Mike Rowbottom

When Geoff Capes - who, surprisingly, has been the official British shot put record holder for the last 40 years - turned down my eager request for an autograph after a meeting at Crystal Palace in the 1970s it was an early lesson that access to sporting figures cannot be taken for granted.

Given the line of business I subsequently pursued that moment of dismay proved useful. Yes, my proffered programme already contained the signatures of David Jenkins, Alan Pascoe and Andy Carter. Yes, I had waited at a distance until Capes had finished talking to someone whom I have since realised was probably a journalist and then asked him very politely.

But he was not duty-bound to sign. (Although his suggestion that such autographs had to be paid for nowadays could be seen as a poor PR move).

Further enlightenment on this front arrived in a more agreeable manner when - fast-forwarding a few years - I was covering the 1990 Pilkington Glass Championships at the divinely-named Devonshire Park Lawn Tennis Club in Eastbourne.

That year saw Martina Navratilova earn the ninth of her 11 Eastbourne titles and, suitably prepared for grass-court action, go on to win what would turn out to be her ninth and final Wimbledon crown.

In between matches I had bumped into Greg Rusedski and chatted briefly about his life and times. So when I spotted Navratilova heading for the practice courts I thought I would take the opportunity to have a quick word. The reaction was a cross between bemusement and amusement, and it was made clear to me that I couldn’t just wander up and talk to her. Arrangements needed to be made.

At this point Navratilova had won 17 individual Grand Slam titles. She was top of the pops; and patiently polite. Fair enough.

Martina Navratilova pictured in action at the women's championships in Eastbourne ©Getty Images
Martina Navratilova pictured in action at the women's championships in Eastbourne ©Getty Images

Covering British athletics around that time involved a recognition that some stellar performers were within reach and others - Daley Thompson, Steve Ovett - were not. Both these athletes bore a measure of scorn for most of those charged with following their fortunes. They had their reasons. And it was not impossible to make contact.

I recall hanging onto the shirt-tails of the late Cliff Temple, then athletics correspondent of the Sunday Times, because he seemed to be the only journalist Thompson was happy to speak to while seeking last-minute qualification for the Barcelona Olympics at a decathlon in Trondheim.

In the process of collecting 100 metres gold medals at the Olympics, world and European championships Linford Christie zig-zagged through a turbulent relationship with the written media.

During championship competition he would not speak between rounds, simply passing through the mixed zone without comment, and this was a policy he enjoined upon those he later coached such as Darren Campbell.

Before the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, under huge pressure to defend his title against the brash and talented Canadian Donovan Bailey, who had divested him of his world title in 1995, Christie pretty much cut himself off from the athletics press, even suggesting on TV that he might not go to the Games at all.

Britain's world and Olympic 100m champion Linford Christie had a turbulent relationship with the written media ©Getty Images
Britain's world and Olympic 100m champion Linford Christie had a turbulent relationship with the written media ©Getty Images

Finding the correct balance between self-promotion and necessary privacy is a hugely significant challenge for any elite sporting performer.

Speaking to fellow athletes during the International Judo Federation’s virtual JudoFest event last month, France’s double Olympic champion Teddy Riner emphasised the need to be ruthless while preparing for the Games.

He stressed the importance of avoiding unnecessary distractions in the crucial period before competition.

"Take two phones," he said. "One for everybody - you speak to them after. And one for your coach, your staff, for people you need during this very special moment."

Among those other judoka on the video call was Majlinda Kelmendi, who became the first athlete from Kosovo to win an Olympic medal when she took gold in the women's under-52 kilograms category at the Rio 2016 Games.

She readily appreciated Riner’s comments - adding that this was broadly how she approached things herself.

"I do not act on social media," she said. "I have nothing, no Facebook, no Instagram. It’s just because I don’t want to have so much contact with the people that are not so close to me. Because maybe I look tough from the outside but maybe one bad comment will distract me - I don’t know.

"So before the Olympics in Rio I gave my phone to my coach and I did not talk to anyone. We were in the same apartment. It was me, my sparring partner and my coach. All I needed was there and I didn’t need my phone at all.

"It’s much better like this. It’s so true what Teddy said."

Majlinda Kelmendi of Kosovo shuns social media and phone contact when she prepares for important competition ©Getty Images
Majlinda Kelmendi of Kosovo shuns social media and phone contact when she prepares for important competition ©Getty Images

She recalled how her approach had changed since she represented Albania at the London 2012 Olympics, where she went out in the second round.

"At my first Olympic Games I was very, very nervous," she said. “For a few weeks I didn’t sleep at all. I didn’t know how to think. It was so scary for me.

"Then the second time in Rio I was totally different. So calm, and my coach just convinced me that it’s just a competition like all other competitions. You are just going to see the same people, the same referee, the same opponents. It just made me feel very calm – so different from London, where I was terrified I can say."

But by the time she went to Rio Kelmendi had a pressure of expectation that had not troubled her four years earlier.

"In Kosovo I was famous before the Rio Olympics because I had been two times world champion and people just expected me to take the gold medal," she said. "Everybody would say to me - ‘We can’t wait for you to win the gold medal at the Olympics!’ They thought you just have to go and take it, like it was easy.

"Then the last two months I didn’t want to see anyone. I just wanted to see my coach, my team-mates and my family. This way I could deal with this pressure from outside.

"After the Olympics everybody in Kosovo got crazy. When I came from Rio at the airport there was a bus waiting for me and then we drove across the capital and I think nobody was home. Everybody was out - from children to old people.

"I cannot describe how it felt because I think my medal it was not just sport any more. Because Kosovo is a new country and a lot of people there think it’s hard to do something huge, it’s hard to become successful from Kosovo.

"It’s a new country, it’s not so rich, and when I became Olympic champion I think they just got convinced that even if you live in a small country you can do huge things.

"All I had, and all I still have now, is just my coach and my team-mates. I don’t have a physio, I don’t have a doctor. When I have a problem with my injuries I have to go to Israel or I have to go to Slovenia. It’s not easy to deal with it. But in the end I just say I have to do judo, I have to train hard. That’s it."