Tom Bosworth: Team GB racewalker on coronavirus, securing a Tokyo 2020 Olympics spot, and combatting online abuse

“It would have been completely heart-breaking [if the Olympics had taken place in 2020] because I don’t think I would have been in shape to compete and I felt like I was in medal contention at the start of last year… I’m going to get myself in the best shape ahead of Tokyo.”

Team GB racewalker Tom Bosworth was in the form of his life before the Covid-19 pandemic set in. The 31-year-old had set new 5,000m and 10,000m British records at the start of 2020 and was targeting qualification for a second Olympic Games.

However, as the world came to a standstill last March, Bosworth caught the virus and suffered a range of long-lasting symptoms which lingered on into the summer.

He found it difficult to walk around his garden without feeling out of breath as the illness took its toll on his whole body. The 2018 Commonwealth Games silver medalist ruled out competing for the season and was unable to resume full training until the winter.

Along with becoming aware of the crushing news about the Olympics being postponed, Bosworth admits 2020 was a “demoralising” time, having felt in peak condition prior to falling ill. But on reflection, the racewalker feels glad that the situation worked out the way it did, with the Games being pushed back a year.

He told Sky Sports News: “Yeah, it was really bad. The Olympic trials this year actually marked a year to the day that I caught Covid.

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I’m going to Tokyo!!!

I confirmed my place for @TeamGB and am on my way to becoming a double Olympian!

Really disappointed to race in so much pain but I know I’m fit and can recover now and push on knowing my place is confirmed!

Thanks to those who made today happen. pic.twitter.com/2UsgpcguwK

“I suffered for about a month after I had set back-to-back British records just before falling ill so was very, very fit and felt like I was in contention for a medal for Tokyo last year and it [coronavirus] literally winded me.

“We didn’t know much about it then, so I tried to get back into full training, twice a day every day about a month later and it just wasn’t happening.

“My body had really taken it badly and suffered. It opened my eyes, I am meant to be someone who is pretty fit and healthy and it had taken me down so I was very, very cautious going forward… it had basically written last summer off.

“Having had an injury and mental health issues the year before, it felt like life was getting back to normal and on the straight and narrow and for that to happen was pretty demoralising.

“But we came through it with the help of British Athletics and I had a good winter and I’m getting back to fitness now.”

Exactly 12 months on, the 2016 Olympic finalist qualified for this summer’s rescheduled Tokyo Games with a second-place finish in the men’s 20km walk trials at Kew Gardens last Friday, having already beaten the required qualifying time in a previous race.

Following a tough year, Bosworth feels buoyed by securing his seat on the plane to Japan but admits he is frustrated about the qualifying race itself and competing with a hamstring injury which he hopes he can recover from before July 23.

He said: “It’s fantastic. Every athlete’s dream is to make the Olympics. Most people just make it to one Olympic Games so to make it to two this year is very exciting, albeit that this year is going to be very different to any that there has ever been.

“The last six weeks have been a write-off so usually, we wouldn’t race, but given this was the Olympic trial and I was in a position where I had to be in the top two to confirm my place, I took that risk. I thought it was worth trying to get through 20km, and I was able to do that and clinch that second place.

“I was in a lot of pain but we have made progress over the last few weeks and we have plenty of time now to fix that injury and get some heat work in to acclimatise for Tokyo. Hopefully, I should be able to get back to full fitness and within podium shot.”

‘Disappointing that families won’t be in Tokyo to watch us’

The over-11,000 Olympic athletes expected to compete this summer are used to rigorous training regimes and events planned months in advance, but their schedules in the build-up to this year’s Games have been disrupted like never before.

Competitors and Olympic associations worldwide were dealing with uncertainty surrounding whether the Games would go ahead or be postponed for a second year running amid the pandemic.

Unlike a normal season where we have everything planned out, this is completely unknown. We prepare for competitions to go on at the last minute or be cancelled, and we have to adapt to that and be ready. It is so, so difficult right now but everyone is in the same position.

Tom Bosworth, Team GB racewalker

Earlier in March, it was confirmed that there will be no overseas spectators present in Tokyo, with a decision on the number of Japanese fans permitted into events to be announced in April.

The Olympic torch relay began its 121-day journey across Japan in Fukushima last week, but the ceremony was closed to the general public. The limited number of spectators in attendance remained socially distant and were not permitted to cheer loudly due to Covid-19 protocols.

As well as the unique nature of this year’s tournament, the circumstances in 2021 compared with 2016 could not be more different personally for Bosworth, who proposed to his boyfriend Harry on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro after finishing sixth in the 20km race walk four-and-a-half years ago.

He admits it will be tough not having loved ones there in Japan to rely on for support but Bosworth is using the positive memories of Rio as motivation, with preparations ramping up for Tokyo.

“Everybody would love their family and friends to be there,” he added.

366 days apart.
One moment of utter joy the other complete disaster.
To all athletes: Work on what you can control, know you will fail, badly, it won’t go your way, it doesnt always work out. But when it does, appreciate what you’ve over come, what you achieved and what it means. pic.twitter.com/y3x5T2Jggd

“It is really disappointing, and I am very lucky to have done a Games and had that experience with my family and it’s sad if it is perhaps an athlete’s only Olympics that they can’t share that experience.

“But at the same time, their friends and family would want them to go to an Olympics and have that opportunity regardless, and I also feel that to hold a safe Games, these decisions have to be made early.

“Also, Japan and Tokyo can enjoy the Games and the home spectators can get the benefits of hosting the event.

“Rio was a magical 10 weeks. Training before was going phenomenally well and planning the engagement, buying the ring in Heathrow Airport, it was all just magic.

“And in a way, even if Tokyo had gone ahead as normal, I don’t think I’d have been able to top those Games. It was always going to be very difficult to top that.

“I finished sixth and set a British record as well. I am glad I had that opportunity – it now has helped me just focus my goals even more onto the race.

“Unlike a normal season where we have everything planned out, this is a complete unknown. We prepare for competitions to go on at the last minute or be cancelled, and we have to adapt to that and be ready. It is so, so difficult right now but everyone is in the same position.”

Away from his training regime, Bosworth has enjoyed gardening, walks with his Labrador, and advocating positive mental health through walking and daily exercise during the lockdown.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CL1sMgvHO-M/

A post shared by Tom Bosworth 🇬🇧 (@tombosworth)

The Kent-born Olympian, who holds the world record for the one-mile race walk, has faced his own mental health battles in the past.

After being disqualified at the World Athletics Championships in London in 2017, Bosworth became depressed and even considered taking his own life on more than one occasion after feeling he put too much pressure on himself during competitions.

He has stopped short of encouraging his social media followers to emulate his marathon-a-day training regime but has regularly posted on his accounts, urging people to get outside to benefit their mental and physical wellbeing during the challenging last few months.

“I tried to spread that message of how good walking is through keeping fit by taking your mind off of things, going for some fresh air, it does wonders for you. So that has been an ambition of mine as well,” Bosworth said.

“Walking is the most simple and easiest form of exercise there is. I had people messaging me saying, ‘I’ve set out to do this distance in this time, or try and do this lap I always do, but a little bit quicker.’

“People use it for all sorts of different reasons and I hope that stays. A healthier nation is going to be able to fight pandemics far better in the future so I hope that stays in people’s routines and that daily exercise has almost become easier for people to get that mental and physical boost.”

Sunday walks with Harry and Jess 🐕 pic.twitter.com/VNtKduEZH0

‘It’s scary receiving online abuse, especially while we’re all at home’

During an already challenging year for Bosworth, the racewalker received homophobic abuse from an athletics volunteer in 2020 who messaged him to say “f**s aren’t welcome” in the sport.

He came out in 2015 and is currently the only out gay male athlete on the British athletics team. He reported the social media abuse at the time, blocked the user in question, and was supported by the British Athletics governing body.

Bosworth is one of many professional sportsmen and women who have been subjected to online discrimination over the past year.

During the last fortnight alone, footballers Rabbi Matondo, Ben Cabango, Jude Bellingham, Kemar Roofe and Rhian Brewster, along with England Rugby’s Ellis Genge and a number of Wales players have been targeted. Thierry Henry has announced he is quitting social media until online abuse is regulated “with the same vigour and ferocity” that copyright infringements are.

100m British champion sprinter and Sky Sports Scholar Imani-Lara Lansiquot recently revealed how she is driving change after suffering racist abuse.

Instagram has said it will impose stricter penalties including the removal of accounts to prevent abusive messages, while the Online Harms Bill, due to come before the government this year, will aim to hold technology companies to greater levels of accountability and punish organisations if they breach online duty of care rules.

Bosworth says the government and tech companies are incumbent on regulating social media platforms and delivering stricter punishments for those who abuse, especially when populations continue to communicate and work digitally amid the ongoing coronavirus restrictions.

He added: “It shouldn’t be tolerated especially at the moment when the Government want us to live off of technology and keep society going through it. It has to be governed far better than it is.

“It is just not acceptable because I feel like it is even more dangerous behind a screen than in someone’s face because it can be relentless.

“It’s that one individual seeing it, receiving it and feeling perhaps so much hatred and upset. I’d hate to think where that would lead at the moment when people are stuck at home on their own, and that is a really scary thought.

“I am really pleased to see so many people speaking about it, so many people calling people out for it – the conversation is building and building. It should just not be tolerated full stop.

“The fact it is done online means there is clear evidence, and if people are doing it behind a screen or without a clear identity then they should just be banned.

“You shouldn’t have that option to portray somebody else online because as we’ve seen, the world wouldn’t have survived without technology in the way we have right now. So rules must change to go forward because otherwise, it will become a bit of a minefield.

“There needs to be a route to punish these people. Your home is where you should feel safe and where you should just be you and not open your phone and tolerate any sort of abuse of any kind.”

Bosworth believes that in the future, online abuse could potentially deter professional athletes and sportspeople from wanting to compete unless there is a comprehensive strategy to address the problem.

He said: “Yes, absolutely [it would put people off playing sport]. Especially with the next generation, they are growing up with social media and if this is all they know, it could be terrifying as to where it leads.

“They may never want to socialise or build relationships with people because it can be so damaging, or people can end up taking their own lives.

“That is why it is more damaging because it can go unseen by so many people. Athletes are just like anybody else, footballers are just normal human beings.

“People have high-profile positions but it shouldn’t change how people behave towards them whatsoever.”

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