The Olympic gold medal that she has craved for most of her 29 years will be the foremost target for Eilidh Doyle when she arrives in Rio next week. It will, however, not be the ultimate accolade available to the Scot should she perform to her utmost on the grandest stage of them all.
Victories on the Diamond League circuit have been valuable trinkets. Her European title of two summers ago a bejewelled crown. Yet the UK’s leading 400 metres hurdler knows better than to get carried away by such temporal triumphs. Only when a nod of approval arrives from her coach can the euphoria be unleashed.
Malcolm Arnold has a high benchmark for congratulation. Easy to do when your charges have included three previous Olympic champions, two world championship gold medallists, and countless high-achievers during a life as a guru that has spanned six decades but will conclude when he retires after these Games.
“He’s very tough,” says Doyle, who has accelerated into the elite since moving to Bath to work under his tutelage six years ago. “Ask Dai Greene. I’m not sure how happy he was even when Dai won the world title. The thing with Malcolm is that there’s no ego there. He’s had athletes who have achieved everything in athletics so, for him, it’s just about him wanting people to fulfil their talent.”
Arnold is a perfectionist. In hurdles, to deliver anything less is to risk calamity and capitulation. What seems the simplistic meshing of raw speed and adroit jumping is rendered complex by stride patterns and uncontrolled momentum. Flaws are exploited, mistakes magnified. Nothing, the Scottish record holder confirms, escapes her soothsayer’s notice.
“The most pleased I’ve seen him was when I was doing indoors in 2013 when I ran quick at the start of the season. I ran 200m and then died a death but he said: ‘that’s the first time I’ve seen you really attack a race.’ I think I got a hug so I knew I’d done something right. For him, it doesn’t matter if you’ve won a medal or run a personal best or whatever. It’s about getting the best out of yourself and that’s what satisfies him as a coach.”
Just a few weeks ago, Arnold would surely have offered a receptive embrace when Doyle delivered the quickest time of her career in Monaco. It was smooth and efficient and devastatingly fast. 54.09 seconds that underlined, to her rivals and the world-at-large, that the former schoolteacher has the capacity to add further lustre to her mentor’s roll of honour.
No pressure. None felt, she suggests. Two years ago, she travelled to the Commonwealth Games at Hampden Park on a route that took her past super-sized images of herself on the sides of buildings several storeys high. The poster girl of Glasgow 2014 told herself she could not disappoint, not with a cavalcade of cars from her native Kinross motoring south to see the local heroine done good.
She took silver behind the then-omnipotent Jamaican Kaliese Spencer. Was there, I wonder, as much relief as joy? “When I look back on Glasgow now, and watch the video, I feel a bit nervous,” Doyle reflects. “But at the time, although I was nervous, I was quite calm inside. It was just another race. It just felt like one more Diamond League.
“And that’s the approach I’ll take into Rio. I’ve been racing so often. It’s still the same distance. It’s just a different venue. That will help me keep calm and deal with the enormity of it, just telling myself it’s one more 400m hurdles.”
She’d be kidding herself on, of course. Like her Perthshire kin Laura Muir, she will venture onward from the British team’s training camp in Belo Horizonte to seek out a life less ordinary. The fitness of her long-time foe Zuzana Hejnova remains a mystery. The Czech will surely be under-cooked. A clutch of Americans will arrive with intent but, as Doyle illustrated with a final-hurdle stumble that cost her a triumphant send-off in London last weekend, gold will be likely to go to whoever holds up their hands on the day.
How often has she fantasised that it might be her, skipping across the line, the supreme mistress of her craft? “Oh, loads. All the time when I was a kid. When you’re racing your pals. Olympic gold, that’s what it’s all about. As soon as you get involved in sport, that’s what you dream about.
“It’s only when you get older that you realise how much effort that would take and that it doesn’t always go to plan. How you have to deal with things when they go wrong. The fairytale quickly disappears in the reality. And when I think about the Olympics, I’m not thinking about going there and getting a gold. It’s more about performing well.”
Afterwards, Arnold will deliver his verdict. Even though he will continue to oversee Doyle’s mechanics post-Rio, she will be the last of his many pupils to pursue a graduation into sport’s uppermost class. Appreciative of the lessons learnt, she will expend all her energies to earn one of his rare rave reviews.
“It would make him happy for me to run well,” she confirms. “I remember in Beijing last year when, although it didn’t look like a good race when I only finished fifth in the world, he saw how I could do better. As long as I step off the track in Rio doing my best, he’ll be happy no matter the result, whether it’s a medal or not.
“He wants me to fulfil my potential – and that was the frustrating thing for him last year, and in 2013, where he saw me doing better than I was. 2014 went well and he was delighted so I want him to feel the same way after Rio.”
The women’s 400 metres hurdles
heats are on 15 August while the
4 × 400 metres relay heats are on