Christian Olsson in Monaco (© Cathal Dennehy)
Christian Olsson can still remember the pain – a piercing, grating, bone-on-bone sensation that told him his career was over.
It was May 2012, and the Swedish triple jump great was on a training camp in San Diego, California. The previous year, Olsson had undergone surgery for the seventh time on his ankle in a bid to cure a bone bruise that bothered him since the night in Athens, eight years earlier, when he won Olympic gold.
“I talked with my surgeon and we decided the seventh would be the last,” he says. “Every time we went in there was less chance of something positive coming out.”
In the early part of 2012 Olsson had nursed himself back to fitness, but as the clock ticked to the London Olympics he had no choice but to eventually test his ankle under the stress of jumping. He felt immediate pain.
“I felt there was no way I could come off the runway doing a triple jump, so it was more or less just accepting it was over,” he says. “I accepted it within 24 hours.”
‘I defined myself as a triple jumper. What would I be without it?’
For a career that had once soared so high – in addition to Olympic gold Olsson won world and European titles, both indoors and out – the end was reached at a despairing low.
“I was scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he recalls. “I defined myself as a triple jumper: what would I be without it?”
Olsson had always been driven to the point of obsessive, and while that helped him achieve what he did as an athlete, in retirement he found himself with little direction.
“It’s been really difficult,” he says. “I still struggle with it five years after my career ended. My dream was track and field. When I decided to follow that dream I got consumed with it – lived and breathed athletics.
“You know that day is going to come, but it feels so far away and all of a sudden you’re there and you have to move to the next step.”
In a bid to carve a new path, Olsson began selling commercial rights but he found it an unfulfilling existence. “I felt disconnected with that world,” he says. “It was all about how much you are selling.”
In 2013 an opportunity arose with JRS Sports Management, run by Olsson’s former agent Daniel Wessfeldt, and he jumped at the chance to work in the sport he so badly missed.
“Coming back to working with athletes – passionate people who are trying to fulfil their dreams – I felt more at home,” says Olsson.
Undying love for the sport
“I still, on a daily basis, get spoken to as a triple jumper but I feel like that’s a different life now, almost like it didn’t happen. I’m like everybody else – working, bringing the kids to kindergarten and school.”
But no matter how much of a disconnect he feels from his past life, Olsson’s love for the sport has been undying.
Over lunch at the IAAF Athletics Awards in Monaco last month, the 37-year-old discussed the variety of issues facing the sport and what quickly became obvious is that here is a man who’s given careful consideration to the future of athletics.
Olsson is currently in the second year of a four-year term on the IAAF Athletes’ Commission, where he has been consulting with a wide array of current athletes to make sure their voice is heard by those in power at every stage of the decision-making process.
“I did it to see if I could give something back to the sport with the experiences I’ve had over the years,” he says. “I felt like they were listening to us and I felt like we were contributing in the climb back to earn people’s trust.
“With the next generation that’s one of the most important things: we have to show them that even though it was bad with the cheaters getting the spotlight, there’s a big part of our sport that just does it with blood, sweat and tears to get to the top. We need to show the next generation that you can do that.”
‘We need to have athletics 2.0’
Olsson is aware of how the sporting landscape has changed in the last decade, with ever more competition for the attention of spectators, and he feels the only way for athletics to thrive is to adapt.
“We need to have athletics 2.0,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to let go of old traditions but we should bring it into an age where the competition with other sports is very high. With new sports streams like X Games, we need to bring athletics to the crowd more instead of expecting people to fill stadiums.
“We’ve been down on our trust level, our image, and we need to bring it back up. How we do that? It’s not a quick fix. We have to do it over time.”
Given his own experience – one mirrored by many elite athletes – Olsson would like to see more support structures for retired athletes, who all too often are left to navigate their new path in isolation.
“You grow up in the sport and whether it’s your club or national federation, you’re very popular and everybody wants your help. But when it’s finished it’s like, ‘okay, you’re finished, that means we’re finished.’ I know that’s how the structure is, but maybe we can improve it.
“For a lot of us it’s a hard transition, so maybe have a structure where we take athletes into an educational programme like a business major to make them feel like they’re not abandoned.”
Though his career didn’t end how he wanted, Olsson maintains a deep sense of gratitude for what the sport gave him and despite all the injuries, he remains in fine health.
“That’s another reason we said seven operations was enough because I wanted to be able to play football with my kids, I wanted to be able to run,” he says. “I have a little stiff ankle, but it’s on a level where it doesn’t bother me that much.”
An experience of invincibility
When casting his eye back on his career, there are too many highlights to mention, but the day Olsson felt most invincible was not when winning Olympic gold in Athens or the IAAF World Championships in Paris, but a breezy afternoon in Gateshead, England in 2003.
“I was jumping crazy,” says Olsson, who soared to a wind-assisted 17.92m to take victory over world record holder Jonathan Edwards. “My worst jump was 17.65 and it was a complete failure. Jonathan was having his season debut and fouled a few centimetres over 18 and I said: ‘you never quit, do you? I do 17.92 and you’re still going to beat me.’
“The feeling I had at that competition was that there was nothing I couldn’t do.”
In recent years, Olsson has kept a close eye on his successors – guys like Christian Taylor, Pedro Pablo Pichardo and Teddy Tamgho who have all surpassed 18 metres – and he can’t help wonder how he would fare in this era. “There’s a part of me that wished I was there to compete against them but there’s another part that says if you did, maybe you wouldn’t have the medals you have today.”
And amid all the pain and persistence required to reach the top, those medals will remain lifelong mementos of a passion pursued to the end.
In the final year of his career Olsson was one of several Swedish athletes featured in a superb documentary, The Price of Gold, and towards the end all the contributors, both athletes who made it and those who fell by the wayside, were asked whether they would like to relive their career again.
“If I woke up tomorrow and was 20, would I do it all over again?” asks Olsson. “The answer is yes.”
Five years on, he’s no less adamant.
“For me it’s more natural to say that because I took the titles. But I remember that documentary and I felt awful looking at the people who got injured at 18 or 19 after just getting a little taste of the spotlight. But they all say they’d do the same and that gave me goosebumps, because that’s love for the sport.”
Something he knows all about.
These days Olsson lives in Gothenburg with his wife and two children, and given the jumping genes he has passed on, I can’t help ask whether he’ll be encouraging his son or daughter into athletics.
“Absolutely,” he says. “It’s not the easiest road to walk, and maybe they won’t do triple jump. My son tells me he’ll be a runner, and I’m really glad he has an interest in sport because I was raised in sport and it gave me the base for life.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF