Christian Malcolm: My barriers growing up, pressure of coaching elite British athletes and Tokyo medal hopes

Christian Malcolm says the prestigious job of British Athletics Olympic head coach came “sooner than he thought”, as he spoke about overcoming barriers in life, the pressure of his new role and how coronavirus has disrupted plans for the Tokyo Olympics.

The appointment of the 41-year-old was a surprise because of his lack of experience, although it was welcomed by world champions Dina Asher-Smith and Katarina Johnson-Thompson.

The Great Britain sprinter retired in 2014 and has been in his new role for two months after leaving his job as the head of performance and coaching at Athletics Australia.

In an exclusive interview, Malcolm spoke about the “barriers” he has faced in his career because of the colour of his skin.

“Yeah, course there’s barriers, there’s always been barriers growing up ever since I was a kid,” he told Sky Sports News.

“I believe you’ve always got to keep pushing forward, that’s the one thing I do believe and opportunities will come.

“My mum always said I’ve always got to work twice as hard as everyone else and I’ve always believed in that and that’s all that I’ve tried to do.

“I’m very aware,” he replied when asked about the significance of being the first black person to be British Athletics Olympic head coach. Paula Dunn has run the Paralympic programme since 2012.

“I just feel it’s all about being the right person for the job and it’s great that I’ve been selected to have this role. It doesn’t matter about skin colour or gender or anything like that,” he said.

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“I think for me going forward I’ve always felt that I’ve always tried to inspire people in whatever I do in being an athlete and growing up.

“So if I can inspire people to follow this pathway in their journey to go to the top, then I’m quite fortunate I’m here right now, then so be it.

‘We need to keep pushing for equal opportunities’

Malcolm said it was “upsetting and shocking” seeing American George Floyd being killed while in police custody in Minneapolis in May and talked about the impact his death had around the world.

“It’s taken something like that to make a change in life and society. I think it’s something which some people – they’ve lived with it all their lives, they’ve lived with that kind of prejudice.

“This is just about being equal, and having equal opportunities. That’s the important thing we’ve got to understand here, no-one is asking for a step up or to try and get ahead of anyone else”

Christian Malcolm

“Now there’s a little bit of a voice now which is coming out. You just don’t stop there, we have to keep pushing, we have to keep speaking. This is not about trying to get ahead of everyone else.

“This is just about being equal, and having equal opportunities. That’s the important thing we’ve got to understand here, no one is asking for a step up or to try and get ahead of anyone else.

“People are just asking: ‘let’s just all have a fair opportunity right across the board. Let’s call it out when we see things that are wrong which is being done now’. We have to just keep pushing no matter what it is.”

‘I’m not a role model anymore’

Malcolm specialised in the 200 metres and won two World Championship bronze medals in the 4x100m relay in 2005 and 2007. His career includes World Indoor and European Championship silver, and Commonwealth silver and bronze medals.

So, does he feel the pressure of being a role model in his high-profile role?

“It’s flattering but I don’t look at it like that.

“I’m here to do my job, that’s all I can do and do my best, and my job is to try and do the best for the athletes.

“To try and get them [athletes] in the best possible shape and to give them the best opportunity to perform well at the Tokyo Olympics. And if that brings great performances and medals, medallists and finalists then so be it.

“I like to think that I’ve had my time as being a role model as an athlete. My time now is to give back to the sport.

“The fact is I’m most probably the youngest head coach in British Athletics. That’s a big part, it gives especially ex-athletes … an opportunity and a belief that they could actually be in this role or be part of the organisation to give back and push the sport forward.”

New era

On his new role, he said: “I just think it’s such a great opportunity. This is my home country, I’ve represented Great Britain for many many years.

“It’s home and the plan was always to come back home and eventually be in a position where I can help and support the athletes and our coaches. The opportunity has come sooner than I thought but you’ve got to take it while you can”.

GB medal chances in Tokyo

Malcolm will work with former Olympic cyclist Sara Symington, who was announced as British Athletics’ new performance director in August.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics Great Britain won 67 medals, finishing second in the medal table behind the USA.

Seven medals came in athletics, so does he have a target with Tokyo only seven months away?

“I might have…we’ll see!” the former Welsh sprinter says with a big smile.

“When we talk about medals we’ve got good opportunities in our athletes that performed well in Doha (2019 World Athletics Championships). When we look at Dina Asher-Smith and Katarina Johnson-Thompson, and the relays have done exceptionally well.

“And you’re always hoping that someone comes out of the woodwork or someone steps up.”

Is this the best ever group of British female athletes on course to go to an Olympics?

Malcolm replies: “I think it’s getting there. We’ve got some young talent coming through, obviously we’ve got the likes of Jemma Reekie coming through as well.

“I feel that it’s a great opportunity now. They all seem to be feeding off each other as they are going through this cycle.

“More importantly, for the next cycle going to Paris, I think you’ll see an emergence of more top athletes coming through.”

‘Impact of coronavirus … I’ve got Plan A, B and C’

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games were rescheduled to start on July 23, 2021 after being postponed due to coronavirus.

“It’s challenging, it’s very challenging, that’s the polite version!”, the four-time Olympian said.

“There’s not much time leading in. There’s been a lot of competitions missed, a lot of training missed. Covid is making it extremely difficult.”

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“We’re trying to help our athletes not just in the world class performance plan. And that’s been even more difficult for them.”

“I’ve come into the role in the last couple of months. It is just putting our heads together now and trying to formulate a plan.

“It’s not just about having a plan, it’s about having Plan A, Plan B, Plan C going forward just in case the landscape changes as it has been in the last couple of months.”

The Games will run from July 23 to August 8, taking up the same slot as originally scheduled for 2020, but Malcolm says it has been tough to prepare the athletes.

“It’s been testing times for us going through Covid so there’s a lot of things which need to be put in place like camps and training camps, connecting with athletes and coaches.

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“Making sure they’ve got everything they need going into the Olympic Games. A lot of work has been done over the last few years and now it’s just trying to put the icing on the cake for them, to try and support them.”

So, what shape will GB athletes be in at the start of the Olympics?

“Who knows?” he admits. “We’ve got an indoor season coming up now in January, February and March. So we’ll have an idea of some of our athletes, what kind of shape they’re in.

“We’ll go away for a holding camp in March and April and the season kicks off and we’ll get a bit more of an idea where everyone’s at.”

Olympics pressure compared to football

In Rio 2016 GB won seven medals in track and field: two gold, one silver and four bronze. Malcolm is a four-time Olympian and expects to face pressure and scrutiny next summer.

“The Olympics happens every four years, that’s the build-up.

“Don’t be fooled by the smile. If I’ve got to have a straight-talking conversation with you then we’re going to have it. It’s all about trying to get the best out of that person in front of you”

Christian Malcolm

“Football, rugby happens every week, so if you lose one week you’ve got the following weekend to make up for it.

“For us this is a big challenge. It’s every four years and we are judged by medals. For me it’s about getting the athletes out there performing better than they did the last time.”

‘Don’t be fooled by my smile’

Malcolm plans some “straight-talking” on occasions to get the most out his elite athletes.

“I still want to be known as the man with a great smile! I do like to be happy, I do like to smile and I think it’s important. You’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing.

“Don’t be fooled by the smile. If I’ve got to have a straight-talking conversation with you then we’re going to have it. It’s all about trying to get the best out of that person in front of you.

“Sometimes the honest truth can hurt but it has to be said, and you have to challenge people in this role. People are not going to like it at times but it is for the greater good, it’s not for me, it’s not for my own benefit.

“It’s for me to help the person in front of me.”

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