My Olympic Games: Team GB’s Jason Kenny shares his perspective on a glittering career
Jason Kenny can become Great Britain’s most successful ever athlete outright at Tokyo 2020. But the quiet assassin of the Team GB cycling squad was tempted out of retirement only because he couldn’t find a “regular” job to suit him…
Jason Kenny retired after Rio 2016. But Great Britain’s joint most-successful Olympian ever (alongside fellow cyclist Chris Hoy) found that gold medals don’t always mean much in the job market. “There was only one thing on my CV – medals,” he said with a laugh. “I applied for a few jobs, but I didn’t get any of them. Maybe I needed a fan somewhere to employ me.”
At something of a loose end, Kenny got back on his bike in 2017. “I’d genuinely quit cycling and had a year relaxing,” said the rider who’d spent three Olympic cycles on the highly competitive Great Britain Olympic team. “I had fun. When you’re an athlete you deny yourself so much, trying to stay in the best shape. So I had a good time. I went to the gym with mates, and I got married and started a family [Jason’s wife is fellow British Olympic cycling legend Laura Kenny].
“But because I wasn’t working, I ended up training. I thought I’d see what happened. And I felt like I had a fresh perspective on the bike. It was like the days when I was first trying to get on the squad, I was improving every day. It was almost like being born again.
“I’ve had to start from scratch. If I hadn’t retired, I’d have kept that fitness, but now I’m chipping away again. It’s been a challenge, getting reacquainted with racing and how it’s changed, getting competitive again.”
Few will doubt that Kenny will be on the plane to Tokyo in 2020, where he’ll have the chance to become Britain’s most decorated Olympian outright. He’s currently the owner of six gold medals (one from Beijing 2008, two from London 2012, three from Rio 2016) and one silver – the exact same number as Hoy.
Perhaps more than anyone, softly-spoken Kenny, 31, from Bolton, symbolises Britain’s remarkable Olympic resurgence at the past three Games. A huge amount of UK National Lottery funding became available for Team GB’s Olympic programmes prior to Beijing 2008 (where they took 19 golds and finished fourth in the medal table), London 2012 (29 golds, third) and Rio 2016 (27 golds, second – the country’s best medal-table result since London 1908).
Team GB ruthlessly targeted sports in which medals were likely. Track cycling was its crown jewel. And even amid a field of stars, Kenny and future wife Laura Trott – Britain’s most successful female Olympian with four golds – became its poster couple. Their down-to-earth attitudes have also boosted their popularity at home. There isn’t a trace of insincerity about Kenny when he says his record-breaking “isn’t something I’ve ever really thought about”.
Kenny took the pressure off himself early. Aged 20, at Beijing 2008, he broke into GB’s sprint set-up, which won gold, and took silver in the men’s individual sprint. “It was an awesome Games because there was no real expectation on me, so I had nothing to lose,” he said.
“I didn’t feel stress. I wasn’t meant to make that sprint team; there was a real scrap to get a place. So when I got the ride, I knew there was a good chance of gold. I remember going back to the [Olympic] Village after we won, and thinking: ‘Well, that’s it, job done.’ It was the best feeling ever.
“That set me up for the other Olympics, mentally. I was lucky, getting gold so early. Some athletes work very hard and never get one. To do it on the first time of asking was really nice.”
London 2012 was a wild summer for Kenny’s home fans, and is unsurprisingly recalled as a career highlight. “The main thing was that the atmosphere was really good on that team, and really good in the velodrome, where it was so noisy, just mega,” he said.
“I focused on the team sprint, and that meant less individual pressure again because you work together, you’re trying to push each other on. I’d been talent-spotted for London 2012, really, and I’d been building up to it. I was 24, at my peak. It was just a good experience and I became very good friends with Chris [Hoy].”
Kenny also won the individual sprint in London. But as he moved towards Rio, he feared he’d never hit the heights again. “In January 2016, I wasn’t going well, and I’d had enough,” he said. “I didn’t think I could top London. I was just scrapping away. I could feel a bit of form for the team sprint, so I didn’t want to give it up before Rio. I thought, ‘I’ll see it through’. But I was sure I was going to call it a day afterwards.
“Then I won at the World Championships in March. I didn’t feel the magic I’d had going into London, but then it all just came at the last minute. I got faster and faster in the last couple of weeks. By the time I got to the start line, I’d never been so confident. It was bizarre. I’d watch people do their times and think, ‘Yeah, no problem’. I could have pretty much told you before Rio what I was going to do.” Once again he pocketed team and individual sprint gold, as well as winning the keirin.
Just under a year out from Tokyo 2020, Kenny is characteristically relaxed. “When you’re training well, you want to carry on the next day. For the next year I’m doing the hard work, then it’s about stepping up and putting in a performance. What will be, will be. I’ve not got anything to prove.
“We’re currently busy with making sure we qualify as smoothly as possible. We want to lay the foundations for a good summer run-up to the Games. I’m not exactly sure how we do it. This is the fourth time trying, and each one was different. If we did exactly what we did before Beijing, it wouldn’t work now. It wouldn’t be enough.”
Kenny has never been to Japan and is excited to see somewhere new. It seems that there is only one thing that can ruffle his cool demeanour: watching his wife race. “I find it much harder watching Laura than competing myself,” he said. “I understand how my mum and dad have felt for my whole career now. They’d be stressed and I’d say, ‘What are you worried about?’ But now I get it. You’re not in control, but you just want them to do well.”