“The key is not to believe your own hype,” says Darren Campbell, “and work harder – not work as hard – you need to work harder.” It’s an adage you somehow feel Great Britain’s Olympic gold medallist lives his life by.
When Sport.co.uk approaches Campbell he baulks at the prospect of another interview after a long day of pacifying the media. His back is sore from an overzealous personal trainer and a long commute to South Wales from St John’s Wood in north London awaits him. He takes in our hopeful look, glances at our notepad, inhales deeply, smiles, and holds out a hand. “Hi, how are you doing?”
Aged 37, Campbell’s glittering career in athletics has now made way for a role as the ambassador for Sky Sports Living for Sport – an initiative in conjunction with the Youth Sport Trust and BSkyB. It is a role he takes as seriously and passionately as he did in training for the 100m and 200m in his heyday and one that has helped inspire children at schools across Great Britain to better their lives through sport.
Wake-up call – sport saved my life
It is a lesson he benefitted from when he was growing up in Manchester’s Moss Side. “When you grow up on a council estate,” Campbell explains, “where all you see around you is bad things, nine times out of 10 you end up a product of your environment. At the age of 17 one of my friends was murdered. It became a bit of a wake-up call that it’s not a game; it’s not a joke. If things go wrong or things go bad you could lose your life.
“Sport’s the only reason I live in South Wales. If I hadn’t been an athlete and a fairly decent one as a junior I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to move. Without having sport as a focus and a way to escape I don’t know what may have happened but I know the path I was on wasn’t a good one.
“I’m just here to inspire the young people to believe in themselves. The people that really deserve the praise are the athlete mentors who have done a fantastic job.”
With Campbell are Steve Frew, Commonwealth Games gymnastics gold medallist, Rachael Mackenzie, Thai-Boxing Women’s World Champion, Chris Horsman, Welsh rugby union World Cup player and Chris Cook, GB double Commonwealth swimming champion. Along with several other mentors they visit the schools and get to know the students, encouraging them to get into sport and realise their dreams.
“A lot is said about role models,” says Campbell, “but the athlete mentors are genuine role models. We all have stories. We’ve all been through adversity and how we’re able to inspire young people is by telling them adversity affects everybody. If you believe in yourself and stay focused and ask for help, if needed, you can make it to the other side.”
2010 Sport Student of the Year
As he starts talking about the kids who have been invited down to the event at Lords Cricket Ground for the initiative’s 2010 Sport Student of the Year Awards his media savvy façade breaks and his face lights up with a reinvigorated vibrancy.
He has been posing for pictures with the young guests and presenting the awards, introduced by Sky Sports’ immaculately turned-out presenters Vicky Gomersall and John Paul Davies. Conor Fitzpatrick of Newbattle Community High School in Dalkeith, Midlothian was awarded the title of UK Sky Sports Living for Sport Student of the Year 2010. Struggling with school life he was encouraged to take up basketball and has grown in confidence, coaching younger pupils as sports ambassador for the school and applied this motivation to his schoolwork.
“Conor’s fantastic,” beams Campbell. “All the students who have taken part are phenomenal young people. They all have inspiring stories. Conor and I spoke earlier before the awards began and today was the first time he’d been on a plane. It’s the kind of things we take for granted.
“He told me he had come here to win and it is that newfound confidence he learned through applying himself to sport. When I was in school I was that child who was afraid to put up his hand and couldn’t stand up at the front of the class to give a presentation. Now it’s just second nature.
“I think all of us who have been fortunate to be part of today will feel proud we’ve made a young man very happy.”
Career choices – walking away from athletics
Campbell, himself, began to excel in sports as a teenager, earning national attention with gold medals in the individual 100m and 200m and in the 4x100m relay team at the 1991 European Junior Championships in Greece. A year later Campbell’s precocious talent briefly flickered under the international spotlight with silver in the 100m and 200m and, again, gold in the 4x100m at the World Junior Championships in South Korea.
After making his senior debut at the Stuttgart World Championships in 1993, again in the sprint relay – an event that would later earn him world fame – the Manchester-born flyer walked away from athletics, aged just 21.
“I had been in the sport so long,” Campbell explains. “When I was 19, after the World Juniors, I was involved in a car crash and damaged my back and tilted my pelvis. I basically couldn’t run the way I had earlier on in my career. I felt if I can’t do it to the best of my ability there’s no point in doing it.
“I started working in an insurance company. My back started to heal over time and I started playing football at work. Next thing I was at Cwmbran Town, then next thing I know I’m playing semi-professional football. It wasn’t a plan, it just happened. One day after the game there was a Liverpool fan there who is now my oldest son’s godfather and he just said you’re not ready for Liverpool. I was like ‘I know that,’ plus, I’m a [Manchester] United fan.”
He went on to have trials at Millwall and Plymouth Argyle, where he scored nine goals in seven games and was offered the opportunity to go to Weymouth on £200 a week. “They offered to pay my board,” says Campbell. “The chairman said if I didn’t sign that day they would take away the contract so I took that gamble.”
The next day Neil Warnock had been appointed at Plymouth and called him at work to offer a two-year contract but when Campbell spoke to the Weymouth chairman again he just laughed off their bid. “The chairman just said that’s football,” Campbell remembers. “I kind of knew then that football wasn’t for me.”
Olympic medals – Sydney and Athens
Does he ever wonder where his career could have taken him if he had stuck to football? “I wouldn’t have made it,” he admits. “I wouldn’t be who I am today. Definitely, I’m not that good. Maybe, if I had my time again, and ended up at somewhere like Arsenal where the manager likes fast players something might have happened. I needed someone who would have worked with me. I was at the same Soccer School of Excellence as Giggsy [Ryan Giggs]. He was fast. He had a good touch and dribbling ability. I was just fast. I can do most sports but it’s because I’m fast. I know that. I’m very realistic about my skills.
“In life you’ve got a path that if you go down you’ll be successful. A lot of the time in my life I kept coming off that path, whether for my friends, or in this case, for football or injury. I just remember watching the athletics in 1995 and thinking my back’s healed. I’ve got unfinished business. I trained and went to the 1996 Olympics [in Atlanta] and knew that was where I was meant to be.”
He didn’t exactly make a bad career choice. The following two Olympic Games were to provide Campbell with his two Olympic medals – firstly a surprise 200m silver in Sydney 2000 – and four years later a stand out achievement in British athletics came shortly before his 31st birthday at the Athens Games of 2004. The 4x100m relay team of Jason Gardener, Darren Campbell, Marlon Devonish and Mark-Lewis Francis secured Olympic gold for the first time in the event since 1912. Yet, as Campbell explains, the magnitude of their achievement didn’t dawn on the four sprinters until later that year.
“We didn’t realise it at the time,” he says. “As we went into BBC’s Sports Personality that year people started saying we’d have a chance of winning but as usual rowing won [the Team of the Year category]. It seemed pretty ridiculous when something hadn’t been achieved since 1912. But, again, for us winning Olympic gold was the most important thing. It just shows what can happen when you work together as a team. On the day we were totally focused on what we had to do and we had total belief in our abilities and it paid off.”
Lewis-Francis, Baptiste and Bolt
Campbell has long since retired from athletics but teammate Lewis-Francis, who held off USA’s Maurice Green on the final leg of that successful relay race, is still competing against the elite of world sprinting. Last year, at 28, he ran to a Commonwealth Games silver medal finish in the 100m final in Delhi and looks to finally be fulfilling his much-hyped potential.
Michael Johnson, the former world record holder for the 200m and 400m, has been publically critical of Lewis-Francis’ slow progress since his early promise as a junior until recently but it is an opinion Campbell feel’s his former colleague should not pay too much attention to.
“I’ve always said Mark’s a fantastic talent,” says Campbell. “It’s alright to criticise somebody but I know a lot more than Michael knew with regards to the fact Mark’s had Achilles problems. I ruptured my Achilles two years ago. I had a 95 per cent rupture and it’s the worst pain I’ve ever been in – in my life. If I had still been an athlete I don’t know if I could have sprinted again because mentally it’s a tough one.
“He’s had problems with both of them so for him to come back and win a medal in the European Champs [silver in the 100m final at Barcelona] last year and the Commonwealth Games it’s amazing. Michael’s just one of those that always get involved once it’s come good. So, the less said the better.”
At the Games in Delhi England’s Leon Baptiste also impressed, winning the 200m gold ahead of fellow British sprinters Christian Malcolm and Marlon Devonish. It is an event Campbell achieved his first senior medal in – at the Sydney Olympics – and he took the opportunity at the recent Aviva UK Athletics Awards dinner to congratulate the 25-year-old.
Campbell reveals, “I said to him, ‘Look, you’ve done something that a lot of the world’s top sprinters haven’t done – you’ve won a gold medal. The important thing now is to believe in yourself. You’ve proved to yourself you deserve to be up there competing against the best. You’ve got to continue with that belief and keep going and keep working hard.’
“That was a huge victory and proved he was able to step up to the mark. The key now is to not take your foot off the pedal. I made that mistake in ’98 after I won the European Champs and messed up my ’99 season. You’ve got to keep training as if you’re a contender, not the best. That’s the secret.”
With a crucial 18 months to go before the hotly anticipated 2012 Olympics comes to London Campbell expects big things for Great Britain’s medal hopefuls in the 100m – although he acknowledges there is a certain mercurial Jamaican who is unlikely to relinquish his hold on the prized gold.
“It’s difficult to look outside of Usain Bolt,” says Campbell. “I think Mark Lewis-Francis could get a medal. I think if he’s able to make a World Champ final this year then I would definitely put money on him rising to that next level. Then you’ve just got the usual suspects: Asafa Powell, who you know is mentally not that strong – you can always get into his mind – and then Tyson Gay, who beat Usain Bolt last season. But it is difficult to look past those guys.”
Manchester football rivalry
Nevertheless, before the spotlight can be fully turned on London and the symbolic Olympic Stadium in the capital’s East End, Great Britain’s athletics medal hopefuls must look to build momentum. Lewis-Francis will go head-to-head with France’s Christophe Lemaitre at the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Paris this March followed by the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea come August. Then, of course, outside of track and field there is the little matter of the English Premier League title race and the powder-keg topic of a Manchester rivalry to be decided.
“I think they’re just soldiering on,” says Campbell, a Manchester United fan, on his side’s progress in the league this season. “They haven’t done anything spectacular but they haven’t lost. This year I think the league is the closest it’s ever been because most teams are going into games trying to win them, not playing for a draw. I think City do against the top teams but it’s not a bad strategy because they’re in 2nd place. If they don’t lose against the big boys but beat everybody else you’re going to win the league.
“I just feel with the games we’ve got in hand if we’re able to keep our heads it’s going to be our season. United have that never-say-die spirit as you saw in coming back from 2-0 down at Aston Villa. That has been instilled. When you’ve got a great leader like Sir Alex Ferguson, great players like [Paul] Scholesy and Giggsy who have been there, seen it and done it, we’re always going to be difficult to beat. My biggest fear for Manchester United is when Sir Alex Ferguson goes. I feel sorry for whoever comes in.”
Last time Campbell spoke to Sport.co.uk in July he said he wasn’t taking Manchester City seriously as a threat. With the noisy neighbours sitting level with the table-toppers United and only four full months to go, he admits that’s all changed.
“Yeah they are [a threat],” he concedes. “We hear about all the fights on the training ground but I think what Roberto Mancini has been able to do is get the players playing as a team and I think they’re going to be there or there abouts. The hardest thing to do is to do something for the first time. To win their first title is always going to be difficult but they’re in a great position and could do it. I just don’t think it will be this season, but who knows?”
Premier League 4x100m relay team
Campbell’s love affair with football runs deeper. Since retiring in 2006 he has applied the skills and experiences he honed and accumulated on the running track to sports outside of athletics. Along with his gold and silver medals he now can point to his role as pace and acceleration specialist on his CV from his work with top flight Premier League football teams, as well as with Aviva Premiership rugby players.
When asked if he’s working with any football players at the moment Campbell hesitates. Instead he points to his work with several England capped rugby union stars including Mark Cueto, Mathew Tait and Richard Wigglesworth.
“I’m going to start doing work with [England captain] Lewis Moody so I’m doing a lot in rugby right now. It’s not that any of them need to improve, but you can improve. That’s the reality. I think where sports has changed is in getting that extra five, 10 or 15 per cent out of yourself. The key thing is that people want to improve and I know how to make them quicker.”
If Campbell was to assemble a dream 4x100 relay team of current Premier League pace men it would make a frightening strike force.
“Theo Walcott, Gabriel Obertan and I think [Javier Hernandez] Chicharito’s quite fast. They’re quick. I know Chicharito was clocked as the quickest at the World Cup. I know my stats. I think Darren Bent’s quick. Especially as he’s going for £20million he can run the last leg.
“I’ve always said Thierry Henry had the best technique and could have been a sprinter out of anybody I’ve ever seen on a football field. He could have been a sprinter but then I found out the other day he did used to run so that says it all.”
With the day’s festivities taking place at Lords Cricket Ground and with the invited students and their families embarked on a tour of the Home of Cricket we had to sneak a word in on England’s heroic Ashes win.
“I did spend many a night watching until 2am or 3am and then waking up to see that we trounced them,” Campbell chuckles. “You can only feel proud for all of the England team. England never stopped going or believing they could do it and it’s down to great leadership in Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss. It’s going to be difficult in this ODI series but it doesn’t matter – the Ashes are coming home.”
Campbell’s enthusiasm and self-belief are infectious. With an Olympic gold medal to his name, coaching and ambassadorial roles keeping him busy and contented, and an MBE awarded in recognition of his hard work it’s easy to be inspired by the Moss Side-born star of the racetrack and symbol of British sport.
Perhaps fittingly for Campbell, a true sports fan at heart, it is a perfect hat-trick he scored in a charity match at his beloved Old Trafford that brings him the sweetest memories. “Yeah I forgot about that,” he remembers with a nostalgic smile. “That made my life. I might even have that on video.”
The Sky Sports Living for Sport Student of the Year awards encourages schools across the UK to nominate pupils whose involvement demonstrated how sport supports students in developing skills such as confidence, respect and a sense of achievement. For more information please visit http://livingforsport.skysports.com/.