Iwan Thomas looks back: ‘When I lost my 400m record, everyone thought I’d be gutted. Instead, it was the best day ever’

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Iwan Thomas in 1998 and 2024.
Iwan Thomas in 1998 and 2024. Later photograph: Pål Hansen. Styling: Andie Redman. Grooming: Neusa Neves at Arlington Artists. Archive photograph: courtesy of Iwan Thomas

Born in Farnborough, Kent, in 1974, Iwan Thomas is a former British athlete and media personality. He began his sporting career when he was nine and became a world-class BMX rider at 14, before discovering his passion for sprinting. He was one of the world’s fastest men between 1995 and 1998, winning silver in the 4x400m at the 1996 Olympics, gold in the relay at the European Cup and gold, retrospectively, in the 4x400m at the world championships. He held the British 400m record for 25 years, with a time of 44.36 set in 1997. After a string of injuries, Thomas has since segued into broadcasting, regularly hosting The One Show and commentating for TV and radio. His memoir, Brutal, is out now.

This is me posing in my parents’ garden after coming back from the European championships in Holland. I had crashed in my BMX race, which was annoying as I probably should have won. I was so disappointed I said to Dad, “I’m going to race in cruisers instead.” It wasn’t my usual event – cruiser bikes are normally for the bigger boys or adults – but I wanted another chance. The risk paid off. I came fourth. A good result.

As well as being very determined and competitive, I was a cheeky chappy; a little rascal. I was the kid who was jumping out of massive trees into the local river, mucking about with air rifles or making bonfires. A bit mischievous, but nothing serious. The teachers gave me a free pass as I was good at sports. I got away with murder; never a single detention. It was useful socially, too. Even the sixth formers would give me a nod of approval.

I wouldn’t say I was born different but I had this constant compulsion to win, which marked me out from my brother and friends. Dad wasn’t a pushy parent, but he liked to see me excel, and I didn’t want to let him down. I also quickly understood that pain shouldn’t hold you back when you train or compete. I quite enjoyed the sensation of lactic acid, the burning of the legs. Whenever I heard “on your marks” my psyche changed. I became a beast; an animal. You’ve got that switch in you, or you haven’t.

The 400m arrived like a twist of fate. I had a bad BMX crash in the world championships in 1989 and at the same time, my dad’s job moved my parents to Germany, so I had to go to a boarding school, which meant I’d have to give up biking. I hadn’t concentrated on athletics much, but on the first sports day at my new school I entered five events and broke every record. The PE teacher said, “The last time I saw raw talent like this, they went on to get an Olympic medal.” The next week he entered me into the county championships and within three weeks I was on a plane to Seoul to compete in the World Junior Championships.

In general, 400m runners are a different breed. We have a bit of a screw loose because it’s such a tough event. After school, when I started training properly, we liked a few drinks during the week. My group were all regular guys who had day jobs when they weren’t competing. It would be routine on a Wednesday night after track session for someone to ask, “Fancy going into town? McCluskys have half-price beer until 10!”

The 90s were a brilliant time to be an athlete. Everyone knew the British team as there were so many big characters: Colin Jackson, Denise Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, Linford Christie, Sally Gunnell. Athletics was more mainstream as there were fewer channels and the team felt part of that Britpop spirit, even if we weren’t making music. All of a sudden I had gone from being a lad living in a bedsit in south London, working in Next part-time, to having a waxwork made of me at Madame Tussauds and buying my first house. Not having to rely on my parents’ generosity any more was huge. That ascent happened quickly, but was taken away just as fast.

After my first injury, in 1999, I had a lot of self-hatred. I felt my body was letting me down. I should have questioned my coach in retrospect: he was a bit old school and when I had a slight niggle he’d be like, “You’ll be fine, boy, just run through it.” My injuries were self-inflicted; all I was doing was training as hard as I could. My heart was in the right place: every time I put on that British vest I just wanted to make everyone proud.

During those years of injury I had to turn away from athletics. Even watching sports on TV would hurt me too much; especially as athletes were running in my event a second slower than I used to.

It took me 10 years to get over that low, to fall back in love with athletics. During that decade I was depressed but pretended everything was OK. I had my mates – all doing normal jobs as firemen or taxi drivers. From the outside, it looked like I had a lovely life with my nice car and house, so I didn’t feel I could say, “I am struggling. I don’t know what I’m going to do if I can’t be an athlete. Can I come around for a cup of tea and a chat?” I didn’t want to burden them, or my family.

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I was also paranoid about my rivals finding out I was low, because if I did become an athlete again they might consider it a weakness. I used to pride myself in standing way taller than Mark Richardson or Jamie Baulch. I wanted them to look at me and think, “Bloody hell, he’s well pumped up.” Now I realise I should have just reached out.

In the end, it was evident I couldn’t be that athlete again. I could train only two days a week, which isn’t enough on the world stage. I lost my identity for a while, but not for ever. I held the British 400m record for 25 years. When it eventually went two years ago [to Matthew Hudson-Smith] everyone assumed I would be gutted. Instead, it was the best day ever. I could finally admit that I wasn’t an athlete any more.

When that buzz of competing is gone it’s hard to replace. But live TV is a close fit – as well as hosting major championships in front of 80,000 people. Riding fast motorbikes gives me a real adrenaline rush, too. But nothing compares to being a dad. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. When my son Teddy was ill [with Group B Strep] as a baby, I realised nothing else mattered. All the highs I’ve felt in sport, all of the disappointments and heartache, they were all preparation for becoming a better, more patient dad.

I’m 50 and my energy levels aren’t what they used to be. Every two seconds one of my sons wants me to throw him up in the air, which gets tiring. But I am proud to be the age I am. I’ve lost a few friends over the last couple of years, so 50 feels like a real milestone.

I might have slowed down a little, but I’ll never stop altogether as I’ve still got that competitive spirit and energy. I train in a proper lifter’s gym with no mirrors, no poncing about. I did a strongman competition last year and ended up winning it. There were 22-year-olds competing and I was like, “Hah! You’ve just been beaten by an old man!”

The Guardian

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