An athlete’s reward in their respective discipline tends to be the product of the effort and dedication that they inherently input. That’s the clichéd response most sports men and women will divulge anyway.
But that sentiment rings true for Olympic finalist Sophie Hitchon. The Burnley-born hammer thrower has fought financial hardships and an oppressive, discriminatory, almost short-sighted governing body to achieve the profile she has in today’s track and field hierarchy.
Success hasn’t come easy, that’s for sure. Her career to date hasn’t been one of a lavishly spoon-fed existence. Every achievement has been earned and tirelessly fought for. Sophie isn’t one for a ‘hard luck’ story - she simply perseveres and progresses with gritted teeth.
The British number one, who celebrates her 23rd birthday on Friday, has smashed records consistently - inclusive of a personal best distance of 72.97m set 12 months ago at the European Athletics Team Championships in Gateshead - and qualified for the finals of London 2012.
You have to wonder, though, how significantly more embellished the one-time World junior champion’s treasure trove could have been with a little help from the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations).
Any athlete desires exposure and the consequent representation and sponsorship that such recognition breeds. Raw talent and support provides the pillar for competitors in the embryonic stages of development. Focus can be centred on training rather than the perils of funding Clothing, footwear, nutritional supplements, training equipment, travel (petrol, flights), gym memberships, healthcare and accommodation.
However, the IAAF has single-handedly extinguished such an opportunity for Sophie. With the hammer throw abolished from the esteemed Diamond League – which replaced the Golden League in 2010 – Sophie finds herself fighting against the system for progression.
Excuses have been aplenty but there’s a transparency within them. Worries of infrastructure damage were cheapened by the words of Diamond League vice-chairman Patrick Maygar who claimed that heavy throwing events weren’t as entertaining in a stadium environment.
“The Diamond League has reasons for not including hammer in its schedule but a lot of the people who compete don’t really understand the reasons why,” Sophie said. “They say that it’s not safe for spectators which is completely ridiculous. If the cage is set up correctly there’s no problem and there’s never been a problem in a major championships. They also say that the cage obstructs peoples’ views. It’s little, silly excuses that make us feel ostracised from other athletics.
“We do have the separate Hammer Challenge but the prize money is about half that the winner of the Diamond League would receive. It’s not a competition that provides equal opportunity. We have to make a living too. It can be very difficult.”
Sophie added: “I’m just breaking through really but I feel if I can compete in the Diamond League it would give me a lot of experience. It would obviously give hammer a lot more exposure and people would learn a bit more about it which would make the audience more interested in the sport. When you see other younger athletes in their respective fields doing really well, you almost feel like you have to take a back seat.
“I currently don’t have a kit sponsor. Nike sends me kit but I’m not contracted to them. The main reason for that is because we’re not in the Diamond League so I don’t get the TV exposure that other athletes do. At the minute there isn’t an equal platform for hammer and other events.”
The Diamond League’s stance is also indirectly impacting on coverage elsewhere – with the BBC airbrushing coverage of the throwing events in the European Athletics Team Championships in Braunschweig, Germany, last month.
Now Sophie feels that the profile of the sport is becoming seriously under-valued. German hammer thrower Kathrin Klaas has started the movement with 1,677 people signing a petition in opposition to the hammer’s exclusion but, for now it seems, to no avail.
“In 2012 there was a German girl called Kathrin Klaas who was really pushing for inclusion,” detailed Sophie. “She put a lot of things together to try and get the hammer in to the Diamond League. There was a petition and a lot of people signed it but it made no difference. I think a couple of people high up don’t like the hammer and that’s hurting us. Things have happened in the past to try and change things but unfortunately nothing has panned out yet.”
Sophie – set to compete in Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games at the end of the month as British Champion – added: “Sometimes I feel I have the responsibility of moving the sport of hammer forward to get it out there. I know if I keep doing well and improving I will be able to boost its profile so more people can learn what it’s about.
“But we keep being overlooked. I heard that the BBC’s coverage of the European Team Championships wasn’t brilliant. Apparently they didn’t mention me or show any of my performances. It’s very disappointing.
“Even in the smaller competitions, including the Sainsbury’s Grand Prix at Hampden, we haven’t been involved in. We weren’t involved in the Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games last year either to mark the anniversary of the Olympics. It’s frustrating that we’re always left out. Sport is a cruel thing and you’ve got to be able to ride with the punches. It’s important to be able to pick yourself up and move forward with it.”
Ahead of the Games at Hampden Park, where Canadian Sultana Frizell and New Zealand’s Julia Ratcliffe pose the main threat to the podium, Sophie went on: “In any championships it’s not really about the distance, it’s about the place you finish. All throughout the year we focus on distances but in the championships it’s all about where you can place.
“It would be a great achievement if I could get on the podium at my first Commonwealth Games. I’m currently going in to it ranked second but there are some really good girls involved. It will be a really good competition.
“There’s a girl from Canada who heads the rankings with 75m this year. She’s been throwing really well. There’s also a girl from New Zealand who has been throwing 70m too. There are a few girls there that will be competitive and hopefully I can push them.”
• There will be 14 meets in the Diamond League in 2014, with the next one scheduled to take place at the weekend at the Glasgow Grand Prix at Hampden Park.
So why can Sophie compete at the aforementioned stadium in the Commonwealth Games but not for the forthcoming Diamond League meet?