7 September 2015Jonnie says Rio 2016 Paralympics must keep momentum of 2012's 'giant leap'
For Jonnie Peacock everything changed at the London 2012 Paralympics. His life, his direction, his future, all of it turned into something he never expected. But what the 100-metres gold medallist reckons changed most of all in that glorious late summer was the way his sport was perceived.
“Suddenly we were regarded as athletes,” Peacock recalls. “Before 2012, every interview you did felt patronising. It was never: ‘How’s training going?’ Or: ‘Who’s in your race?’ It was all: ‘What disability have you got?’ Or: ‘Tell us about your journey.’
“As athletes, we wanted to be judged on our sport. And 2012 was the first time we were actually viewed as sports people.”
In Peacock’s case he was viewed as a rather good sports person, a sports person moreover who seized his moment with aplomb. He was 19 when he tore on to the Stratford track to take gold. It was impossible to miss him, with his shock of peroxide hair, his graceful running style and his exuberant, triumphant celebration.
Peacock says he is not prone to feeling pressured
His success was all the more noteworthy since it came from nowhere. He had run in his first international competition only a year before, won his first race only in 2012. And here he was tearing up a storm. He said: “People kept saying to me: ‘Can you feel the pressure?’ But I didn’t. I was young. I was just going in there as the 19-year-old. If I didn’t win, nobody would have blamed me. No one would have asked what you were doing. I had no pressure.”
He certainly ran as if without burden, channelling an atmosphere that he says gave him decisive lift. “When I stood on the start line, the noise was just extraordinary. You might think noise would be intimidating, but no. It was love. You just felt you had everyone behind you. You could feel it.”
Now, three years on, Peacock is preparing for next summer’s Paralympics in Rio. Precisely 12 months away from the start, he is keen that the 2016 event has as significant an effect as London.
“Every time it has come round it has got a little bit bigger, a little bit better,” he says of the Paralympics. “If you imagine baby steps, then all of a sudden London comes along and it’s a huge great massive leap forward. It’s going to be hard to keep that momentum. I think we’ll need to.”
Peacock hopes to repeat his 2012 success in Rio
In that drive to maintain the Paralympics’ upward trajectory there is no question that the lively, engaging Peacock will supply some of the fuel. Not least because his own discipline, the T44 100m, the games blue riband event, is replete with soap opera narrative. He and the American sprinter Richard Browne are engaged in a tit-for-tat, record-breaking and very personal rivalry that invests their every meeting with drama.
“I wouldn’t call him my friend,” he says of Browne. “I have respect for him. I believe he is very talented, has got a lot to give. But mates? No.”
Theirs has been a rivalry played out in Diamond League meetings this summer as Paralympic events have been properly absorbed into the main athletic programme for the first time, his races with Browne presented as the “Clash of the Blade Runners”.
“It’s been interesting, but at first I had a bit of trouble in able-bodied meets,” he says. “I wasn’t committed enough, not pumped enough. I’d get to the start and I was almost too relaxed. It was like I wasn’t firing on all cylinders. It’s something that I’ve really had to learn this summer.”
Peacock poses with his gold medal in 2012
If this summer has seen him not at his best, as he claims, then we are in for some explosives when he peaks at the Paralympics. But then, this is not a sprinter easily satisfied. “I’ll never finish a race and say ‘that was perfect’. There’ll always be a but: but I did this, but I did that, but I didn’t do the other. The point is to get as close to perfection as you can. But you’ll never reach it. Impossible.”
Peacock, who fully anticipated a life as a car mechanic before London turned him into a full-time athlete, insists he is taking no short cuts in his eagerness to better Browne. He trains at Loughborough in the same sprinters group as the European 100m champion James Dasaolu and Asha Philip, who just ran a storm at the World Championships in Beijing. “We have real good fun together,” he says. “Asha’s a very good starter, she’s with me up to 20-30 metres. Then I go past her. She’s not going to want to hear that, but I do.”
And, as he matches himself against able-bodied athletes on a daily basis, the aim in all of the work done by this young man who lost a leg to meningitis as a toddler, is to encourage more people with disabilities to demonstrate their capability through sport. He has spent most of his spare time since London working with his sponsors, BT, to promote participation.
“I’ve definitely noticed more people giving it a go. Way more athletes got involved. The GB team always has been so strong, but it’s just got stronger and stronger. There’s a lot of juniors who are so good. It’s that kind of sport. Incredible to be part of.”
There might well be another Jonnie Peacock out there, he adds, waiting to come from nowhere to steal the glory this time next September.
Jonnie Peacock is an Ambassador for BT, long-time supporters of disability sport in the UK.