From Spikes To Sorbet For Chris Tomlinson

From spikes to sorbet for Chris Tomlinson

Former UK long jump record-holder is now occupied with ice cream cones rather than athletics but still has strong views on the sport

From the moment the sun emerges from its winter hibernation, Chris Tomlinson comes alive. Life as a professional athlete for close to two decades dictated it: the summer is when track and field careers are shaped and reputations made.

spikes to sorbet

Eight years on from his athletics retirement, there has been little change to the seasonal nature of his existence, although memories of flying into a long jump pit are consigned to dreams that he admits emerge irregularly. These days, the summer months still provide the most important occupational period of the year for a man who has swapped sand and spikes for ice cream cones and wafers.


“It’s a small family-run business,” explains the former long jump British record holder of an unlikely second career in his native town of Middlesbrough. “Seven years ago, my brother-in-law pulled me in and asked if I fancied getting involved. I started then and it’s been brilliant, going from strength to strength. We manufacture ice cream cones and distribute our own Italian flavours and packaging. It’s certainly a massive shift away from athletics. No one has a clue who I am.”

Tomlinson, 42, has few opportunities – and, it must be said, little burning desire – to relive past sporting achievements in his new confectionary-based life. Not many in the waffle and sorbet world are aware of his 8.27m leap in 2002 that broke a 34-year-old British record, nor his 8.35m personal best many years later. They are not interested in his world indoor silver from 2008 or the 2010 European bronze.

For that matter, neither is he, explaining that he was unable to locate the medals when he searched the house for them recently and now has no idea where they are. Even his three young children – aged 11, 10 and eight – do not believe that he used to regularly compete in front of crowds they only associate with the Middlesbrough Football Club matches that they regularly attend.

The only question he tends to be asked is whether he won an Olympic medal, which is when a slight pang of regret kicks in. Tomlinson competed at three Olympics, finishing fifth in 2004, sixth in 2012 and exiting in qualifying in 2008. It is the home London Games that he still feels was the one that got away – the competition where he should have claimed a place on the Olympic podium, but fell just short with a best effort of 8.07m.

Chris Tomlinson (Mark Shearman)

“That’s the one I think about the most,” he says. “I’d been injured and had an operation in the build-up so everything had been against me. But rather than keeping my composure and sticking with an 8.10m or 8.15m, I gambled and it didn’t pay off.

“A jump of 8.12m would have got a medal, but at the time I didn’t want silver or bronze. I look back as a 42-year-old and think: ‘What a stupid decision’. It was all or nothing. Back then I couldn’t see the bigger picture.

“At the time I was always trying to go for first place. Really, what I should have done was go for a top-three finish. You think your next jump is going to be 8.60m, when actually if my next jump had been 8.20m that would have been good enough for a medal.

“I’ve got a world and European medal but not an Olympic one. Now I’m in a totally different world and that’s what people ask you.”

Known for his outspoken ways during his career, Tomlinson sometimes found himself making headlines for his words – frequently related to his British team-mate and rival Greg Rutherford – rather than his performances. Having suggested Rutherford’s selection at his expense for the 2013 World Championships was based on “media profile”, he was then at the centre of more controversy the following year when the reigning Olympic champion broke Tomlinson’s British record with a leap of 8.51m at a low-key meet in San Diego.


Chris Tomlinson (Mark Shearman)

Tomlinson was vocal in questioning the validity of the jump, claiming that video footage showed Rutherford had overstepped on the take-off board and describing the record as not “legitimate”.

A decade on, he laughs when the subject is raised, happily admitting that Rutherford beat him “fair and square” at major global championships around that time and he was relieved when Rutherford surpassed his best again when posting 8.41m to claim the world title in 2015. His belief remains on that 8.51m jump, though, although he says “it’s no skin off my nose. But I can say what I want and be honest because, ultimately, I sell ice cream cones now.”

No longer associated with athletics in any capacity, that straight-talking nature now takes the form of criticising various aspects of a sport that he admits he is “a bit at a loss with at the moment”, citing the lack of British male field eventers [shot putter Scott Lincoln was the sole entry] at the recent Glasgow World Indoor Championships as one example of
his declining interest.

Tomlinson questions the wisdom of World Athletics’ proposals to introduce a long jump take-off zone because spectators would no longer be able to gauge who has jumped furthest on immediate visual distance alone. And he lambasts BBC television coverage of the sport for “lacking insight and knowledge”.

But his biggest bugbear – something he feels passionately about – is a decline in grassroots engagement that he believes must be rectified by improving professionalism among coaches, the overwhelming majority of whom are – and have long been – amateur. His views are shaped by experiences with his three children across a variety of sports.

“The one thing I feel strongly about is to try to get grassroots coaches paid,” he says. “If coaches are paid then it incentivises them to get more kids down, and that means more parents come down and the sport grows.

“I’m picking my daughter up now from gymnastics where I pay £40 a month. Swimming lessons are £40 a month. Football costs me. I pay hundreds of pounds per month for my three kids to play sport and yet, when I take my daughter down to athletics, all I have to give is an admission charge. It’s a joke.

“We’ve been so focused on medals that we’re losing the foundations of the sport. We need to pay the coaches because if you can get kids involved in the sport at a young age, it also brings their parents into the sport.”


Having not been to watch elite athletics in person for a number of years, Tomlinson intends to take his children to the London Diamond League meet this summer to prove that their dad used to compete on the biggest stage.

Last December, he had what he describes as a “midlife crisis” and he now has the Olympic rings etched on his leg in what is his only tattoo. “I think that was because there was a part of me watching the athletics harping on that I could go back to it,” he says, jokingly. Even if he wanted to, he would not have the time. The world needs ice cream cones more than it does long jumpers.


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