-achieving juniors had faded away as they entered the harsher arena of senior competition.

"It's very strange," Wise said. "We've had so many junior medal-winners in long jump. But no one says to them, `Look, you could go on from here.'" It wasn't just spiritual support that was missing: neither Wise nor May were selected for financial assistance by the British Athletic Federation. In the end the strain proved too much. Wise left the sport; May left the country, moving to Italy to live with Gianni Iapichino, a pole-vaulter whom she married in 1993.

The move was the right decision. Life in Italy, May said soon after her arrival, was "paradise". She wrote regularly to Wise, describing her new routine. "She said it was a blessing for her. She'd train for three weeks, and then go home for a week of relaxation," Wise said wistfully. "They provided food and everything."

The new regime worked. May jumped 7.26m in Sestriere earlier this year before everything came right in Gothenburg. "When I won a world junior championship medal for Britain years ago," she said, "someone told me it would be the last medal I'd ever win. I have proved that person wrong."

Her remarks stung. "We have sympathy with what Fiona had to say," the BAF spokesman Tony Ward said. "The Italian government pours vast amounts of money into athletics and until ours wakes up to the fact that we need more support we might have the same problem again."

May's family still live in Derby, in a smart little house in the suburb of Littleover. There her mother Sarah and younger sister, Natasha, watched the long-jump final from Gothenburg on television. "But we didn't see her win," Mrs May said. "The BBC coverage finished before the final was over. We had to ring a neighbour who has satellite TV to get the result."

She said it was a shame her daughter had to leave home, but admitted that it had not been easy to provide the support that Fiona needed. "It was hard, buying all that sports gear and paying for train fares and whatever. But we do miss her." When would Fiona be bringing her medal home? "I don't know," Mrs May said sadly. "She lives in Italy now."

Joanne Wise has returned to long-jumping, and is looking for a part-time job: "Anything really, so long as I don't have to spend too much time on my feet." Would she consider moving abroad for the sake of her sport? "Well . . . I do love my jumping."

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