Christine Ohuruogu: 'I hadn't slept for days. By the final I was mentally and physically exhausted'

In the first of a series of interviews with the men and women who helped make Beijing 2008 Britain's best Olympics, Simon Turnbull talks to 400m golden girl Christine Ohuruogu about her fantastic achievement
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The Independent Online

The clock on the wall at the Lee Valley Athletics Centre is ticking towards 3pm and Christine Ohuruogu is taking a break in a seat next to the indoor track. She has been here, at her north London "office" since 8.30am: stretching, circuit training, performing hurdles drills, practising sprint starts and pushing herself through a track session outdoors: "Three sets of 400 metres, 300m and 200m," she says.

It is four months since the balmy night in Beijing when the 24-year-old from the east end of London took off in the home straight of the "Bird's Nest Stadium", flying from fifth to first in the last 100 metres of the Olympic women's 400 metres final. Just to remind her of the significance of her victory, at the end of her day's shift at the Lee Valley complex, she is given a biography of Eric Liddell, the last British runner to win an Olympic 400m title – at Stade Colombes in Paris in 1924. "Oh, thank you," Ohuruogu says, flicking through the pages. "Chariots of Fire. I watched it for the first time on holiday after Beijing. I can see why the Eric Liddell story is so powerful."

The Lillian Board story is a powerful one too. In Mexico City in 1968, Board came tantalisingly close to becoming the first British woman to win an Olympic 400m title, losing out in the last few strides to the fast-finishing Colette Besson of France. She was 19 then. Her time was supposed to have come at the Munich Olympics in 1972 but she died of cancer in a Munich clinic in December 1970, 13 days past her 22nd birthday.

"Yeah, I know about her," Ohuruogu says, taking receipt of a dog-eared copy of Lillian, the moving biography that was penned by Board's fiancé, David Emery. "I'll read that. It'll probably make me cry." She is lost in thought as she stares at the photographs, the supremely gifted London girl who finished the golden job that another was so tragically unable to complete.

So can Ohuruogu appreciate the magnitude of her achievement? Can she grasp her momentous place in the scheme of things in British athletics? "Um..." she says, pondering her reply. "I'll answer honestly. I don't believe that I'll realise what I've done until my career is over. I don't think so, because we live in such a fast-moving world. You don't have any time for your feet to touch the ground, let alone stop and think about one of the greatest achievements you're probably ever going to have in your life.

"Maybe you can't afford to stop and think about it. You're back in training. You're planning your next season. The indoor season is coming up soon. And when you have the World Championships coming next summer, you almost have to forget that you're Olympic champion and remember that you're one of – what? – a hundred 400m runners who want to win a medal as much as you do.

"But I think it's something that can be savoured very slowly. I don't have to enjoy it all now. It's always going to be there, when I'm ready to think upon my achievements."

But has she not watched the 49.62 seconds of her race again on DVD or video and drunk in a measure of reflective self-satisfaction? "I haven't watched it on my own," Ohuruogu replies. "I watch it when people play it for me, at the various schools I go to."

So what does she think when she stares back at herself? "Um, it's weird," she says. "It's almost like I'm watching someone else run. I don't think I actually remember running the race. It is almost like watching another person."

Which is not entirely surprising when you discover that Ohuruogu went into the race – the biggest race of her track career – clouded by a fog of sleeplessness. Asked how she had spent the day leading up to the evening race, whether she had chilled out Usain Bolt-style in the Olympic Village, playing computer games and devouring chicken nuggets by the bucketful, she says: "I wish I could have done that. I think I'd be too scared to do that, I didn't do anything unusual. I did spend some time in bed but I couldn't get to sleep.

"I couldn't sleep at all. I hadn't slept for days. I kept telling myself, 'You'll fall asleep eventually'. But I just couldn't settle down, during that day or the night before. You just lie there, getting frustrated with yourself. You have to stop yourself thinking about the race and thinking about coming last, and thinking about the other people in the race. It's very hard, very hard. By the time I got to the race day, by the time I got to the track, I was exhausted. I was just mentally and physically exhausted, because I hadn't slept. My head was just buzzing."

Yet still Ohuruogu managed to give her rivals a head start and reel them all in with her grandstand finish, just like she had done at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006 and at the World Championships in Osaka last year. Does she not wonder what she might have done with a good night's sleep behind her in Beijing? "No," she replies, chuckling. "A win is good. My coach always says, 'A win is a win is a win'. Yeah, I can't complain."

Four months on from the Games, as she goes about the business of preparing for the new year, under the guidance of her arch-pragmatist of a coach, Lloyd Cowan, Ohuruogu seems almost as bemused by her status as an Olympic champion as she was in Beijing. Even the afternoon after the women's 400m, with some sleep finally behind her, she looked nonplussed by the media fuss being made of her in the Olympic Village. She looks the same now.

All of which brings to mind the story of Steve Ovett when a television interviewer suggested to him the day after his 800m win in Moscow in 1980 that he was now "a megastar". "No, I can't see it," a laughing Ovett replied. "It's like last night. I came back and put my medal on the table and said to my coach, Harry Wilson, 'It just goes to prove that any idiot can become an Olympic champion'." Not that Ohuruogu could be described as an idiot – what with a degree in linguistics from University College, London. It's just that clearly, despite her gold medal, she can't quite see herself as some kind of superwoman of the track.

"No, I can't," she says. "I think that's what I try to get across to the kids I talk to. You know: 'I went to the same schools as you did; I went to the same parks in east London.' I wasn't born into an opulent family. There's eight kids. Mum and dad were working. My life wasn't one of greatness. I just worked hard. And because of that you can't afford to see yourself as a superbeing because you're not. You really aren't."

Ohuruogu was brought up in Stratford, on the very doorstep of the complex where – health, form and fitness willing – she will be defending her Olympic crown in 2012. Her parents were born in Nigeria. Jonathan Ohuruogu works in computers. Patience Ohuruogu works for the Inland Revenue. They have eight children: Obi, 25; Christine, 24; Charlie, 19; Vicky, 15; Daniel, 13; Kingsley, 10; Gabriel, 4; and Joshua, 15 months.

Their family name means "fighter" in Nigerian – a quality their eldest daughter has shown in abundance in her athletics career, not least through the ordeal of the 12-month ban she served for thrice being absent when drug testers turned up unannounced, and through the lingering fallout, during which some have chosen to portray her "crime" as something more sinister than highly unfortunate planning of her daily routine.

One reporter even suggested that the gold medal she won in Beijing should not be counted in the British team's tally. Patience Ohuruogu told the Radio Times recently that she had "left messages for him saying I'd phone him every day unless he called me back. He eventually did and I calmly explained a few facts to him."

Those facts were placed into further perspective the other week when the domestic football fraternity expressed its outrage at the prospect of Premier League players being subjected to random tests at their homes. "It's a total invasion of privacy," Kevin Gallacher, the former Blackburn, Newcastle and Scotland striker, said on BBC Radio Five Live.

"I mean what are you going to do if they call and you're going round Tesco with the missus?"

Given what Ohuruogu has been obliged to endure for having got herself caught on the wrong side of just such a set of circumstances, albeit on three separate occasions, you would be tempted to laugh at the comical double standard of it all, were it not so seriously unjust.

The whole experience has done little to draw Ohuruogu out of her natural shell of diffidence. Still, when you get the chance to speak to her outside of a media scrum, you can see the highly engaging individual behind the highly exceptional track performances.

You suspect that it is here, at the Lee Valley centre, that Christine Ijeoma Ohuruogu feels most at home – putting in the hard yards in preparation for a new year that will include a brief foray on the indoor circuit, in the grand prix meeting in Birmingham on 21 February, and, come the climax of the outdoor season in August, the defence of her World Championship 400m crown in Berlin. And the yards are far from easy, with Cowan – the man who has transformed her from an Under-19 England netball player into the leading lady of the 400m – barking his instructions from trackside. A former international hurdler, he would appear to be the ideal man to keep the feet of any Olympic champion firmly planted on terra firma.

"He is," Ohuruogu reflects, with a smile of appreciation. "I still get shouted at. He barks at me when I get stuff wrong. When I do a rubbish run he'll tell me it's rubbish. He'll tell me to do it again. And he shouts at me in front of everyone, so the rest of the training group all hear it. I do feel embarrassed at times but if I was doing it properly I wouldn't get told off, would I?

"No, he's good. And what we're all here for is to work. We're not here to pose around and say, 'Yeah, I'm a superstar. I'm this. I'm that'. You're here to work. If you don't want to work, you should go home."

Ohuruogu: By numbers

50

Ohuruogu's 400m gold in Beijing was Great Britain's 50th Olympic athletics gold, and also her country's only track and field gold at last summer's Games.

49.61

Her personal best time for the 400m, ranking her third behind Kathy Cook and Katharine Merry.

49.62

Ohuruogu's winning time in Beijing, which would have failed to achieve higher than bronze in any other Games since 1976.

8

Christine is one of her Nigerian parents' eight children.

24

Days between the end of her drugs suspension and her return to action, at the World Championships in Osaka in August last year.

11.35

Ohuruogu's best 100m time.

3

Major 400m titles Ohuruogu holds – the Commonwealth Games (Melbourne, 2006), the World Championships (Osaka, 2007) and the Olympics (Beijing, 2008).

7

Ohuruogu was one of seven Olympians who made the shortlist for Sports Personality of the Year.

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