MADRID (Reuters) - Portugal’s 29-year-old sprint king Francis Obikwelu is looking to a future beyond the fast lane and wants to make sure he bows out at the top with a memorable performance in China.
“It’s going to be my last year at the Olympics. In 2009 I’ll run for my club and for Portugal and that’s it, I’m done,” Obikwelu, who clocked a searing 9.86 seconds when he took the 100 meters silver behind the since-disgraced Justin Gatlin in Athens in 2004, told Reuters in an interview.
“I want to leave the sport when I am on top. It’s a tough decision because I enjoy running and I know I can still run because I am talented. But it’s my life and I have to decide.
“I’m going to set up a business and check out what’s good for me. I’ve got a plan and it’s secret. I don’t know yet if I am going to run (at the European championships) in Barcelona in 2010.”
The Nigerian-born sprinter, who became the first man since Italian Pietro Mennea in 1978 to do the sprint double at the European championships with his triumphs in Gothenburg in 2006, also has a personal reason drawing him away from a sport that demands such unerring commitment and intense personal focus.
“I want to have a family,” he explained. “I am going to get myself together after the Olympics. If I have a wife with kids coming up I don’t want to be driving everywhere and leaving her alone.”
There are other factors pushing him out of the sport, the primary one being doping, an issue that has done so much to mar the sport’s image in recent years.
Obikwelu, who holds the European 100 meters record, believes some athletes have turned to drugs in a misguided attempt to keep themselves at the top in an increasingly competitive environment.
“Athletics is going down. There’s no more fun in it any more,” he said. “For me, I ran well in 2004, then I didn’t run well in 2005, had a good 2006 and then a bad 2007.
“I’m not a machine. I just run with what I got. If it comes good, great, if not it’s fine with me. I can’t run fast every day.”
That attitude is typical of Obikwelu’s easy-going character but rivals hoping he may be distracted and already losing his focus are mistaken.
The lanky, long-striding sprinter has been working on new techniques to improve his style and has set himself demanding objectives for the new season.
“My target this year is to have the European record in the 60 meters. I’ll be going for that (at the world indoor championships next week) in Valencia,” he said. “I know this’ll be very difficult because I am tall but anything can happen. The idea is to improve my reaction time. It will help me a lot for the Olympics.”
Training six days a week, with Sundays off to sing in the local church choir or follow his favorite football team Barcelona, is no problem for someone who worked as a builder on the Algarve soon after moving to Portugal as a teenager.
“I don’t need someone to help me with motivation, I can do that myself. My Dad was more of a footballer but he taught me how to get myself together. I am mentally very strong with everything I do. Sometimes colleagues are amazed at how I train fast every day.”
Obikwelu spent much of his time during winter training at his base in Madrid teaming up with British sprinter Marlon Devonish as the two tried to improve their chances of achieving their common goal of breaking the American grip on the sprint disciplines.
“There is a rivalry. We are getting there. Devonish is coming up and there are some others too,” he said. “There is camaraderie among the Europeans but I just go out there to try and enjoy it. I don’t want to put pressure on myself,” he said.
“I talk to everybody. It doesn’t matter if you are on top you just try to enjoy it with everyone, because one day you’ll be done and you might want to come back and talk to them some time.”
Although, by his own admission, he had a disappointing season in 2007, Obikwelu is convinced 2008 will be one of his best with the peak coming in Beijing in August.
“I have to forget about what’s happened and keep looking forward,” he concluded. “I’m hungry for the Olympics, training good and this is going to be a big year for me.
“It’s going to be hot (in Beijing), which I love, and it’s going to be a great Olympics.”
Editing by Clare Fallon