12 for 2012: No 7: Greg Rutherford, long jumper
Pathway to Glory. Our monthly series presenting potential medal-winners at the London Games in six years' time turns to a prodigy of the sandpit - and hears how his mentor prepared for the greatest show on earth
Sunday 23 July 2006
Greg Rutherford is not the first teenaged sporting prodigy to sprout from his family tree. Back in March 1902 his great-grandfather, Jock Rutherford, made his debut in the First Division - the old Premiership of English football - at the age of 17 years and 139 days. He scored for Newcastle United in a 4-1 home win against Bolton Wanderers at St James' Park. He was only 19 when he won the first of 11 caps on the right wing for England.
At 19, Greg has already long- jumped in the Commonwealth Games for England and competed for Great Britain in the European Cup. Next month he jumps for Britain at the European Championships in Gothenburg.
His great-grandfather went on to become one of the stars of football's Edwardian era, winning three championship titles with Newcastle (in 1905, 1907 and 1909), playing in five FA Cup finals for the Magpies, and earning the sobriquet "the Newcastle flier". He also made a name for himself at Arsenal, playing his final game for the Gunners in 1926 at the age of 41, which remains a club record. Great things are expected of Greg, too - British records and major championship medals certainly, plus the small matter of a giant leap or two in a Great Britain vest in 2012.
It is just as well, for British athletics and for Britain's Olympic hopes on home soil six years from now, that the great Jock's great-grandson chose to concentrate on track and field with the Marshall Milton Keynes Athletics Club when his lightning pace on the football field as a 14-year-old attracted interest from Aston Villa.
"It's brilliant that the football is in my blood," Rutherford says. "My great-grandad was obviously a bit of a legend. He was a winger, so that must be where I've inherited my speed from.
"My dad's quite fast as well. He's never trained a day in his life, because he works all the hours as a builder, but he's started doing athletics as a veteran. He competed for the men's B team just the other day, actually. I went to watch him. He did really well."
He did indeed. At the age of 46, Andy Rutherford finished third in the long jump in the Southern League Division Three North fixture at Stantonbury Stadium in Milton Keynes. He also helped the MK B team to third place in the 4 x 100m relay.
Last weekend, at the Manchester Regional Arena, it was his turn to sit in the stands while his son took a starring role in the Norwich Union European Trials and AAA Championships.
Rutherford Jnr jumped 8.26m in the final round, just 1cm short of Chris Tomlinson's British record. It was the best performance by a British long jumper competing in Britain, and elevated the teenager above the legendary "Lynn the Leap", the 1964 Olympic champion Lynn Davies, in the all-time UK rankings.
It also secured Rutherford a place at the European Championships in Gothenburg, where he will have the chance to overcome the disappointments of his two senior international engagements to date: going to the Commonwealth Games as a medal contender and finishing eighth after tearing a hamstring in the third round, and finishing ninth and last in the European Cup after going for a big jump on each of his four efforts and miscalculating his effort.
Hopes are so high for Rutherford and his future not just because of the talent he has already shown - by winning the European Under-20 title last year and setting a British junior record, 8.14m, before his big leap in Manchester - but because he is still getting to grips with his craft and, by his own admission, has considerable room for improvement.
At the Telstra meeting in Melbourne on the eve of the Commonwealth Games he had marginally fouled jumps measured at 8.37m and 8.30m. He had another measured at 8.41m when registering a "legal" 8m in Salamanca a fortnight ago.
On each occasion, his foot crept on to the plasticine on the take-off board, but with Tomlinson's British record standing at 8.27m, and 8.28m being the best winning jump in the past four European Championships, it gives a measure of Rutherford's potential.
His former coach, Tom McNab, has even ventured to suggest in public that Rutherford's natural limit lies beyond 9m - a long jump landmark that Bob Beamon did not quite reach with his quantum leap at the Mexico Olympics in 1968. Beamon's jump was 8.90m, which was considered untouchable until Mike Powell took the world record to its current mark, 8.95m, at the World Championships in Tokyo in 1991.
"It seemed a bit unfair to say that I could be a 9m jumper," Rutherford reflects. "It puts a bit of pressure on me. But that is definitely my ultimate aim. I want to break the world record and I want to be the first person ever to jump 9m. The way I see it is... I know I can't live off fouls but I've jumped fouls of 8.30m, 8.40m and technically I'm a terrible long jumper.
"I've only just learned to run a bit better and my actual jumping is very, very poor really. I'm very optimistic about the future because there's so much for me to improve on. If it keeps going the way it is, there's no reason why I can't get out there and jump really, really far."
Indeed there is not, especially now that Rutherford's natural talent - not least his raw speed as a 10.38sec 100m runner - is being channelled by Frank Attoh, the former Great Britain international triple jumper who guided Trecia Smith to triple jump gold at the World Championships in Helsinki last summer.
Smith competes for Jamaica but lives at East Finchley and trains in Barnet with Attoh's group, who also include Yamile Aldama, the Cuban-born Sudan-ese international who has bronze and silver medals in the triple jump at the previous two World Indoor Championships.
"It's amazing to actually go training with these guys," Rutherford says. "They're a great group. I get on with them really well. And I'm learning so much off Frank. I'm absolutely loving it. I really couldn't ask for anything more at the moment."
It remains to be seen what the nation will be asking of Greg Rutherford in 2012. "There'll be a lot of pressure on, representing your home country," he says, "but I can't wait for it, to be honest. It'll be the greatest crowd I'll ever jump in front of."
It is certain to be the most inspiring crowd - if not quite as great in numbers as the 101,117 who packed into the old Crystal Palace to watch Jock Rutherford and Newcastle in the 1905 Cup final.
Since 1994, the National Lottery has invested over £392 million into athletics throughout the United Kingdom. Greg Rutherford receives Lottery funding through UK Sport's World Class Podium programme. The National Lottery will invest up to £1.5bn towards the costs of staging the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
THE ICON: A MESSAGE FROM LYNN DAVIES
At the London 2012 Olympics, I think we have one of the strongest chances of winning an athletics gold medal in the long jump because of the strength and depth in the discipline in this country.
Greg Rutherford and Chris Tomlinson are our top two jumpers and they are already international class. Greg will only be 26 in six years' time, which is an ideal age to be contending for the Olympic title.
He has a great physique, being very tall with long legs, but what makes him stand out from other competitors is his speed on the track. He can run 100 metres in 10.38 seconds, which is incredibly fast for a long jumper and gives him great speed for his take-off.
I think that his recent performance in the European Cup in Malaga was actually a case of him being too fast, but he should now work to turn that into a positive and learn to control the situation.
Leading up to 2012, Greg needs to be concentrating on the major championships in each year. Other competitions can be good practice and earn him money, but he will be measured as an athlete by what he achieves on the international stage, so he should approach each year with that as his main goal - whether it be an Olympics, world, European or Commonwealth championship.
Greg will also benefit from the Lottery funding he receives and he needs to make sure he makes full use of the medical and support services available to him. When I competed, funding wasn't available and we always felt second-class against the Eastern bloc and the Americans on scholarships, but today's British athletes are on a level playing field and are now professional. This will help Greg to fulfil his aim of becoming Olympic champion in 2012.
Lynn Davies CBE won the Olympic gold medal in the long jump in Tokyo in 1964. He is now the president of UK Athletics
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