All sport can be cruel and on Saturday morning in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium, the 400m hurdles provided the latest bit of evidence to prove just how cruel it can be.
Jessie Knight gave up on athletics in 2017 when she qualified as a primary teacher, a profession she regarded as a more sustainable profession than the effort required to make athletics viable as a career. But she returned a year later, missing the buzz, building back up and taking her running to the next level. And as she approached the first hurdle of her first Olympic Games, she fell.
On the cusp of the first bend, the point of her left foot went into the ground rather than the bottom tips of her toes. With little to support her thrust in the build-up to the opening leap, her leg gave way, sending her stomach first into the hurdle.
She freed herself from the white plastic and red metal, getting to her feet to assess her injuries. Whatever scrapes to her elbows, bruises on her knees and strain in that left ankle were soon superseded by the emotions of a nightmarish cliche ending before she had even begun. Tears flowed, occasionally caught by her palms as she put her hands to her face as if she still coming to terms with what had taken place. The trauma made that little bit worse by the fact that this was a second start. The first go, in which she looked solid out of the blocks, was recalled for an echo off these empty stands. Even with the re-start, her reaction time out of the blocks – 0.160 seconds – was the second-fastest in the field.
Maybe that is the only comfort for Knight, that there were no crowd to witness her embarrassment, and no primetime viewers with the face starting around 1:20am in the morning back in the United Kindgom. Yet still enough watching on for an audible gasp to puncture the cheers for the other eight who successfully made it over their firsts, and countless well-wishes and, of course, ridiculers on social media.
The hurdlers from previous heats who showed concern but were wary of showing too much to patronise. Volunteers in light blue shirts cleared her path as she slinked past the media and into sanctuary of the changing room. No amount of sympathy will soften the blow for the 27-year-old.
It is a fall that will have been felt in Surrey, and especially at Danetree School, Epsom. Knight taught full-time here before gradually cutting down her days and leaving altogether ahead of the Games. Fellow staff and pupils became invested in her work, especially when she returned to the sport in 2018.
Last year was something of a breakthrough, winning the Glasgow Grand Prix with a sharp 51.57 seconds when she was expected to finish last. At the end of that summer, she made her Diamond League debut, running in Stockholm and Rome, and then took second in the British Indoor Championships 400m this February.
School work meant the luxury afforded to other athletes during the pandemic was not received by her, largely down to her unique situation. Through lockdown she ticked over with sprints down her street and some borrowed hurdles to maintain form.
In her own way, she was peaking for these Games. And what 2020 showed in performance was that she was close to finding something. The surface of her potential had been scratched and shinier layers were being revealed.
She whittled her 400m PB to 51.57, and this year reduced her hurdling time to 54.69. And feeling quietly confident of her body, without putting any expectations on medalling, she had one ambition: “Hopefully a big PB will happen when it matters out there,” she told British Athletics.
No doubt when she finally walked out of hotel quarantine, she must have thought she was through the worst of it. Stepping out into the Olympic Village, wearing the TeamGB stash will have felt like vindication for the relationships she put on the back-burner as she spent her days in the classroom, her nights training and her weekends getting out to meets.
To have even crouched down in lane one on an Olympic track given her journey is remarkable. Yes, it is a lesson in perseverance, believing in yourself and, most importantly, putting in the work. But there are also specific to Knight that cannot simply be extrapolated to others. Her organisation to essentially juggle two careers that on their own are worthy of commendation. To be adored by your pupils is achievement enough, never mind make it to an Olympics on the side.
It is also worth noting her Olympics is not over. She will go again in the 4x400m relay race on Thursday. You expect she will need a little time to herself to mourn the individual opportunity she has lost. She has four days to get her read right and do what she needs to do before the first heat at 7.25pm and then, hopefully, a final two hours later.
Tokyo2020 could be Knight’s one and only Games. But Saturday was not her only chance to make a statement. How much this fall stays with her will be governed by how she gets back up next week. And given what we know of her and her route to this point, a redemptive performance cannot be ruled out.