After Katarina Johnson-Thompson’s stunning World Championships success in the heptathlon, a post on Facebook went viral. Shared on our own page, the post showed a photograph of three British female heptathlon greats – Denise Lewis, Johnson-Thompson and Jessica Ennis-Hill – with the caption ‘In a world full of Kardashians and ‘reality TV stars’….we should be waking up and showing our little girls these three inspirational women! Motivate and inspire the next generation!’

At the time of writing, the post, written by a regular member of the public called Emma Lewis, has been liked over 103,000 times with over 98,000 shares. It clearly struck a chord, resonating with ordinary people who are clearly looking for extraordinary role models for our children, but of an entirely different kind to the sort we see on reality TV.  Altogether more normal. more relatable, more humble. And KJT and Dina Asher-Smith are very much all of those, and they just so happen to be extraordinarily talented.

Converting Inspiration into Participation

Athletics, it has to be said, has been in the doldrums to varying degrees from elite to grassroots. Drugs and corruption and scandals have blighted the IAAF and elite athletics for too long, with shockingly low attendances in Doha raising more than a whiff of shady business.

The TV glory days of the 80s and 90s, when millions of Brits would routinely settle down in their living rooms to roar on the likes of Cram, Coe and Ovett, Linford Christie, Liz McColgan, Tessa Sanderson et al, seem an awful long time ago, and the worrying decline in grassroots participation could well be linked to the sport’s growing invisibility. We still get the Worlds and the Olympics on our screens, but no longer do we see the big Diamond League meets at the likes of Oslo and Rome on prime time Friday night terrestrial TV.

Sporting bodies in this country have long been wrestling with the challenge of turning around consistently low levels of physical activity, particularly among young girls. In research published in 2018 the body – which allocates £300m of funding to grassroots sport each year – found that just 17% of children and young people met government targets for daily activity, with boys (20%) more active than girls (14%). Studies consistently show a drop-off for girls in particular when they hit their teenage years.

You Could Be Katrina, You Could Be Dina

Ed Warner, a former chairman of UK Athletics, the sport’s governing body, reckons when it comes to inspiring girls to take part, athletics has the advantage of being “a 50:50 sport – half the medals on offer are for men, half are for women”. Warner expects Asher-Smith and Johnson-Thompson’s success to lead to a “sugar rush” of enthusiasm for athletics, but that there would inevitably be a drop-off as interest waned.

He said:

There’s real evidence in previous times that inspirational performances by top sports people do lead to queues of kids wanting to join their local athletics, swimming or cycling clubs. When they see scintillating performances, they turn to their parents and say: ‘I want to try that.’

The challenge for sporting organisations is to harness that, to keep kids engaged – because it is not an overnight enterprise. What you want is for people to be inspired, give it a go, but not expect instant success, because they will only be disappointed.

Being a good footballer is in the eye of the beholder. In athletics it is about how fast can you run, how high can you throw, how long can you jump? If you come from any background, if you have the determination to succeed, you could be Katarina, you could be Dina. Ed Warner, a former chairman of UK Athletics

KJT’s Story Can Inspire a New Generation

At just 26, KJT had already suffered more public disappointment and sporting heartbreak than most endure in an entire career. At the Rio Olympics in 2016, just a year after an emotionally crushing meltdown at the World Championships, her high jump mark would have seen her win gold in the individual event, but she failed to even medal in the heptathlon after capitulating from the bronze medal position she’d held almost throughout. In her own words she’s ‘cried enough to last me a career’, dealing with a litany of adversity.

It was a move to France, leaving behind the home comforts of Woolton, the leafy suburb of Liverpool where she grew up, that marked the start of a new era for KJT as she adopted a new intense regime of training, eating and sleeping in a bare-walled apartment in a foreign country – finding independence, and a new focus, away from the relatively pampered surrounds of home.

Her journey, and her triumph, teaches us all not to define yourself by or dwell on the mistakes of the past, but to push on, keep your eyes on the prize and realise all of your potential. And like the Facebook post said, her story and her achievements can motivate and inspire the next generation. So instead of the Kardashians, let’s endeavour to ensure our children are inspired by the likes of Katrina and Dina…and remind them: you could be Katrina, you could be Dina.

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