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Peter Elliott: Man of steel

Peter Elliott: Man of steel

Having held down a full-time job in the steel industry while racing the best on the planet, Peter Elliott is now working tirelessly in the sports world, writes Tom Degun

“Unfortunately I don’t run anymore,” explains Peter Elliott, one of Britain’s greatest-ever middle-distance athletes. “I have a disc problem in my back as a result of my long running career so exercise for me now takes the form of mediocre squash or gentle cycling around the streets I used to run on.”

Some 25 years on from arguably the greatest moment of his illustrious athletics career – winning gold at the Auckland 1990 Commonwealth Games – Elliott remains very much involved in sport. He currently works at the English Institute of Sport (EIS), which helps elite athletes improve performance through the delivery of science, medicine, technology and engineering. As director of operations, Elliott plays a leading role in ensuring athletes have the optimal performance environment in which to train.

Given that his stellar medal collection includes prizes from the Olympic Games, World Championships and Commonwealth Games, Elliott is rather well placed to support the next generation of talented sports stars in achieving success on a global platform. With the Rio 2016 Olympics and Paralympics fast approaching, Elliott’s workload is growing exponentially but on rare occasions, he allows himself to reflect back on his own glittering running career.

“Winning that Commonwealth Games gold in Auckland in the 1500m was my favourite moment as an athlete,” Elliott explains from his EIS office in Sheffield. “Obviously I won an Olympic silver medal at Seoul 1988 and the Olympic Games are the bigger event, but that victory in Auckland was really special for me. It came during a purple patch in my career in 1990 where I was so confident I didn’t feel I could be beaten by anyone. That is the perfect moment for any athlete. That same year I ran the 800m in 1:42.97 in Seville (making him the third fastest Briton ever over the distance) so it was an exceptional period for me.”

One might be mistaken for thinking Elliott’s Commonwealth Games gold medal (as well as his Olympic silver and World Championship silver from Rome 1987) now sit proudly on his mantelpiece. But to think that you would not know modest Peter Elliott all too well.

“The medals are in a box in my house,” Elliott says rather dismissively. “I really don’t want to show them off or anything like that so I don’t have them on display. That doesn’t mean that I’m not proud of them all. They came during a period when we had a golden era for British middle-distance running with Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram. They absolutely dominated and to be the best in Britain was to be the best in the world.

“Coe, Ovett and Cram are legends of the sport so to have won medals in that era and to be considered part of it is a privilege.”

The golden quartet of Coe, Ovett, Cram and Elliott have headed in vastly different directions since hanging up their spikes but they have each been hugely successful in their own right.

“Coe, Ovett and Cram are legends of the sport so to have won medals in that era and to be considered part of it is a privilege”

Coe, of course, has become one of the most powerful administrators in world sport, having followed his London 2012 triumph by recently becoming president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Ovett moved to Australia, where he has worked as an athletics commentator for CBC TV in Canada. Cram, too, has become a popular athletics commentator for the BBC, while Elliott has his senior position at the EIS. Thanks to the four differing paths, Elliott says he rarely sees his three former team-mates.

“Steve Cram is the one I have encountered most regularly since we were all athletes because he was previously chair of the EIS (from 2003-2013) and we caught up at our board meetings but since he stepped down, we haven’t seen as much of each other,” he said. “The former athlete I actually run into most now is Nigel Walker (the former Welsh 110m hurdler) because he is national director at the EIS. He is an inspirational leader and it is a pleasure to work with him after being together on the same team many years ago.

“With regard to Coe, Ovett and Cram, I am glad all of them have gone on to good things because we share that special bond of competing during the golden era. When we competed, despite the competition being fierce, I feel I got on reasonably well with all of them. Ovett was probably the one I was closest to back then because when I was a 16-year-old in 1979 we trained together over the sand dunes at Merthyr Mawr in Wales under the supervision of his coach, Harry Wilson, and he was very supportive. That was a real learning curve to train with one of the world’s best athletes at a young age and to see how hard he pushed himself in training was an important lesson for me.”

As someone now imparting his own wisdom on the next generation of athletes, Elliott smiles ruefully when discussing how far support structures have come since he was competing.

“Back when I was competing, you pretty much had one coach who would do everything,” he says. “They would be your coach, nutritionist, psychologist and pretty much whatever else you required them to be. I look now at the support we provide at the EIS and you are looking at world-leading expertise in all fields from physiotherapy, physiology and nutrition through to biomechanics, performance analysis and strength and conditioning.

“I am slightly envious when I see all the phenomenal expertise the Institute provides because it makes me wonder how much faster I could have gone if I’d had access to that when I was competing. With that support network, I would have been bigger, stronger, faster and less injury-prone.

“Perhaps that support could have made me Olympic champion rather than silver medallist but it isn’t worth thinking too much about that! My job now is to help the EIS be the very best so it can support the next generation of athletes to be successful.”

“I am slightly envious when I see all the phenomenal expertise the Institute provides because it makes me wonder how much faster I could have gone if I’d had access to that when I was competing”

Given the amount of time he devotes to the EIS, Elliott says he rarely finds the time to watch a great deal of athletics these days but always aims to catch the big middle-distance events when he can.

“I was one of the lucky ones who was at the Olympic Stadium that night at London 2012 when Kenya’s David Rudisha won the 800m gold and broke the world record in perhaps the greatest athletics performance ever,” says Elliott. “I think he is an incredible athlete and I always look out for him at the big events – as well as for all of our British athletes of course!”

Elliott feels fortunate to have spent the majority of his career in sport and admits he owes a huge debt to former 10,000m runner Brendan Foster.

“When I retired, Brendan invited me to join his sports marketing company, Nova International,” explains Elliott. “It was a fantastic organisation and I loved my role. It was only when a great opportunity came up at the EIS in 2004 to work across a wide range of sports that I reluctantly decided to leave. I have actually had a “real job” before because I worked for the British Steel Corporation for 11 years but sport is a huge part of my life and I love what I do at the EIS.

“I am enjoying the challenge of helping our team prepare for Rio 2016. Looking ahead, I’m optimistic about the future as we start thinking about the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games and then Tokyo 2020. So it is exciting times at the EIS and I am very happy to be a part of it.”

» This article is a part of AW’s ‘Where are they now?’ series. Look out for further features in future editions of the magazine

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