Greg Rutherford’s Olympic bobsleigh dream: ‘I intend to make history’

Former long jumper is secretly training with GB squad, aiming to be the first Briton to win summer and winter Olympic medals

“I’ve never been someone to do anything half-arsed,” says Greg Rutherford, as he revs up for the most dramatic leap of his career. “I’m coming back, and I intend to make history”. It has been three years since the London 2012 long jump champion hung up his spikes, his body beaten up and broken down. But, incredibly, the 34-year-old returned to training last year and has secretly joined the GB bobsleigh squad as part of an audacious attempt to become the first Briton ever to win both summer and winter Olympic medals.

What makes Rutherford’s story even more remarkable is that he has never sat in a bobsleigh before. But next month, Covid permitting, he will attend a team training camp in Gibraltar having been told by GB Bobsleigh coaches that he has “every chance” of making the Winter Olympics in Beijing next February.

“I know most people believe it is impossible to go from never having attempted a sport to winning an Olympic medal in under a year,” says Rutherford. “But I 100% disagree. I’m not doing this merely to turn up to finish 25th. I intend to train incredibly hard, get myself on to the team, and then win a medal. And if we get the right sled, and have the perfect run, anything is possible. Even gold.”

Most people would think twice about hurtling down a track at 90mph, but Rutherford is a genuine thrill-seeker who tried out the skeleton a few years ago, just for fun. “I think most people consider the skeleton as being quite nuts,” he says. “So the fact I’ve done it and loved it puts me in good stead.”

Rutherford’s dream of a golden resurrection seemed impossible when he ended his long jump career in 2018. Back then he told the Guardian that he was in so much pain every time he leapt into a sand pit he was left hobbling for three days, unable to even sit on the floor to play with his kids.

So what changed? “It’s a funny old thing,” he says. “I was very happily retired but during lockdown I started training again because I had nothing really to do. I still have a full setup at home, including a gym and a track with a long jump pit, and my body responded really well.”

Greg Rutherford celebrates winning long jump gold at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Greg Rutherford celebrates winning long jump gold at the 2012 Olympics in London. Photograph: David J Phillip/AP

“My left ankle is still a bit dodgy,” he admits. “But the difference is that I’m not having to prepare to jump any more. And as soon as you remove that side of movement, it makes my training a million times easier.”

However the seed of a return was only planted when Rutherford’s old friend, Kaillie Humphries – who won bobsleigh gold for Canada in the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics and bronze in 2018 – heard he was in shape again and urged him: “Dude, you have to try bobsleigh.” In February Rutherford then began speaking to double Olympian Lamin Deen, who was 12th in last month’s world championships, as well as the GB bobsleigh coaches Steve Smith and John Herbert. And what had been a pipe dream then turned into a serious plan.

“I didn’t want to assume that because I was a fast and powerful athlete a few years ago that I would be able to cut it,” Rutherford says. “I also didn’t want to offend anyone by coming in. But the overriding feeling I kept getting was that they were very keen, too.

“There was none of this: ‘Well, come down, see how you get on and we’ll see.’ It was very much: ‘As long as you’re fit, we can very much see you being a member of our team.’ Of course I still have to go through a selection process. But when people tell you they can see you competing in Beijing, that’s obviously a nice place to be.”

Rutherford put on some weight after retiring from athletics, but counterintuitively this may actually boost his chances. It turns out that GB Bobsleigh are short of powerful yet heavy sprinters. Such athletes are vital, as sleds have to be a certain weight in competition. If the team is too light, extra weight is then added to the sled itself, which makes it heavier and harder to push at the start.

Greg Rutherford competes in the long jump final at the Rio Olympics in 2016, where he won bronze.
Greg Rutherford competes in the long jump final at the Rio Olympics in 2016, where he won bronze. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

“Over the last three years I’ve been more relaxed with diet, and gone up to around 100-101kg - which is about 14kg more than I used to be,” Rutherford says. “But that’s what that British bobsleigh is lacking: heavy guys who can also move quickly. The plan is to see if I can get to around 104 to 106kg, so I am eating more than ever. I’m training like a bodybuilder with the idea of leaning out in the run-up to Beijing.”

Rutherford knows that some sceptics will believe his dream of more Olympic glory is so outrageous that it is impossible. But he insists that he is still fast – having run 10.26sec for 100m during his career – and actually more powerful now than when he was a track and field star. “When I squat at home I don’t have a cage, so I get quite worried when I get too heavy, but I’ve done 210kg in recent weeks. And it’s not that that feels too heavy, so I can definitely get stronger.”

And Deen, who is expected to drive one of the two British sleds in Beijing, says he has been hugely impressed with what he has seen. “Greg’s got a huge chance of making it for sure,” he said. “He’s got a fantastic attitude and he’s got as much chance as anybody else within my squad of being on the plane for Beijing. Obviously he’s got a little bit of a learning curve, but he’s already been training with my coaches to catch up.

Greg Rutherford (right), a long jump Olympic gold medallist and former world champion, talks to double GB winter Olympian bobsleigh driver Lamin Deen.
Greg Rutherford (right), a long jump Olympic gold medallist and former world champion, talks to double GB winter Olympian bobsleigh driver Lamin Deen. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

“What he is doing now in terms of lifting, sprinting and jumping is already on par with the guys,” he added. “He is an incredible athlete. He just needs to learn the skills – and he definitely has enough time to do that.”

That message was echoed by GB Bobsleigh push coach Smith, who said that Rutherford had “every chance to succeed” if he stays fit. “But I am also brutally honest with him,” he added. “It’s not a given that he will get in. Bobsleigh is not just about running down the ice. You also have a sled to contend with, you have got to know how to hit and load into that sled. It will be a steep learning curve.”

Rutherford understands that. But there is no doubting the enthusiasm that infuses his every sentence and syllable. And, he confides, that when he walks his dogs he is already picturing himself on the start line in Beijing, crouching as he readies himself to charge down the ice – precisely the same vivid mental rehearsals he used before becoming the first British track and field athlete to ever hold all the major outdoor titles at the same time.

“We have my former GB teammates Joel Fearon and James Dasaolu, who have both run under 10 seconds for 100m, and the rest of the squad is also very impressive. Then there is me, an Olympic champion in a speed-power based event,” says Rutherford, whose journey over the next few months will be filmed by Betty Productions. “This could be the fastest bobsleigh team in history. It’s genuinely really exciting.”

Rutherford’s excitement is only tempered by the knowledge that GB Bobsleigh is no longer funded by UK Sport, which means they have to rely on a sled that was first used in the 2006 Winter Olympics – and is two-tenths of a second slower than sleeker, modern, and more aerodynamic models used by their rival teams.

Greg Rutherford lifting weights in the gym at his home.
“I’m training like a bodybuilder with the idea of leaning out in the run-up to Beijing.” Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

“Getting something that puts us level on the technology front with the likes of Germany and the US really would be a game-changer,” says Rutherford, who admits he would love a company such as Ineos to lend its support. “We all know how quickly technology changes. Can you imagine creating an F1 team and trying to race in the 2006 model? You’d get absolutely annihilated.”

“But I guarantee you that when the Winter Games comes, everybody will be interested in a GB team flying down an ice track at 150km an hour – especially if we can be in the hunt for medals.”

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If Rutherford does make it to Beijing he realises it will be a formidable task to make history. Only one athlete, Eddie Eagan of the USA, has won gold medals in Olympics across both winter and summer sports – as a light-heavyweight boxer in Antwerp in 1920 and in the four-man bobsleigh in Lake Placid in 1932. Only four others – Jacob Tullin Thams (ski jumping and sailing), Christa Luding-Rothenburger (speed skating and track cycling), Clara Hughes (road cycling and speed skating) and Lauryn Williams (athletics and bobseigh) – have ever won Olympic medals spanning both winter and summer sports.

But that only adds to Rutherford’s determination to succeed. “If it comes off it would be one of the greatest achievements in my life, only behind the Olympics in London,” he says. “And I genuinely believe that if the team gets it right – probably with a new sled as well which I’m pretty sure we’ll manage to figure out – there is every chance we can do really well. And for me, doing really well means winning a medal. How amazing would that be?”


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