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Pragmatic Pearson has no time for unhappy omens

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Tom Fordyce | 17:07 UK time, Wednesday, 6 June 2012

If Usain Bolt strikes you as the hottest favourite for an athletics gold at this summer's Olympic Games, perhaps it's time you thought a little more about Sally Pearson.

Just as Bolt was 2011 IAAF male athlete of the year, so 100m hurdler Pearson was voted the world's best female. Unlike Bolt, Pearson also won World Championship gold - and in a time that no-one had got close to since the dubious days of the late 1980s.

With that personal best 0.2 seconds faster than any of her rivals and a record of 10 wins in her 11 big races last summer, the 25-year-old Queenslander has arrived in Oslo this week knowing two things: that Australia expects, and that she must deliver.

"Everyone has wanted a piece of me in Australia," she admits. "It's so much fun to be leaving - I've been counting down from seven weeks to go. I'm so excited to get to Europe and be ready to run."

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Not since Cathy Freeman has her home country invested so much hope in an athlete. "There is a page of Olympic history waiting for her name," declared The Australian newspaper, around the time she was packing her bags. "When you are in the kind of form she is in at the moment, you have to take advantage," says Eric Hollingsworth, Athletics Australia's high performance manager.

Others might find the pressure too much to bear. Pearson, with a chipper confidence stereotypical of her home state, is resolutely pragmatic.

"It's not terrifying if you don't think about it," she says, of her chances of joining compatriots Shirley Strickland, Maureen Caird and Debbie Flintoff-King as Olympic hurdles gold medallists.

"You have to make sure your mind is on yourself. I definitely feel like I'm going in as number one.

"No-one will be stepping out on that track with the intention of coming second. It will definitely be hard. But if I can get back to PB shape, then it will be very hard to beat me."

I mention an unhappy omen: no woman has ever won the sprint hurdles title at the World Championships and then followed it with Olympic gold the following year.

Pearson guffaws. "Yeah, I've seen that. But those sorts of things don't bother me. I can only control what my body does. All the outside distractions I can't, so I just leave them as they are - as distractions.

"I've put all those superstitions to bed in the past, especially at the World Championships. I blew that out of the water."

Ah, the infamous Daegu cover curse. Until Pearson's storming run, no athlete featured on the front page of the daily official programme - Bolt, Dayron Robles, Steve Hooker and Yelena Isinbayeva - had won gold. When Pearson did, she celebrated by stamping theatrically on the offending publication.

"It actually ended with the walker [Olga Kaniskina]," she laughs. "She broke it. Then suddenly the curse was shifted so it was only affecting things in the stadium. It was like, ah, make your mind up!

"I think everyone on the cover had been a world champion before and I wasn't, so I took it as a nice compliment for me that they respected me and my results that season and thought I was good enough to be on it. Plus I think Blanka Vlasic was begging not to be on it..."

Pearson was triumphant in Daegu. Photo: Getty

Pearson's time that night, a blistering 12.28 seconds, was the fourth fastest in history, just 0.07 seconds off the world record set by Bulgaria's Yordanka Donkova in 1988.

Both the time of Donkova and the woman she herself surpassed, compatriot Ginka Zagorcheva, are tainted by suspicions of illegal doping. While neither ever tested positive, there is sufficient doubt that many insiders in Daegu last summer rated Pearson's mark as an unofficial best ever. Does she agree?

"No. No point. It's not a world record. It's not in the history books as a world record. No matter whether people think [Donchova's] record is clean or not, it's still there. It hasn't been scratched out. What's on paper is what matters."

But she must know, as a student of her event, that those times were extraordinary? Media training aside, does she not tacitly agree with those experts who consider her the fastest in history?

"Well, they're not officials saying that, are they? They're opinions. That's all they are.

"It's not the officials saying, 'Oh, we'll just make it the supposedly clean world record'. We don't know if it was clean or not. We don't have any proof of that, so it stands.

"I don't target that record in any of my races. Obviously everyone wants to run as fast as possible to give themselves the confidence, but for me it's more about winning every single race.

"It would nice to run a similar time to the one I ran in Daegu, but world records don't always give you Olympic gold medals. People can also take world records away from you. But they can't take away Olympic golds."

Pearson, raised by her Kent-born mother, Ann, in the absence of her father, has had to work to get to her current exalted status.

Ann worked extra jobs to get her young daughter coaching and physio, and took her to the Little Athletics state championships in Townsville in 1999 where she was spotted by her first - and permanent - coach, Sharon Hannon.

Pearson has responded with a relentless dedication, putting in sessions so hard that, "I actually felt like I was going to die." It is why, she says, she celebrates with such wild abandon when big wins and medals come her way.

"Oh God yeah. You put your heart and your soul into your training, and when you get to competition you want a result that reflects all that hard work you've been doing.

"It's a huge release, an energy uplift. I don't know if it happens to everyone, but I simply can't hold it back. I've been holding it back for so long."

Has she imagined what it might feel like to stand on top of the podium in London?
"I definitely think about it. I thought about it at the World Championships. But at the same time I think about the worst-case scenario, which is not winning the race.

"I think about those negatives as a way to keep me grounded, to realise that it may not go to plan. Really quickly I try to cross it out of my mind, but I always allow myself to think about it for a second before I go back to thinking positive, thinking about what I want to do and then making sure I do it."

Twelve years ago Freeman defied the pressure to win 400m gold in Sydney. Asked recently about Pearson's chances of doing the same, she was sanguine: "Sally has such a wonderful ability to focus, and really keep her life simple and effective."

Her appointed successor shrugs.

"If you keep it simple it's easy. Make it complicated and it's hard.

"That's why I think about those worst-case scenarios. You have to stay grounded. It keeps your thinking simple, and it keeps you hungry."


  • Comment number 1.

    An English mother, yet another top athelete to slip through the net,surely we could have robbed her like we have with so many before

  • Comment number 2.

    No doubt Pearson is a sensational athlete, but it's quite difficult to believe that anyone facing 10 barriers can be the the strongest favourite. Her margin for error is tiny!

  • Comment number 3.

    David Radisha might have something to say about the strongest favourite in track and field! Also as 1wswilliams says, any event with 10 barriers makes thing a little closer.

    Pearson is outstanding and as much a breath of fresh air as Bolt has been. Can't wait to see them all!

  • Comment number 4.

    Usain Bolt did win World Championships gold last year. In fact he won two: 200m and 4x100m relay.

  • Comment number 5.

    does anyone watch the olympics other than the 100 metre mens final,i know this would probably sound bad but i watch sports to see who is the best not the best and the 1000th best,of course im talking men and womens sport.look at tennis would the world no1 man lose to the world no1 ranked women?.football,olympic sports is exactly the same the womens complete those sports at a much lower level of skill and quality.i know it isnt the pc thing to say but that is why 99.9% of the population of the world dont watch womens sport,or even prepared to pay to watch it

  • Comment number 6.

    1wswilliams, TheNobleOne: I asked Sally about the added random factor of hurdles, and specifically at the Olympics - Gail Devers in '92, Lolo Jones in 2008. Her reply? "Who cares? That's in the past. London's in the future."

    Fastman95 - fair point, but the reference is obviously to the 100m. Not that anyone should ever forget that 200m run. Woosh...

  • Comment number 7.

    adrenileenepotaoto - yes. I wil lwatch large chunks of the Olympics, once I get past my distaste at all the commercial stuff going on around the outside. As for Tennis - I rarely watch men's tennis as I find the big hitters boring to watch. Give me the doubles any day of the week :)

  • Comment number 8.

    Nice article, but "the hottest favourite?" Surely Valerie Adams (women's shot put). Baring injury - apparently unbeatable.

  • Comment number 9.

    Spot on jigsawnz, Valerie Adams is the one to watch, not only for her superb skills, but with a personality to hold the Olympic stadium in the palm of her golden hand....

  • Comment number 10.

    Valerie Adams dead Cert. And in other Kiwi top favourites news, Murray and Bond in the Mens pairs rowing is a banker. No one beaten them in years, so much so GB conceeded their pair into the 4, a good tacticial decision and proves the power of the NZ pair.

  • Comment number 11.

    adrenileenepotaoto - I agree with your thoughts regarding woman's sport, why would someone pay to watch athletes with less ability than the men, might as well just be watching amateur sport. I also have the same opinion about the paralympics, while I admire their tenacity and spirit does that make it a good spectator sport?

  • Comment number 12.

    5 and 11 - very harsh!! Just because they're not as fast/strong etc. as the elite men it doesn't mean their ability (comapred to other women), skill and competitiveness is at all lower. If you don't want to watch fair enough, but plenty of others will. Oh, and AmazonTreeFrog, isn't the whole point of the Olympics meant to be about amateur sport?! I might be watching the football at Wembley but that's for the atmosphere and being a part of London 2012. I'd rather watch the Olympic athletics, swimming etc. on TV than Olympic footie, that's for sure.
    Anyway there are lots of 'hot' favourites about but they still have to compete at the very top of their form to win an Olympic title, and injury/illness can scupper 4 years of hard work and success. Because of that, I'm not sure there's even such a thing as a hot favourite at the Olympics.

  • Comment number 13.

    'Journalism' at its most imprecise. Usain Bolt won world championship gold in the 200m and relay.

  • Comment number 14.

    "I asked Sally about the added random factor of hurdles, and specifically at the Olympics - Gail Devers in '92, Lolo Jones in 2008. Her reply? "Who cares? That's in the past. London's in the future.""

    Wow, that is amazingly complacent. I'm farily sure people didn't trip over hurdles because it was prior to 2010. That these things have happened in the past matters little, they remain relevant. Devers was an abosulte certainty to win in '92, far and away the best sprint hurdler in the world. One hit hurdle and she finishes 5th. As someone once said "Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it"
    Or maybe it is cognitive dissonance, as she knows that no-one can fully expect to win given the nature of her event, but would rather not dwell on uncertainties that she cannot possibly control.

  • Comment number 15.

    "why would someone pay to watch athletes with less ability than the men, might as well just be watching amateur sport."

    Am I reading this correctly? I can't believe how disrespectful some of these comments are towards female athletes! And how can anyone rule out a world champion like Sally Pearson just because of the barriers that face her? Ridiculous. As for the comment about "slipping through the net", Sally Pearson was never English, born in Sydney and raised in Australia. Why would she consider representing England?

    I for one am excited by the men's and women's heats on the track. Both have enormous abilities and will be quite the spectacle. Question, would you be so negative if she was English and representing the nation? Probably not.

  • Comment number 16.

    Why are people banging on about Bolt winning the 200m and relay golds?
    It's quite clear the article is referencing the 100m and if you don't understand that then you are well, stupid.

  • Comment number 17.

    5 and 11 : that is a weak line of reasoning. I will use a footie example. It is similar to saying one should only watch the UEFA champions league and not watch the EPL or La Liga because the champions league is the pinnacle of football.
    There are many good reasons for watching top women's athletics.

  • Comment number 18.

    @ 5 and 11:
    does anyone watch sport other than the grand national (horse racing) final,i know this would probably sound bad but i watch sports to see who is the best not the best and the 1000th best,of course im talking humans and other mammals sport.look at sprints, would the world no1 horse lose to the world no1 ranked human (Bolt)?. Humans compete those sports at a much lower level of skill and quality.i know it isnt the pc thing to say but that is why 99.9% of the mammal population of the world dont watch humans sport,or even prepared to pay to watch it

    I agree with your thoughts regarding human's sport, why would someone pay to watch athletes with less ability than the horses, might as well just be watching amateur sport. I also have the same opinion about the dog-racing, while I admire their tenacity and spirit does that make it a good spectator sport?

    P.S. if u think the above sounds silly, thats probably how both your responses sound. never mind the fact that it is called "MEN's" 100m final and "WOMEN's" 100m final (emphasis on the MEN/WOMEN)!

  • Comment number 19.

    rdleaper - You're right the olympics are meant to be amateur but don't kid yourself, the vast majority of these athletes are anything but. They might not be paid professionals in the true sense but with sponsorship and funding it virtually is a profession.

    I'll stand by my original point about woman's sport, some might want to waste their money watching second rate sport but i'll stick with my viewing preferences. If woman's sport had the same appeal it would have an equal share of television time, newspaper columns etc.

  • Comment number 20.


    Thabo you're right , there are plenty of good reasons to watch women's athletics, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more!

  • Comment number 21.

    Sally Pearson is excellent physically and technically, which is the most crucial part. In an event where speed is important, it is actually the technical capabilities that will determine a lot of results. If only they made the women's barriers a little higher, because not many hurdles get knocked over as they are too easy to clear, unlike in the mens 110m high hurdles.

    Regarding the issue of women's athletics, of course, if you were to go down the elite sport route, no women's sport would ever be shown, bar maybe something like equestrian. But, we must accept that women are equal in society. Mustn't we?

    Jokes blood.

  • Comment number 22.

    Now that you have done the obligatory BBC article on some foreigner no one much cares about I trust that you will balance the ledger for the GB readership with an article on her rival local British lass Tiffany Porter

  • Comment number 23.

    Re: AmazonTreeFrog & adrenilenepotato and Women's and paralympics.
    Do so agree! I NEVER bother to watch those lesser best sports events. Only watch heavyweight boxing never the lower divisions, same for wrestling and weightlifting and ignore those second grade football matches such as the Europa League and the English Championship. Never could understand people getting excited when an Ann Packer or Kelly Holmes beat just other women, seems so pointless. I found out recently that greyhounds run faster than Usain Bolt, so I think I won't bother with watching him either.
    Of course I like sport, but only the best.

  • Comment number 24.

    @ maninasuitecase Who cares where she's from? Athletics should be about the individual breaking records. Why don't you put yourself in a suitcase and get thrown from a bridge.

  • Comment number 25.

    And as for that dull, waste of time, feeble, Women's Word Cup final between Japan and the USA, what can I say?

  • Comment number 26.

    And all for what? A piece of perishable metal.

    Worldly, passing vanity. Transient and worthless when all is said and done. It can be gone in a heartbeat.

  • Comment number 27.

    I think Pearson is amazing and I love her confidence.

    However, one of those barriers cost her a race after Daegu!!!

  • Comment number 28.

    Agreed, she WAS the dominant lady in this event last season and INDOOR earlier.this year.However what is her present condition? The recent times as she implied are not to close " her PB" performances. Her Receding hairline+ increased muscularity CAUSED BY ???

  • Comment number 29.

    22. @Bigotboy, It's always great to hear someone speak for everyone else. I for one don't care about where an athlete is from, I want to see great performances. I certainly hope you posted that comment on all Usain Bolt's articles coz hes not British as well. As for Tiffany Porter she's actually American who runs for GB beacuse she couldn't get in the US team in 08, the only thing British is probably that wig she wears.

  • Comment number 30.

    @ 5 & 11,Poor arguements.To say that 99.9% of the worlds population only want to watch Male athletes is stupid at best.The world is largely 50% male and 50% female,I'm pretty sure that a lot more than 0.1% of the female population will be watching womens athletics.Taking tennis as an example as you did,the centre court at Wimbledon is full for both the Men and Womens finals.Men and Women are equally represented in the crowds for both events.
    To make a comment about the paralympics is truly pathetic,lots of disabled people would aspire to be in the paralympics,and to them seeing someone disabled being able to compete despite their condition,it must be truly uplifting,and it must give them hope,that they might lead fuller lives.Shame on @ 11.

  • Comment number 31.

    Pearson is a quality athlete, she should win if her form is good. But I am a little bit disturbed by the talk of the records being dubious.
    Pearson is only 0.07 behind the world record, is it such a stretch that someone could produce that in the late 80's? I think it has more to do with where these athletes came from rather than the quality of the record.
    It is not nearly so dubious as Flo-Jo's 100m record, a time that a drugged up Marion Jones could get nowhere near. Yet there is little question of debate of this record, at least on the BBC.

  • Comment number 32.

    @ 11 etc

    Women's sport is worthless is 'not a PC thing to say' ??

    Rather depends where you hang out.

    In most places, no, I guess it's not, but if you're out for the evening in Ye Olde Knucklehead Arms - chatting with the regulars - then it's as PC as it comes. It's more or less de rigueur.

  • Comment number 33.

    @12 & 17

    The Olympics are not supposed to be for amateur athletes. The Modern Olympics were originally made to be amateur so that the rich upper class gentlemen athletes could keep the lower classes out, as the lower classes could not afford to compete in sport unless they were getting paid as they had to spend the majority of their time working. Those of the lower classes who did earn money through sport, such as boxers, were then kept out of the Olympics as the gentlemen did not want to be beaten by them. Thankfully in the 80's the amateur ruling was finally overturned so that the greatest at their sports were able to compete at the greatest sporting event on a level playing field.
    However the Olympics should be the sporting high for any althlete competing. If there is an event more important to the athlets (such as Wimbledon, or the football World Cup), then in my opinion these sports should not be at the Olympics.

  • Comment number 34.


    For the sake of consistency, why not write joblessness, economic situation, poverty in UK also as you did for India during the CWG rather than focusing on the event itself? I guess the glasses that you wear now have changed!

  • Comment number 35.

    22 @Bigotboy what you obviously don't know is that the BBC service is International, paid by advertising in overseas countries. There are actually two different services : one for the UK, and one outside of it (based on user location).
    This article is one of those that feature on both sites.

    As an Aussie (actually born in the UK) I absolutely loved reading this article - Good on you Sally! Thanks Tom

    I pity the fools that slag off women's athletics for no good reason other than their mean-minded mysoginist views. I would love to see you all on the track against these women who would blow you poor boys away over any distance from 60m to 42km...

    I for one was blown away watching Kelly Holmes, Sally Gunnell... even though they are not Aussies. They prove that top level sport is first and foremost a MIND GAME

  • Comment number 36.

    As a queenslander, i love watching Sally win her races but i think everyones eyes will be on the most dominate athlete on the planet in Usain Bolt. Sally still hasn't beaten the times set by the 80s druglords but Bolt has. If memory serves me correctly, the 1st 5 runners in the famous race in which Ben Johnson was disqualified,all eventually got exposed as drug cheats and the time that Johnson set in that race can be beaten by Bolt in a canter. As for the comment about women athletes being boring to watch, the guy obviously hasn't seen beach volleyball.To all you brits , make sure you go and see the torch relay.i went and saw it in outback queensland and it really gives you a feeling that you are witnessing something extra-ordinary.


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