Discus date with destiny for Okoye, the Olympic opportunist

In two short years, Croydon Harrier Lawrence Okoye has become a poster boy for British athletics

It is a year since the wheels fell off for the discus-throwing juggernaut that is Lawrence Okoye.

At 6ft 6in tall and 21-stone, Okoye was in only his first full season as an international discus thrower, and he had known nothing but success. “Everything I’ve done, I’ve been successful at,” Okoye said. “My academics, my rugby, what I’m doing now. I’ve no reason to doubt myself.” At 19, he’d broken the senior national record and just claimed the European under-23 title, beating older, more experienced athletes.

But still-raw technique, perhaps a degree of fatigue after an already busy summer, saw the teenager from Waddon fail to make the top three at the British championships. There was no place in the British team for the world championships in Daegu for the man ranked third in the world in 2011.

“I fell apart because I tried to muscle it out,” Okoye admitted this week. “I was still the novice. I’m not now. I’m determined and obsessed with being the best. There’s a small window to do something unheard of, something special.”

He’s a big guy to get through a small window, but he openly admits that there is only one reason that he is competing in athletics’ Cinderella event. Okoye wants to compete, and win gold, at the London Olympics.

Back at the scene of his humbling experience a year ago, Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium, and there will be no margins for error tomorrow as Okoye, now 20, competes in the British Olympic Trials. Only a place in the top two will guarantee the Croydon Harrier a slot in the team for the London Games.

Lawrence Okoye when playing rugby. Would you fancy tackling him?

Okoye is an Olympic opportunist. When at school, this high-achiever’s career path was all neatly mapped out. A Daily Mail Cup-winning wing with Whitgift School, with a 100-metre best of 10.97sec, his bulldozing ball-carrying saw him dubbed the  “Junior Jonah Lomu”. A law degree at Oxford beckoned as a shrewd diversion on his way towards life as a professional rugby player.

But his work in the gym on the top of the hill at Haling Park had additional benefits when it came to the end of the rugby season and someone put a discus in his vast hands.

“I wouldn’t call what I did discus throwing,” Okoye said. “It was just something I took to, not a grand plan. My plan was rugby, university, that route.  It got derailed.

“If the Olympics hadn’t been in London it would have been a different story.

“Discus is not something I care for. I go in the circle, do what I do. I was supposed to play for Esher at rugby in the Championship, work my way up. I think I would have played for England, but fate got in the way. The ego in me likes discus because it’s an individual sport and you get out of it exactly what you put in.

“We’ve never had a good discus thrower in this country. I wouldn’t have watched discus a few years ago. I can watch any sport of a good standard. I can appreciate the skill, but I have no interest in no skill, poor performance.”

The Olympic odds are still stacked against Okoye if, as expected, he comes through this weekend’s trials in Birmingham unscathed, preferably by winning his first senior national title. Given his form already this year, including improving his British record to 68.24 metres last month, if for some unforeseen reason Okoye does not see off his domestic rivals, he could reasonably be picked for the Games in the third, selectors’ discretionary spot.

The Olympic Games poster from 1948, when London last staged the Games, with events south of the river, and recreated earlier this year by Lawrence Okoye

In modern athletics, the discus, with its classical Greek antecedents, has always been considered an older man’s event, usually dominated by European giants who reach their competitive peak in their 30s: Virgilijus Alekna, the Lithuanian double Olympic gold medallist, is ranked second in the world in 2012, at the grand old age of 40.

To challenge for gold, Okoye will need to throw at least one metre further than ever before to be on a par with the form of Alekna and with Robert Harting, of Germany, the world champion in 2009 and 2011, who has thrown beyond the 70-metre line twice this in 2012.

“He hasn’t lost for nearly two years,” Okoye, a student of his new event, observes, “so it will be tough to take Harting off his throne, but it’s the job everyone is looking to do.

“Harting is as big a competitor as you can get. He’s an Alpha male, big ego. He has no reason to be scared of me but I’m working hard to make him scared.

“I like to be the best at what I’m doing. I don’t want to be an average athlete or someone that wasn’t trying to get to the top. I’m determined and obsessed with being the best.”

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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