Olympic champion and Instagram star Nafi Thiam full of positives
While devastated by the havoc the COVID-19 pandemic is causing and concerned about the long-term impact on society, Olympic heptathlon champion Nafi Thiam has found plenty of sporting positives to focus on – not least the chance to share her expertise with bored children all over the world.
In normal times, you would expect to have to get lucky and win a major competition to have a European, world and Olympic champion deliver a series of personalised video workouts just for your pleasure. But these are not normal times, and Rio 2016 heptathlon gold medallist Nafi Thiam knows it.
“I received a lot of messages on Instagram. People wanted to see my workouts and were asking what I was doing to stay fit, so they could try it too,” Thiam explained. “But I thought it was not going to be interesting for them to do what I am doing – it’s too specific for athletics – so I thought, ‘OK, I’ll just do something for them that is fun’.”
The Belgian’s 139,000-plus Instagram followers certainly thought it was fun. Her “Home Workout No.1” proved so popular that a No.2 was swiftly published. Keeping fit, keeping healthy and keeping positive is what Thiam is all about right now. And the decision to postpone the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 fits right into that way of thinking.
“I understand it was not an easy decision to take, especially at that time. Now it is obvious the Olympic Games cannot happen [in 2020], but everything evolved very quickly in the last few weeks. At that moment it was very hard and I understand all the economic problems,” the 25-year-old said.
“But [although] it was a hard decision to take, it was definitely the right one.”
On a personal level, Thiam has recently realised that the delay has resulted in something she has not enjoyed for almost as long as she can remember.
“This year is probably going to be a ‘white year’, a training year. For the body, that’s good,” Thiam said. “Every year it has been European Championships, World Championships, Olympic Games… Every year you have 10 months to prepare for a big championship. The fact that now I don’t have to be thinking, ‘I have to be ready at that exact moment’ is a bit weird for motivation, but pressure-wise it may be a good thing, and I am going to have a long, long time to prepare for the biggest event.”
Thiam knows she is lucky. Not only is she fit and healthy, but also professional athletes in Belgium have been allowed to continue to visit select training centres during the COVID-19 lockdown, under strict regulations.
“You have to first of all subscribe, apply to go, then they put you in the system and you receive an entrance card,” Thiam said. “When you arrive you ring the bell, someone comes to the door, checks you are on the list, takes your temperature and then you can enter.”
While she admits it is “scary”, she is “reassured” by the precautions in place. Often she will go, train and leave without seeing another soul – a far cry from the norm in what is a major gym inside a large university.
She is also well aware that it is a luxury many athletes around the world do not have right now. It is another reason why she is right behind the decision to push Tokyo 2020 back 12 months, ensuring there is a level playing field for all.
If the situation does change and Thiam and her peers are required to give up their gym passes for a while, the 2017 world champion can at least retreat to the workout centre in her garage. Thiam lives with boyfriend Niels Pittomvils, an international-level Belgian decathlete, and when the pair got wind of the impending nationwide lockdown, they wasted no time in getting prepared.
“I called the person responsible for the gym where I usually train to see if I could get some stuff quickly,” Thiam said. “And I went to pick up a van from my boyfriend’s father and we went to get the materials. It was tight but we got it.”
Given that she finished her university degree last year, the routine of training followed by time at home is not new for Thiam. Being unable to see her friends, and in particular her mother, does really hurt. Thankfully, like much of the world, technology is keeping them close with regular video calls and messages. But equally, there are times when the enormity of the situation gets to Thiam.
“Like everybody, you hear about people getting sick and dying and that’s so difficult. Imagining how society is going to change, what the final result is going to be, is a big question mark,” she said. “I am worried about that, but you just wait and see. There is not much you can do except respect the rules and just hope it’s going to be done soon.”
When it is done, Thiam knows sport has an important role to play and, after the 2019 World Athletics Championships, when a fired-up Katarina Johnson-Thompson pipped her to gold, the Belgian understands that the heptathlon is going to be one of the “must-watch” events at Tokyo 2020.
“I have always said I like to have big competitors,” said the athlete who recorded five personal bests during her march to the Rio 2016 title. “If you do top sport and want to be in the World Championships and Olympics, you know you are going to be against the best in the world – that’s the point.
“It’s good for heptathlon to have a thrilling competition. And for me too, that’s what I like in sport, in athletics. It’s going to be exciting and I am looking forward to everybody being ready, 100 per cent, and we can show the world what we are able to do.”