Tom Bosworth is one of the top rising stars of British athletics. Still only 26, he holds five national records for race walking, and finished in sixth place in the Rio Olympics. Earlier this year, he smashed the long-coveted British record for 20k (set before he was born), which he then broke again in Rio. He has also, inadvertently, become something of a voice of the gay community in sport, after coming out last year. His recent evidence to the UK Parliamentary Select Committee’s inquiry into homophobia in sport has contributed significantly to the gradually improving dialogue around these issues.
Tom joins us to tell us more about Rio, race walking, and why he thinks coming out was one of the best decisions he’s made…
Rio: seizing the moment
Tom, you finished sixth in a brilliant performance in the Olympic 20k walk in Rio, breaking your own British record. Tell us about how the race unfolded for you.
“It still doesn’t feel real!
“I was ranked 37th in the world going in to race. But I knew my PB time of 1:20 was competitive, so I just needed to deliver at the right time.
“Unfortunately I was ill the night before the race. I had a bad stomach, and I was worried that my chances were ruined. My team were telling me it was probably nerves, but I knew it wasn’t. Generally I control my nerves well.
“I didn’t feel my normal self when I headed to the start line, but in the back of my mind I knew my training had gone so well before Rio that I still had a chance of a good race even if I wasn’t 100 percent well.
“I started at back. For the first lap I felt awful, but just tried to settle and feel rhythm. But after that I did start to feel a bit better, and clicked into four-minute kilometres, which took me right into the front group.
“After a while I didn’t feel right just sitting in that lead group, because I thought they were going too slowly. So I took lead, and I quite quickly stretched ahead by about 20 metres. I passed half-way in the lead in an Olympic final! It was an incredible feeling.
“I went through 10k in 40:10. Looking back, I slightly regret not pushing on more here. But I just tried to treat it as any other race – these were the same guys I race against in other places.“The lead pack caught me again, and I realised I could either go backwards or hang on for dear life. I did my best but at 16k it started getting really tough and I dropped back a bit. I realised I could just settle for a good performance, maybe hang on for a top ten finish, or I could really fight my way back up the field as far as I could manage.
“I was in ninth place, but I told myself I’d led in the Olympics for most of the race and I was going to do everything to get the absolute best place I could. I concentrated on maintaining a long stride, and keeping good technique. I clawed back three places in the last section.
“When I crossed the line I just put my head in my hands. I couldn’t believe it, I was so happy.”
What was the Olympic experience like overall, being in Rio and part of Team GB?
“The Team GB “tower block” is something else. The support for one another, from people you’ve never met before, is incredible. You really get a buzz from the performances of the other British athletes.
“The momentum and mood made me think ‘I want a piece of this!’ It definitely makes you want to be one of the medallists. It’s an amazing feeling.
“Rio as a host city had some challenges. The local people struggled to get behind the Games – life has sent them so many other difficulties, financially, with crime and more. There is so much for the country to deal with, so it was hard for a lot of ordinary people there to see so much money spent on the Olympics. But even so, they were genuinely excited, and they did their best.
“I think that for individual athletes, if you had a good Games in terms of your own performance, it made the other challenges easier to deal with. If not, it was a hard place to be.
“Rio was also a tough city to get around: transport was limited. Sometimes that took away from the Games experience a bit.”
“But Team GB were very well looked after. And I went out and enjoyed myself after my event. I proposed to my partner after my race, and we had a lot of fun celebrating in Rio. Since then we’ve had the time of our lives! We had two or three months of awards nights, media engagements and more. My partner has loved seeing all this side of the glamour!”
Will you be back for more in Tokyo 2020?
“My training can still get much better. There are loads of things I can work on. I’m not complacent enough to think I’ve done enough yet, and I’m even more motivated after Rio. Winning a medal in Tokyo is realistic.
“It’s the World Championships in London next summer, which is a great goal. I get to compete on the Mall which will be amazing – I’m so looking forward to it.
“Race walking is a lot like endurance running, in that you peak later than in some other sports. I’m only 26 now, so hopefully I have plenty of time left in the sport to keep improving.”
Tom’s race walking beginnings
How did you get into race walking?
“I joined Tonbridge AC when I was 11, in 2001, mainly because sister went. My parents encouraged sport, but I was useless at most sports at school. I’m not built to be a rugby player, and I’m not really interested in team sport.
“There wasn’t a particular reason why I got into race walking, I just enjoyed it. I ran a bit as well, but I think I was better at the walking. But I never imagined it would go anywhere serious.
“Then when I was 19, I made it into the GB team as a junior. I started training more at that point.”
In March this year, you broke Ian McCombie’s 28-year-old British record for 20k, an iconic distance in race walking. Can you tell us about the journey to breaking that record?
“Yes, it was a long standing record, set before I was born. In the UK, we’ve had a drought of world class race walkers for a generation, so the records for all distances stood for a long time.
“I started to develop some raw speed at a younger age, but wanted to be able to sustain it for longer races. By 2014 I had improved a lot and thought I was capable of challenging the 20k record, which was 1:22:03.
“It took me two years of effort, chipping away at it. In 2015 I got close with 1:22:20, and I set new British records for 5k (19:00:73) and 10k (39:36), so I felt I’d put myself on the map. Mainly I knew that if I could get closer to 1:20 it would get me towards championship level for international competitions.
“Finally in March this year I managed 1:20:41. It was my fourth race of the season, fourth win and fourth British record in a row!
“I’m in touch with Ian McCombie, whose record I broke. I think he was a bit sad to see it go, but genuinely pleased as well because it represents a lift in the sport at last.”
Do you think race walking is looking healthier in the UK now? Are there more athletes following your lead?
“Yes, there’s a great community of youth coming into the sport. Success definitely encourages more participation and gives athletes the belief that they can do well.
“There are some of the younger guys now competing over 10k who are very good and are starting to challenge me over the shorter distances. I haven’t been beaten by a Brit in three years, so it’s really good to see younger athletes coming through and keeping me on my toes. It’s much better for me to get more of a race at home in the UK, because it prepares me better for the competition overseas.”
Training for the top
What does a typical training week look like for you, Tom?
“It’s similar to an elite 10k runner. I average around 20k a day. I train to around 100-120k per week in the autumn/winter, building to 150-160k in the spring. Overall distance might be slightly lower than elite runners, because it takes longer to cover the same distance, but the training will be the same amount of ‘time on feet’.
“I do my key sessions in the mornings, anywhere between 8k and 25k distance. The 25k is my long walk. Other sessions may be something like five sets of 3k fast, 1k recovery.
“In the evenings I often train on the track, and again the sessions are not so different from endurance running. For example, I might do 8 x 1k, with standing recovery. Or sometimes I’ll start on the road and then finish with a track session of maybe 4 x 2k.
“I go to the gym three times a week, and will work on exercises for range of movement and strength.
“I also use a lot of science in my training. I spend a few weeks at altitude training in South Africa each year. When I’m not there I use an altitude tent.”
What level of rest do you include?
“I have a rest day most weeks, usually on Sundays. Or I may just take a morning off. Sometimes I need to use Sundays to make up for sessions I’ve missed due to other commitments.
“I train in cycles, for three weeks hard, followed by one week slightly easier.”
You are based in Leeds – is there a particularly good training network there?
“Leeds Beckett University opened a new National Centre for Race Walking in 2009. My coach, Andi Drake, was invited to join as a full-time coach, and has been there ever since. It has also become a base for the promising junior athletes who have received funding and support, and other international athletes have come to train there too. So it’s a great place to base myself.
“In Leeds there’s a strong sporting community, and I’m friendly with the triathletes here including Ali Brownlee.”
Homophobia in sport
After coming out last year, you’ve found yourself cast as an advocate for gay rights in sport. You were recently asked to give evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee’s inquiry into homophobia in sport, along with former NBA player John Amaechi. Please tell us about your experiences.
“I felt honoured to go in front of the committee. I learned a lot from John and from the experience.
“I feel a bit like I’ve been thrown in the deep end with the attention I’ve had, but I don’t feel negative about that. I came out publicly on TV in 2015 (in an interview on the Victoria Derbyshire show), mainly because I wanted it to out there before Rio so it wasn’t a distraction for me. Of course, it wasn’t news to my friends and family. I thought it wouldn’t be much of a story because race walking isn’t a mainstream sport, but it got linked to the press and there was a lot of interest.“It was the best decision of my life. As John Amaechi explained to the Select Committee, it takes a lot of energy to try to cover things up about yourself. Being gay is part of who I am, and I’m proud of it, but I want to be known primarily for my performances.
“Even so, I think it’s an important topic and if I can help even one individual to come out and feel comfortable, that’s great. I feel like I have a new responsibility and a role, and I enjoy that and welcome it.
“This last year has been crazy, and I’ve had far more attention than I’d expected, but the vast majority of it has been incredibly positive.”
[The parliamentary select committee session can be found here.]
There are clearly some areas of sport, notably football, where there is a lot of progress still needed to address homophobia. What’s your perspective on the current situation in sport and on what needs to happen?
“We need to get to the point where each athlete can just be themselves. Individuals need to be able to talk about their personal lives if they want to, without concern about the response they will get.
“Sport governing bodies need to come down hard on homophobia. Discrimination needs to be addressed without exceptions.
“British Athletics and my training network have always been very supportive of me, there’s been no negativity. But that might not be the same in all sports.
“In football, homophobia is an issue. It’s such a high profile sport, and individuals have so much attention. But the FA has to be on side and supportive before anyone can go public. There is a lack of support in the system, and this needs to be addressed. There needs to be education for coaches and players.
“Everyone deserves to feel able to live normally without hiding.
“At least in the UK we can have this debate. There are enough people with common sense and open attitudes that we can expect progress and change. There are plenty of countries around the world where this is not the case.
“I was invited to meet the Prime Minister at a drinks reception at 10 Downing Street this year for public figures from the LGBT community. It’s good that people at the top level are trying to understand and address issues, but we’re still at a delicate stage in change. There has been a rise in LGBT hate crimes. Even so, overall I’m not too concerned – I feel like the majority of people are sensible about this, and negativity is decreasing.”
Do you think social media is helpful or harmful in this?
“Personally I find it relatively easy to switch off from social media.
“After coming out the number of followers I have on Twitter increased massively. I did get a lot more negative messages before, but more importantly I had an unbelievable increase in positive messages. I found it a positive process and that became my focus.
“It’s great to get attention onto the sport too, and it’s doing good for race walking if people are interested in me and in the sport. I met Seb Coe recently when I launched the walk route for the 2017 World Championships, and he said it had been a pleasure to watch my rise through the sport, and he thought more people were interested in race walking now. It’s that kind of thing that’s really motivating and positive.”
Race walking’s trials and tribulations
Race walking seems like it can be pretty brutal, with the high disqualification rate in races. What does this mean for how athletes need to approach their races?
“Well you never want to get a DQ! You always try your best but sometimes it happens. Race walking is a sport where you have to be technically accurate and keep your form.
“It’s down to the human eye of the judges. But we need to settle for that because technology would kill the event – it would be too expensive.
“With walkers, the wheels can come off spectacularly! You have to keep your technique even when you are really tired. In running, when you’re tired your form changes as your body tries to adapt, and your technique can change. In walking, you can’t allow this to happen.
“You need three red cards for a DQ. Sometimes if you just get a first red card it makes you pick up your technique a bit.”
Have you ever had a DQ you felt was unfair?
“I’ve had races where I was disqualified and stormed away from the race! But I have looked back a couple of days later and realised that I shouldn’t have let it happen, and it was probably because technically I was all over the place because I was too tired. You need to have a good attitude towards this and take responsibility.
“DQs are quite common for less experienced walkers, or when you just have a bad day. It happens much less to me now that I’m more experienced. My last DQ was probably back in 2013.”
Racewalking has been hit very hard by the doping scandal. Why do you think that is? And have you been aware of competing against athletes you think are doping?
“Yes, it has been atrocious. Doping has dogged the event for two decades. Medals were dominated by Russian athletes. The race walking training centre in Russia used systematic doping.
“I don’t blame the athletes. There was a lot of prize money given to them by the Russian programme, and they were all put through the same system. Russia was producing world champions at the age of 19, which is crazy.
“With the Russians banned from athletics in Rio, it felt like a much closer and more competitive race.
“I used to be able to stand on the start line of an international race and would be able to point out the dopers. But it didn’t feel like that in Rio. I’m friends with a lot of the other athletes in field, and I had a lot of confidence that they were competing cleanly. It feels like fair play now, at least at the front of the field. I finished sixth with no assistance from drugs, and I’m confident that if anyone was cheating they were behind me, so what’s the point of them doing it?!
“I’m not naive about this. There are probably a handful still competing who are cheating, or have done so in the past. It’s so wrong and so dangerous.
“Most people criticise WADA and the IAAF, but I think things are so messed up that it is going to take a while for them to sort it out. I think they are starting to do the right things, and I have faith in them to start cleaning up the sport.”
Think you can do it?
Finally, for readers interested in trying race walking, what top tips would you give them?
“Give it a go, don’t be nervous to try it.
“If you look on YouTube there are some good instructional videos to show you the technique.
“You can get in touch with your local athletics club, which may have a walking group attached. There are race walk events all over the country where you can go and give it a try. Or just go and try race walking at a parkrun.
“Race walking is the forgotten event of athletics, and I want to change this!”