Sally Gunnell, the only woman to have held European, World, Commonwealth and Olympic hurdles titles at the same time, is concerned that the athletics authorities are not doing enough to harness young people's talents. The 45-year-old, who still holds the British record for 400m hurdles 15 years after she retired, warns that athletics is at risk of "losing" young people to more professionally led sports, such as football and cricket.
"I have three kids and I know we're not grasping at that young area," she says. "My boys are very drawn to football because of all the schemes; it seems to be much more professional. And were just losing them."
The self-styled "farmer's daughter from Essex" says if she could become one of Britain's greatest athletes, then so can anyone with the right encouragement and talent. "Kids want to feel good about themselves; feel the ownership of being spotted and of having that talent," she says. "I loved my club set-up, especially meeting friends there, but I notice it's hard keeping a lot of kids in there. It's about spending a little more money on the clubs and the coaching schemes, and building up academies. Our coaches don't get paid at all, unlike cricket or football coaches."
While the younger generations may be slipping through the net, she believes Britain has every chance of Olympic success this year. Naming a number of "stars to watch" – including the pole vaulter and Kelly Holmes protégé Hannah England and the heptathlete Jessica Ennis – Gunnell is concerned about the media frenzy surrounding some of Britain's up-and-coming athletes, "doing all that publicity before they even have a gold medal". She offers pragmatic advice: "It is all about winning; just about getting those medals and being the best you can be and running the fastest you can."
She returns to the Olympics this year as a host, ambassador and potential interviewer for Sky, and her love for the Games is unwavering. She has secured five tickets for the 100m final night and is taking the family. The event falls 20 years to the day after she secured her gold medal for Britain. "What would I say to the cynics?" she asks. "Well, if the Olympics aren't your thing and you don't want to be in London, then I would say: 'Go'. The rest of us want something to cheer about." Such is her passion for the Games that she even encouraged her parents – both in their eighties and living just six miles from the London Olympics site – to set up a caravan site on their property to house some of people such as the volunteers who could not afford to live elsewhere. Until Chigwell locals threatened to sue, she planned to run buses to and from the site. In typical Gunnell style, she cannot understand why "for a few weeks, during the Games, locals couldn't quite cope with a very well-managed site in the middle of nowhere".
More at home watching her sons play football at their local club than on the pages of national newspapers, the matter-of-fact Gunnell readily admits that sport is her "world". She met her husband, John, a former athlete and coach, when she was 18, during a junior competition in Australia. John, who has always been her "backbone" and the reason she "got out of bed every morning", has never missed one of her training sessions. He now co-runs her motivational health company and, until I question her on it, Gunnell begins almost every answer to my questions with the collective "we".
Every other sentence she utters is peppered with references to her "boys" – Finley, 13, Luca, 11, and Marley, 7 – and the only time her confidence appears shaken is when she wonders aloud if she works them too hard. "I am constantly asking myself am I pushing them too much?" she says. "At the end of the day, I'm a taxi service, I buy them equipment and I shuttle them around ... but I get really nervous watching," she adds, noting how the tables have turned.
But Gunnell is not just to be found on the sidelines. She recently visited Ethiopia with ActionAid to run in the 10km Great Ethiopian Run, although, with a route at more than 2,300m above sea level, she settled for a place towards the back so that she could take in the experience – hardly something you would expect from a champion known for her commitment to winning. But as she confesses that there is nothing she enjoys more than a "Chinese takeaway on a Friday night and a glass of wine to go with it", it appears she might have mellowed.
Sally Gunnell is an ActionAid ambassador (actionaid.org.uk/giving)
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