For some athletes, the Commonwealth Games appear to represent little more than an opportunity to stretch one’s legs at the midway point between Olympic Games. For others, the world’s second largest multi-sport event is exactly that – a major meet from which to take home a major medal.
Team England’s Jade Lally embodies the latter category – a passionate discus thrower determined to challenge the pain barrier and call upon every last sinew in her quest to prove her doubter wrong. The ability exists – past form is testament to that: a bronze medal in Glasgow four years ago, a British champion on five occasions and the holder of the all-time English record.
However, the recent road has been a rocky one for the Tooting-born athlete. As the clock ticks down to the start of proceedings on the Gold Coast, Lally is fighting fit. She has been for more than a year, ever since suffering a back injury at the start of 2017.
Despite throwing 59.11m last week – her best effort since the issue first flared up 13 months ago, the problem has hindered both her training and form. A fortnight before last week’s throw, Lally produced what she described as “the worst attempt of my entire career.” The result is that Lally is philosophical about her medal chances next month.
“I have enough time to turn things around and ultimately, it will take one throw on 12 April to win a medal,” she points out. “I fully believe I can do that, but I won’t be overly surprised if that doesn’t happen.”
If this sounds like an unusual admission from someone in an industry where displays of vulnerability are viewed as a weakness, it’s because Lally is no ordinary athlete. Almost unnervingly honest and refreshingly humble, she is a fascinating character.
“It’s annoying because the injury is something I’ve struggled with for so long now,” Lally admits. “I was a supported athlete by British Athletics last year and nothing came of it. I had three different types of pain-numbing procedures and the problem is still there.
“Whatever it was, they may have dealt with the symptoms, but the cause is still there. As soon as the numbing wore off, the pain came back. That’s what I’m faced with now. The last procedure was in November; they said it would last a few months, but I don’t reckon it lasted more than two weeks.
“I’m basically right back to where I started. It’s been a tough situation, especially since they took me off funding because they said I hadn’t had a good enough year.
“I don’t expect anything more or less from British Athletics unfortunately. I don’t think they’re particularly supportive but that’s what I’m faced with.”
Throughout our conversation, Lally is wary of appearing confrontational and bitter. In reality, her worries could scarcely be more misplaced. Absolutely, she is impassioned and there is certainly anger in her voice at times.
Yet, given the travails and bombshells to which she has been subjected in the last six years, her frustration is hardly surprising. Rather, the way in which she conveys her feelings is impressively considered.
Lally qualified for the London Olympics early in 2012 and was, therefore, entitled to expect to represent Team GB at her home Games. As it happened, the decision was made not to enter her – despite being the only athlete to meet the qualifying standard – with no explanation ever given. Great Britain, simply, would not compete in the women’s discus.
It was, for Lally, the moment that changed her perception of a sport that she had adored since first picking up a discus off the floor of a store cupboard at Hercules Wimbledon Athletics Club.
“That was a super-tough year,” she confesses of 2012, speaking with characteristic candour.
“That was definitely my toughest year – probably in life, to be honest. I even started the year married but I ended the year with a divorce and not an Olympian and feeling really dejected by everything. It literally had all completely fallen away.
“To this day, I do not understand why I wouldn’t be selected for a home Olympics – not out of pity or as a token competitor – but as someone who had qualified for their event. They chose to have nobody representing the country in the event instead. I think it’s disgusting and I don’t have another word for it.
“No good can come from that and I don’t understand how that conversation got to that end point. I don’t know whether they thought I didn’t have a future in the sport. Who were they to decide that, especially after I’d qualified for an Olympic-level event?
“I remember sitting there watching it and someone behind me said: ‘We haven’t got anyone in that event’, and I couldn’t sit there and not have that, so I said: ‘Just so you know, I qualified for that event but unfortunately I wasn’t selected.’
“Something good would have come from that from somewhere – whether that be me or someone being inspired by watching it. Instead, nothing happened. They probably showed a winning throw on the television and that was it. I think that’s flawed.”
That six years on, Lally is none the wiser on how she came to miss out on a fully-merited place at her home Olympics is staggering. It has though, she admits, acted as a powerful motivation in everything she has achieved since.
“I guess it inspires me and gives me a bit of drive,” she says.
“If someone had sat down with me and explained how they’d come to their conclusion, then I would probably have disagreed with them. At some point, the question will have been raised – someone or no-one? And they chose no-one. Forever, that will sit badly with me.”
While Lally rues her personal misfortune – she competed in Rio four summers later but struggled in less than ideal conditions, her frustration extends well beyond individual maltreatment. Merely surviving as a professional discus thrower, she acknowledges, is becoming increasingly difficult.
At nearly £27m, UK Sport has never provided British Athletics with as much funding as it currently possesses in the build-up to Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics. However, there is a general feeling throughout athletics that, more than ever before, field events are being treated as the black sheep – little more than an afterthought, even an inconvenience at times.
“I know people that gave up when they were working through the levels,” Lally explains. “They were just sick of doing it. We’re poor athletes. This is a poor-person sport.
“When your governing body is not with you, it just makes it too hard. I’m sure we’ve lost so many good athletes, medalists and world record holders because someone didn’t give them the chance because someone didn’t think they were going to do well on the day.”
Indeed – alongside the pole vault – the discus is the only field discipline in which Great Britain has never medaled at the Olympics, either in the men’s or women’s event. Meg Ritchie’s 1984 fifth placed finish is the best the nation has ever mustered. For Lally, very much the standard-bearer for the sport in England, this is not just a shame, but a restrictive force on the sport’s development in the country.
“I’d love the domestic rivalry to be better than it is,” she says.
“Unfortunately, for some reason the British attitude in throwing events has been a bit toxic. People are spouting off about other people and have a lot of negative things to say about each other. It all becomes very negative and that’s not how you get the best out of people. The system still needs to be progressed.”
Lally’s best years, by her own admission, came when she was part of a two-horse race alongside Scotland’s Kirsty Law. Often, she tells me, Law was ahead of her. Yet, having that element of competition spurred her on to improve. Since then however, the sport has seen little progress.
“It’s why I’ve changed my club twice,” she explains. “I’ve always wanted that rivalry. I don’t know why I’m the only one that’s progressed. I think it is partly due to that toxic environment. I also think the media in the UK do a poor job at showcasing the event, even athletics fans. A lot of them are track fans. But when it feels like our own sport and the IAAF are turning against us, what hope do we have?”
Last year, it was announced that field event competitors would have their number of attempts cut at major meets, as well as their preparation time before each throw shortened. For Lally, it is further proof of the lack of care and appreciation afforded to the less fashionable art of throwing.
“I get that field events take a long time, but make the most of it,” she exclaims, her voice full of the passion that is present throughout. “Make that a good thing. Marathons go on for a long time. What are you going to do about that? Ban marathons?
“In my opinion, there’s nobody fighting the throwers’ corner or the field events’ corner,” she says. “I think it’s disgusting that we’re not treated equally alongside the track events. If you’re going to tamper with the field, then you should tamper with the track. You could guarantee there would be uproar if they did that.
“Field events do require more of a background story. In a race, the story unfolds during the race. Our story unfolds during our rounds. If you reduce the length of the round, then you’re affecting the competition quality. If you do that, fewer people are going to be interested and then it becomes this mad self-fulfilling circle.”
Nevertheless, despite the issues facing both Lally and her sport, her desire remains almost unhinged in its determination. As she looks forward to next month, she briefly reminisces, talking me through her training camp before last year’s World Championships. “I turned up in Paris and literally could not throw,” she says with a wry chuckle.
“I couldn’t even train. Nothing was happening. They injected me again and I was able to throw but I didn’t even have a technique at that point. I was just trying to go with whatever I could possibly do. I threw 57m and was really happy with that. It didn’t get me into the final, but I knew that it was about ten metres more than anything I had done in weeks.
“It gave me confirmation that I could be a championship performer. It doesn’t give me confidence, because I know that I’m going in with absolutely nothing other than my self-belief. My form goes against me, but my self-belief will hopefully pull me through.”
As she has shown previously, self-belief can – and has – been sufficient. And she heads off to train, Lally has one final message for me.
“When I’m 70 years-old, I don’t want to just be able to say that I did this or that. I want medals. I want something tangible to go into someone’s house with or into a school in ten years’ time.”
Having suffered as Lally has done for her sport in recent years, betting against the 2014 bronze medalist would be a move of imprudent peril. Even short of her best, she has shown that sheer willpower can trump honed talent.
Featured photograph: Jodi Hanagan