Colin Jackson – The Making Of Me
Thursday 31 July on BBC ONE
What factors turn an athlete into a world champion? Genetics? Natural talent? Hard work? Luck?
As BBC One's new science series, The Making Of Me, continues, Olympic silver medallist and 110m hurdles world record holder Colin Jackson is tested, almost to destruction, in a bid to find the answers and discovers what it was that made him a great athlete.
Finding a way to stress out Jackson isn't easy. Having competed in four Olympics, winning a silver medal in Seoul in 1988, he is accustomed to pressure. Since his retirement from top class athletics, the 41-year-old has become a familiar face on television, even donning white tie and tails to strut his stuff in front of the nation on Strictly Come Dancing.
So, when scientists featured on BBC One's The Making Of Me asked him what might make his heart flutter just a little bit, he told them "You'll have to throw me out of a plane". As the Cardiff-born star, who still holds the world record for the indoor 60m hurdles, reflects: "I didn't think they'd actually do it!"
Just as he was about to step through the door of the plane for his first ever parachute jump, Jackson was asked to take a psychological test. It was one of many that scientists using the latest techniques, brain science and genetic testing put him through to try to find out the extent to which nature and nurture combined to make him a world champion.
Every aspect of Jackson's physical and mental make up was explored in order to define the traits and characteristics that made him a top athlete. So much so that Jackson can surely add being one of the world's most tested men to his list of achievements. He'd already undergone DNA testing to help trace his ancestry for a 2003 edition of BBC One's Who Do You Think You Are?, but, in The Making Of Me, the science is geared more to discovering what makes him the man – the athlete – he is.
"Anybody can find out where they're from,' says Jackson, "but this takes it one stage further – it's the final discovery. I've often asked myself whether I became a world champion by luck, whether it was written in the stars, or because I worked hard. I wanted to know whether it was nature or nurture?"
To find out, Jackson travelled widely to meet experts in sports science. In Glasgow he meets a leading genetic scientist, who works on controversial research to find out why athletes of African descent dominate track events, to see whether his Jamaican heritage gives him a genetic advantage. In New York, it's his mental toughness in question as he undergoes brain scans while being exposed to traumatic images and subjected to physical pain.
The Making Of Me also explores Jackson's early upbringing and family background, a crucial part in the forging of any top sportsman.
"Obviously you need your parents to give you the right genetic make-up to begin with," he says. "But there are so many other factors right from the start – do you go to a school that encourages you to do sport? Are there facilities nearby and will your parents take you to them? Then there's the mental aspect – you may have all the right ingredients, but if they're not combined in the right order you don't get the cake."
Having long held the view that his success was "75 per cent talent and 25 per cent hard work", Jackson says his perception changed during the making of the programme, which reveals that even apparently random factors such as month of birth can affect a person's chance of making it to the top.
"I really think it will affect everybody who watches it," he says. "It's the kind of programme where you sit there and say 'I never knew that'."
Even the kind of muscle tissue a person has can have a bearing, as scientists at a research facility in Indiana reveal in tests on pea-sized chunks of muscle taken from Jackson's leg.
"It makes a difference to whether you're a sprinter or a distance runner," he explains, adding: "I'd be furious if they found out I could have been better at something else."
In his case, that something else might well have been cricket. As a schoolboy he played for his county and he reckons it was only "the lazy gene" that steered him towards the athletics track rather than the cricket field.
"I had a natural talent for things like cricket and table tennis; I'm not saying I would have gone on to be record holder or anything but I was naturally good at all sports. What swung it for me was that it was a three hour trip to get to cricket and just a 10-minute walk to the athletics venue."
The Making Of Me also features contributions from friends and family, including Jackson's sister, Suzanne Packer, who plays Tess Bateman in BBC One's Casualty. She recalls the importance of athletics to the entire family and how her brother seemed born to run.
Jackson's supportive family upbringing is compared to that of fellow athlete Kriss Akabusi, a member of the British 4x400m relay team which famously defeated the USA in the 1991 World Championships, while Erin Boag, Jackson's professional partner in Strictly Come Dancing, recounts how she found him focused and driven to succeed.
At the peak of his career Jackson didn't want sports scientists anywhere near him, fearing that their findings might have thrown him off track, so to speak.
But, having been through such rigorous scientific testing, he now describes himself as a believer in what such research can tell athletes about themselves: "It would certainly have made a difference during my career because it shows that there were certain things I did in training – things I thought were important at the time – that made no difference at all. I could have put that time to better use doing something else."
Such knowledge, he says, can help give athletes an extra edge, but in a country that doesn't always pride itself on its sporting prowess, does he feel we have the necessary commitment to get our youngsters to the top as the 2012 Olympics approach?
"The most important thing is to get kids engaged," Jackson says. "I do a lot of work encouraging people into sport; you'd be surprised what our youth can achieve with the right backing. If you work hard you absolutely will be successful."
Having been involved with the London Olympic bid team, he now combines media work and coaching commitments with a role as an advocate for the 2012 Games, particularly outside London: "I took part in four Olympics and, as far as I was concerned, I represented not just Great Britain, but Wales and also Cardiff. That meant a lot to me and I really want to get across the spirit of the Games to people who may be asking what's in it for them. I hope that people all around the UK will be able to share it."
Colin Jackson – The Making Of Me is the second of three 60- minute documentaries for BBC One. The other subjects in the series are Torchwood star John Barrowman, who asks what made him gay, and violinist Vanessa Mae, who explores the factors behind her musical talent.