24 April 2005

Her retirement announcement has drawn the generous tributes she fully deserves. But only a week before she was a Dame in the window, not an icon at the start. Reports that Kelly Holmes had demanded a massive sum for starting the London Marathon were an unhappy and strongly denied postscript to what had seemed a jolly promotional stunt at the front of Lillywhites store in Piccadilly Circus a week ago on Friday.

Kelly Holmes is now about as famous as it comes. Her two gold medals in Athens catapulted her up to the dizzy heights where only her first name, or just her winning image, is needed for total recognition. But with recognition comes ownership; and riches, and jealousy too.

The “who does she think she is” grumbles that the Marathon issue spawned were particularly galling in Kelly’s case because she remains the most open of people. Even after eight months of super-stardom there is still a lot of the wide-eyed, eager-to-please attitude that overwhelmed all of us during the Olympic Games — when waving to onlookers from a Piccadilly shop window or even running with me.

Well, to start with she was actually running on adjoining treadmills with Steve Cram. Both of them are part of the Reebok promotional team. A new slip-on, pump-up, super shoe was being launched. So public and press were invited to Piccadilly to press their noses against the window and (if you were a photographer) to try and figure out how to get a picture without seeing your reflection in the glass.

These sorts of things are at least a different way of getting an interview and often (although not in this case) you get a new pair of trainers out of them. Over the years, God help me, I have ridden with Lester Piggott, jogged with Barry McGuigan, driven with Colin McRae, played table tennis with an unpronounceable Chinese world champion, ridden Isle of Man motorbike pillion with the late Steve Hislop and, most humiliatingly, swum with Eric The Eel. As stunts go, this was an easy one. It’s just the lessons around it that were tough.

Steve Cram has seen it all before. He is Kiplingesque in the way he has “walked with crowds and kept his virtue, talked with Kings and not lost the common touch”. It is 20 years since he set world records for the 1,500m, 2,000m, and mile in 19 glorious days of summer. He now wins awards for his TV commentaries but takes time out for all manner of good works, including Chairman of the English Institute of Sport who have helped Kelly overcome her assorted injury problems. He is just the support she needs.

“There can be quite a lot of hassle,” he reflects in the loft in the Lillywhites roof to which only we and the pigeons repair, “but you have to enjoy these things for what they are. I think Kelly will be fine.” Downstairs, Kelly is doing her best. “It can get tiring sometimes,” she admits, “but mostly it has been really enjoyable and I have been doing so many different things: the Royal Variety Show, Buckingham Palace, and almost most fun of all was launching Arkadia, the huge cruise liner, in Southampton last week. It was really funky with acrobats dropping from the sky and the bow being revealed behind a curtain. And the bottle broke when it should.”

Close up she is smaller and more fragile than you remember; the face strong but the legs almost delicate in their narrowness. Last year’s crowning achievements came after she finally had an injury-free preparation. You wonder if, with her 35th birthday celebrated on Tuesday and the World Indoor Championship in March missed with a hamstring strain, she can ever be so lucky again.

“It’s all about doing the training,” she says, “I am off for a six-week block in South Africa next week. I come back to Glasgow at the beginning of June. I am committed to some races [a sum of £150,000 has been agreed]. I am obviously aiming for the World Championships in Helsinki but the only way I am going to race is to do the training. Training is what I do.”

You think of all the years of effort and disappointment she has overcome and you would not begrudge her a penny of the millions she should now earn in promotions and on the track. But time has to be spent gathering the harvest. Her South African training will be broken in mid-May for a trip to Portugal for the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year awards, up against Maria Sharapova, Annika Sorenstam and the heroic Dutch cyclist Leontien Zijlaard-van Moorsel. She also has an autobiography to plug in the summer.

When we have finally pushed through the bemused shopping throng to the fishbowl absurdity of the shop window, I thank her for helping me get started on the machine. “Of course,” she says, waving to a fan on the other side of the glass. In that moment you see Kelly the helper, Kelly whose biggest (and achieved) ambition was to be an army PE instructor, Kelly the superstar whose true fulfillment is in passing on the sporting torch as she already is with her support for London 2012 and her `On Camp with Kelly’ athletic scholarship scheme.

She is determined to stay ordinary but she has reached extraordinary heights. She is the ultimate tribute to sporting perseverance and makes you feel better just for being in her company. But she will also be in ferocious commercial demand and she and her team must heed the warnings last week brought.

“When I hear someone applauded by the mob,” wrote the great American sage H L Mencken some 60 years ago, “I always feel a pang of pity for them. All they have to do to be hissed is to live long enough.”

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