Kelly Sotherton on athletes’ rights, life skills and taking risks

Former heptathlete Kelly Sotherton (Credit: Action Images / Jason O’Brien)

Kelly Sotherton is committed to securing athletes’ rights and ensuring the athlete journey runs smoothly. We caught up with the Olympic medallist ahead of her presentation at this week’s TASS Strategy Day and Conference in Birmingham.

“Ask anything you like,”. Kelly Sotherton’s refreshing approach to talking shop defiantly bucks the trend of so many current and former elite athletes whose measured responses and politically correct statements reflect an underlying fear of social media driven criticism. At 42, the former heptathlete has been there, done that and worn the international vest – nothing is off limits when the hot topic of athletes’ rights is raised and nor should it be according to a fierce proponent of free speech.

“I think it’s important that athletes have a voice,” said Sotherton, who founded the British Athletics Athlete Commission in 2017. “A lot of people nowadays are wary of having an opinion and putting their head above the parapet.

“People are more media savvy – they don’t think they can say the wrong thing or have an opinion. You see that a lot now. Everyone is afraid of being who they want to be and of saying the wrong thing. In that respect, it’s tougher to be part of this generation than it was for me.”

Sotherton is fearless in her conviction. And although the former heptathlete is no fan of social media’s negative impact, she feels the rapid development of digital media offers current athletes an invaluable opportunity to reach wider audiences, more often.

“Technology is causing a lot of the negative challenges facing modern day athletes,” she added. “On the other hand, as a result of the fast-changing digital media landscape, there has probably never been a better time to be an athlete. There might be less TV coverage but if it’s not on TV then it’s all over the internet – on Instagram or YouTube or wherever. That can be of huge benefit to athletes who understand its potential value.”

Dealing with the unstoppable advance of digital media is just one of the obstacles facing modern-day sportsmen and women as they embark upon an athlete journey fraught with potential setbacks. The constant shadow of doping in sport is another and Sotherton, more than most, is well placed to tackle an issue which continues to blight the sport she loves.

In 2017 she was finally upgraded to a Beijing 2008 Olympic bronze medal following the disqualification of two better-placed rivals ultimately found guilty of doping. But Sotherton insists athletics is ahead of the game when it comes to cracking down on drug taking and feels clean athletes should move forward with confidence.

“Let’s be real,” she added. “There’s doping in every sport but athletics and the Olympic sports are doing more about it. There are probably bigger problems in other sports. That’s how I feel.

“The prospect of drug use in athletics shouldn’t deter the next generation. If you want to be a world class athlete then do it – be the best that you can be. And do it all legally. It’s only a small percentage of athletes who cheat. Don’t let them deter you.”

Sotherton competes in the Women’s 4 x 400m Relay Final at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (Credit: Action Images/Jason O’Brien)

It’s a heartfelt plea. But the fact remains that many rising stars are deterred from chasing their sporting dreams in an age when the athlete journey can appear more precarious than ever. TASS supports more than 600 sportsmen and women nationwide in 2019 – offering a unique package of support designed to encourage the dual career approach and persuade the next generation that anything is possible. Sotherton is a strong advocate of such support and feels life experience – whether in the workplace or socially – is invaluable at a time when an increasing number of athletes are focusing on full-time sport.

“As long as I was in the right place, being coached by the right person, then that was all that mattered to me as an emerging athlete,” she added. “Expectations are much higher now. It’s so difficult to compare that stage of my athlete journey to the same stage for the same level of athletes now. It’s like chalk and cheese.

“There’s more choice but that’s not always a good thing. There’s a real sense of that fear of missing out because you’re seeing other athletes doing different things and there are so many options available. When I was in my late teens and early 20s athletics was my only focus but I still wasn’t sure if I was good enough.

“I moved to Birmingham to be near my coach but in order to do that I had to get a job. I worked in a bar before I moved to HSBC. My only ambition at that stage was to embark on a career that would allow me to pursue my hobby of athletics long enough to know whether I was good enough to go full-time!

“Nowadays it’s about becoming a full-time athlete as soon as possible – even if you’re not actually good enough to be that full-time athlete. Lots of people are good enough to go full-time at a young age but many are not.

“I’m from the last generation of elite athletes that was enriched by the experience of combining their sport with working life. I understand what life is all about and that gave me a greater and more rounded perspective and skillset.”

TASS continues to bridge the generational gap by encouraging performance athletes to be the very best they can within the sporting world and, at the same time, preparing those talented athletes for life after sport. The dual career approach is proven to work and Sotherton acknowledges its value in terms of simplifying and easing the athlete journey.

“Specialist support becomes increasingly important when athletes start making national competitions and have an eye on representing their country,” she added. “But that’s often the time when it’s also important to focus on education or vocational studies.

“Sport isn’t forever. The more skills you give people at an early age – and I include life skills in that – the better prepared they are for every eventuality. Maybe we should be looking at teaching these skills at an even younger age? Kids are getting more savvy and wise to what’s available at a much earlier age. They represent their country at a younger age and therefore require support around their health, wellbeing and education at an earlier age. That’s the natural next step.”

At the other end of the scale Sotherton knows what it takes to reach peak performance – and stay there. “It’s easier to get to the top than it is to stay at the top,” she added. “It’s a case of knowing what you need to do to maintain your ability and stop yourself from getting hurt.

“I did pick up a lot of injuries but I managed them when it mattered. It became about ensuring that I used the support network available at that point to gain the best possible advantage.

“I focused on physiology, psychology and nutrition and made sure I was the best version of me that I could possibly be. That meant that I was achieving a season’s best every time I reached a major championship.

“You have to push yourself to the limit and sometimes that means taking risks. Sometimes those risks come off and sometimes they don’t.”

Sotherton has never been risk averse and never will be. There were those who suggested the British Athletics Athlete Commission was a gamble too far and yet, two years down the line, its work continues to plot a better future for the sport’s best established and emerging talent.

“I came up with the idea for the commission and I set it up,” said Sotherton. “I’m very proud of that. There needed to be a vehicle for athletes to have a say. But people have to realise that it’s slow going – changing policy is an arduous process! It’s all about the long game where these things are concerned and I’m going nowhere. It will only get better over time.”