Exclusive Interview: Denise Lewis

By Online Editorial
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Lewis believes that Semenya has been harshly treated by the IAAF

Following the conclusion of the World Athletics Championships in Berlin, Britain’s Denise Lewis speaks exclusively about the event and gives her views on Usain Bolt and the Caster Semenya controversy.

The 37-year-old heptathlon specialist is a supporter of the British Airways Great Britons programme, where young British talent is given the opportunity to win free BA flights in order to realise their dreams. You can vote for the contestant that you think deserves the prize most of all by clicking here.

Lewis gave us her take on all the issues surrounding the competition in Germany and discusses Britain’s hopes at London 2012.

What were your highlights of the World Athletics Championships in Berlin?

I was actually out in Berlin myself, doing some work for the BBC as one of their sporting pundits.

It’s difficult to pull out specific highlights because as a whole Team GB did really well. Jessica Ennis, as a heptathlete is obviously my favoured person for the Championship as I like to see that form of event in good hands and strong, and Jess looks like a very, very healthy prospect for 2012.

She competed superbly so it was really pleasing to see her. Another of my favourites was Jenny Meadows gaining her bronze. Generally, the ladies had a very good Championship.

Caster Semenya’s story hugely overshadowed her athletic achievement in Berlin – do you feel the issue should have been dealt with in such a public arena?

If I’m honest, I was quite annoyed and disgusted that the IAAF managed to get this story out. Rumours will always be rife in sport but they’ve known about this particular issue for many months and it could have been handled in a much more sensitive way.

The world’s media have latched onto the story and it has just completely taken over. Even Newsnight wanted to cover it last week. An athlete who appears to have a hormonal imbalance, which can manifest itself in a variety of ways, is frankly a very private affair and nothing to do with anyone else apart from the individual and, if indeed the IAAF do have to get involved, then the IAAF.

I was very upset by the whole situation. She has been primarily judged on how she looks by a lot of people that don’t really know the case at all. We might have this stereotypical image that we think everyone must conform to, which obviously she doesn’t and has as a result been put in a very unforgiving situation.

She’s a young girl – a child at the end of the day – and it must be incredibly hard for her and her family. If you think of her background in South Africa, where her parents will have accepted her as their daughter just exactly how she was, a lot of people are far too quick to jump on the band wagon and judge her and her situation by our own standards.

I think we need to consider our own responsibility in how such stories are covered in the future.

Is it too early to base Britain’s 2012 hopes on the results from Berlin?

As you step back as a competitor and watch the sport develop and grow, you realise that there are natural ebbs and flows of performance. Who would have thought 12 months ago, after Beijing, that the team would do quite so well?

The people that medalled at Berlin were the ones that had a lot to prove – Jenny Meadows came back from injury, having suffered funding cuts, to really prove herself; Jess, as we know, had a bad foot and desperately wanted to be there; Phillip Sodowu, having been disappointed with his silver last year, arrived in Berlin and performed out of his skin.

Basically, the athletes in Berlin were hungry for victory, and that was reflected in those who medalled. So the next three years are likely to have ups and downs, twists and turns but I think when we enter in 2012, the competing athletes will be so inspired and moved that the ones that are able to utilise that sort of pressure will probably do very well from it.

How do we remain consistent, making sure our 2012 hopefuls don’t peak too early?

Well it depends from what angle your talking really – who that ‘we’ is. In short, everyone has a role to play in making sport their top agenda and profiling it in the right way.

From a corporate view, major sponsors of the Games – British Airways very much included – have a major role to play in the development of British talent coming through. They need to help ensure that the potential stars of those Games – the people who can really lift the country – are profiled in the right way, so that when the times comes, the public know who they are and can really get behind their story and their journey to 2012.

That way, the British public can almost live the Games alongside the athletes, because you really do want everyone to feel part of the 2012 experience. From grassroots right through to the most senior corporate person, everyone shares in that responsibility.

We’re now looking at Britain hosting some pretty major world sporting events in the forthcoming years – following the 2012 Games we’ve got the Rugby World Cup in 2016, and the bid for the football equivalent in 2018. So if we can make 2012 the success it should be, the sporting legacy will just snowball. And in that way, the youngsters who are possibly choosing other things to do in life might choose sport and feel that they can be not just winners, but world-beaters.

As an athlete in the heat of the moment, how do you retain that ‘fun’ factor without losing focus?

Well at that moment you really are in the heat of the battle so admittedly you’re not thinking about the fun, you’re focused on delivering your performance. But more broadly speaking, especially when you’ve had a setback – and I’ve had several over the years – you start to appreciate the sport in a different way.

You do make sure you get the most out of training because, at some stage, the fun element becomes a result of your own success and your own progression. If you’re honouring yourself in that way, you are enjoying the journey regardless.

And then of course when you hit the big time, you get to do fun things off the track too as a result of all the hard graft – working with great people, establishing good relationships, and getting involved in fun projects like I do with British Airways. It then snowballs, and the fun factor and the athleticism start to move hand in hand.

How would you advise young athletes to cope with the added pressure that media attention brings? Unfortunately, it’s just part of the learning curve. You can’t separate the two. It’s like, how do you understand how to budget during university? You have to actually go through it to understand how to cope better with it. It’s part of the development and it can’t really be taught outright.

This is possibly one of the problems that we are going to face over the years. We’re already seeing athletes reaching the pinnacle of success at a very young age, so they are entering their sport much more skilled and much more developed earlier on – frequently hitting the big time before they’re even twenty years old. Usain Bolt, at the age of just 23, has won six global medals in two years – and gold medals at that.

Obviously you’re not mature enough really to deal with those things but you just have to walk that path to understand how to manage it. And ultimately, they will become better athletes for it – for having to work to achieve that balance. After all, that it what we all strive for in our lives – balancing work and play, and that’s really what it’s all about for them too. We’re seeing World Records get smashed year on year – how and why does this happen?

In certain events – for example in swimming for some reason – we are seeing World Records beaten frequently, year on year. But I don’t think that’s the case in every event at all. In athletics, the men’s sprints seem to be out there on their own on this one.

Some of the women’s records are 20 or 30 years old. We probably will see records broken again, but only by someone like Usain Bolt. He has redefined the sporting landscape in sprinting. We haven’t had someone who is 6’5” able to break records like he does.

He’s talking about going into Long Jump, maybe dabbling in the 400m… he really will re-write all the history books and I can’t see anyone else doing that to the same degree for a very long time.

Visit www.greatbritons.ba.com to find out more about the scheme and cast your vote!

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