Chris Tomlinson retired from athletics last weekend after a 15-year international career. The Teesside long jumper has been one of the North-East’s most successful athletes, but tells Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson why he fears for the future of the sport

FOR almost a decade-and-a-half, Chris Tomlinson has devoted his life to athletics. It has dictated his daily schedule and determined what he is doing at any given time of the day. It has enabled him to experience some thrilling highs and gut-wrenching lows, and taken him to parts of the world he would never have dreamed of visiting.

Not anymore. On Sunday, after finishing fifth at the British Athletics Championships in Birmingham, the Teessider announced his retirement from the sport. He leaves with a great deal of pride, but a heavy heart.

Athletics, according to Tomlinson, is “dying”. It hurts him to say that, and having worked assiduously to complete his coaching qualifications in the last 12 months, he still hopes to be involved in training and inspiring the next generation of British Olympians.

But when he looks back on the way the sport has developed since he first represented his country in 2001, he sees corruption, decay and potential ruin. He has three children now – aged four, three and one – and freely admits he would hesitate before pushing them forward for a career in athletics.

“When I left college in 2000, all I wanted to be was an athlete,” said Tomlinson, who first joined Middlesbrough AC at the age of ten. “There wasn’t footballer’s wages on offer, but you knew you could make a good living from the sport.

“From the word go, you were competing all over Europe, and that was brilliant. You were at big events in France, Spain and Italy, and there was a real buzz around everything that was going on.

“There were a lot of people on lottery funding, and all the big companies – Adidas, Reebok, Nike, Asics – were wanting to support athletes. You knew that if you were able to make it into the top 20 in the world, you could make a living. And if you could make it into the top ten, you could make a good living.

“It’s enabled me to survive, but in the last few years, you’ve really seen things change. Now, with all the corruption and drug scandals, the sponsors have gone. Because of the credit crunch and the change in world finances, a lot of the meetings have gone. People are turned off by the corruption in the sport.

“I’d worry for anyone getting into athletics now. I’ve got a friend who’s got a 14-year-old, and they’re phenomenal at athletics and football. I saw them long jumping two or three years ago, and thought ‘They’ve really got it’. But they’re at an academy at one of the leading clubs, and I didn’t hesitate to tell them to choose football over athletics.

“Being an athlete is still a great lifestyle, but athletics as a sport has been dying over the last ten or 15 years. It’s not in a great place now, and as things stand, I don’t see how that’s going to change. The sport is certainly in a worse position now than when I first started 15 years ago.”

The Northern Echo:

Long jumping, particularly on the men’s side, has not been riddled with positive drug results in the same way that some events have – perhaps because the nations that have been most heavily implicated in state-sponsored drugs schemes, such as Russia, have not traditionally dominated the discipline – and unlike some British athletes, Tomlinson cannot point to the presence of drugs cheats and claim he has been robbed of medals that should have been his.

He has had some fantastic days in the sport, winning a silver medal at the 2008 World Indoor Championships, a bronze at the 2010 European Championships and making the final of the 2012 Olympics in London, but has grown increasingly disillusioned with everything that has happened in the second half of his career.

The confirmation of widespread drug abuse in Russia was bad enough, but it was nothing compared to the shock of learning that athletics’ governing body, the IAAF, was heavily implicated in covering up positive tests in a futile and misguided attempt to protect the image of the sport.

“I was competing naively for most of my career, and it’s probably for the best that was the case,” said Tomlinson. “It was 2002 when I first jumped 8.20m, and if I look back to what I was like then, I was completely naïve and unaware about what was going on around me.

“If I hadn’t been that naïve back then, I don’t think I would have carried on for as long as I have. Gradually, though, you start become more aware of what’s going on.

“You always know that there’s going to be people trying to take drugs and beat the system. You’re never going to stop individual people trying that. But when you’ve got the governing body trying to cover it up, that’s corruption and abuse on a whole different scale.

“The more you see and hear, the more you realise the sport is run by people on the gravy train. To be fair, it’s not just athletics, it’s a lot of sports. The people at the top need the sport to continue to they can continue to enjoy their privileged lifestyles.

“So they butt-kiss and try to maintain the status quo because it suits them. They want their meetings in the IAAF head office in Monaco and their all-expenses paid trips to the Diamond League meetings in Paris, London, Rome and Shanghai. It’s in their interests for it to be ‘business as usual’. Unless you change that, you won’t be able to change anything.”

Tomlinson was hoping to make a final trip of his own this summer, but last weekend’s failure to finish in the top two at the British trials means he will not be selected for August’s Olympic Games in Rio.

He competed at three Olympics, finishing fifth in Athens and sixth in London, and regards his failure to claim an Olympic medal as the biggest regret of his career.

The Northern Echo:

A succession of injury problems blighted some of his most productive years, and he looks back on the two-year period building up to the 2012 Games as his best moments on the runway.

“I jumped 8.23m in 2010 and picked up a European medal, but then I hurt my foot and was out for seven months,” he said. “I came back, and with hardly any training, I was jumping 8.20m every week.

“But then I injured my knee badly and needed an operation. I was 29 or 30 then, and as a sportsman that’s probably when you’re at your peak, You’re still physically sharp, but you’ve got that experience of competing too.

“I came back and was jumping really well, and I got to the Olympic final in 2012 and had a bit of a mixed experience there. I was still jumping 8.20m in 2013 and 2014, but then I got glandular fever and I’ve never really been the same since.”

The 2012 Olympic final saw Greg Rutherford claim his first major gold medal and begin the process of establishing himself as one of the greatest long jumpers of all time. There have been rumours of Tomlinson having a difficult relationship with his British rival – the pair clashed in 2014 when Rutherford claimed the British record with a jump Tomlinson regarded as illegal – but any rifts have been well and truly healed.

“It was always made out to be much more than it ever was,” said the Teessider. “I trained with Greg and I used to room with him too. We get on well and I have nothing but respect for what he has done.

“He’s reached a level of consistency in the last few years that has been absolutely brilliant. I’ve said things about the distances you need to reach to get a medal now, and some people have interpreted that as being derogatory about Greg. But that was never the intention.”

At his best, Tomlinson would be a genuine medal contender in Rio, but as last weekend’s domestic championships proved, time has finally caught up with the 34-year-old. He could only manage 7.43m in Birmingham – almost a metre down on his personal best – and his performance convinced him that it was time to call it a day.

“It still hasn’t really sunk in,” he said. “I’ve lived and breathed athletics for so long now that my heart was telling me not to let it go, but my head was saying, ‘You haven’t jumped 8m for a year now, so you have to be realistic’. I’m 35 in September and I’m not going to the Olympics, so this is the logical time to retire.

“I’ve got all my badges now, and I’ve set up some boot camps in Middlesbrough that have been really popular. I’ve started doing some coaching in schools and I love that, and I’d like to get a couple of personal training clients so I could work with them closely to improve what they’re doing.

“Athletics has been good to me, and I’ll never forget that. I just wish I was walking away from a sport I could be proud of.”

Chris Tomlinson has set up HT Fitness, and runs boot camp training sessions at Trinity College in Middlesbrough on a Monday (6.30pm) and Thursday (6pm), priced £5 a session. He is looking to work with two or three personal training clients, and can be contacted via Twitter at @HTFitness­_