Jessica Ennis-Hill is typically honest when asked whether the black fog engulfing track and field might swallow up her chances of winning the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award. “I hope not” she says. “But there has been a lot of negativity, so you can understand why people might look at athletics and think that.”
The sport Ennis-Hill loves has been deeply tarnished by a slurry of doping and corruption allegations. Yet amid a wretchedly sour year, the 29-year-old from Sheffield provided one of the sweetest moments. It came on a blistering Sunday in August when, thrillingly and unexpectedly, she won heptathlon gold at the world championships – just over a year after giving birth to her son, Reggie.
Most experts had believed the challenges of returning to the summit of multi-event sport so quickly would be insurmountable. Ennis-Hill also doubted whether medals and her mojo would come back. “Every time I think back to the world championships I have a massive smile on my face because I know what it took to get back to that point, and how hard it was,” she admits. “I never imagined I’d produce that a year on from having Reggie. It exceeded all my expectations.”
It also made her a piping-hot favourite for the BBC’s annual award, although she has recently slipped behind Andy Murray in the betting after he steered Britain to Davis Cup glory. But make no mistake, this is an award that Ennis-Hill wants, having come second to Bradley Wiggins in 2012. And one that she remains excited to attend, despite the furore over Tyson Fury’s comments about her. “I’m still really looking forward to it,” she says. “Ultimately you want to be judged on your performances on the track and how well you compete, but I’d be lying if I said it’s not a nice award to win.”
Might it also be a boost for athletics after a horrible year? “Yeah it has been difficult,” she agrees, “and it would round off the year in a much brighter light than it started.”
Like everyone else in track and field, Ennis-Hill had heard the whispers about Russia’s systemic doping system, but she was shocked when she saw the director’s cut in Dick Pound’s independent commission report. “Obviously you hear a lot of hearsay, because things go round when you’re at the track,” she says. “But you never know the true scale of it so it was quite shocking to hear what was going on.”
Ennis-Hill has suffered the consequences of Russia’s doping programme at first hand. At the 2011 world championships in Daegu she finished second behind Tatyana Chernova, who was later banned for two years when samples from the 2009 world championships were retested, yet still allowed to keep her gold medal. Ennis-Hill has appealed to the court of arbitration for sport and hopes the recent revelations will strengthen her case to be upgraded from silver to gold.
“We still haven’t heard anything and it’s still up in the air,” she says. “But I imagine with everything that’s gone on in the past few weeks and months that hopefully I’m a lot closer to getting that medal back. I just hope I get it eventually. Whenever it comes I’ll be very happy to have that round my neck.”
Ennis-Hill insists she is happy to compete against Russians at the Rio Olympics – assuming their ban from track and field is lifted – but only if they are doing everything properly. The number of caveats in her answer suggests she is not convinced it is possible.
“If they’re allowed to compete, and the steps have been taken, and we know that they’re doing everything 100% properly, and all the athletes are clean then I don’t see any problem,” she says. “But a lot of things have to change and be put into place for that to happen, and I don’t know how quickly it can, to be honest.”
Certainly she is more suspicious now. “It’s hard because you don’t want to step on to the track and straight away be looking round thinking ‘does she look dodgy? Does she look suspicious? Is she doing something that she shouldn’t be doing?’” she says, “because it detracts from the way you perform as an athlete. But I do think as a consequence of everything that’s come out, most athletes are going to be a bit more aware of it now.”
But while the sport has been rocked to its spikes’ heels by the recent revelations, Ennis-Hill insists that British athletes are clean. “The majority of us are training really hard and doing it the right way and it just seems a real shame that everyone is tarnished with that same brush,” she says. “I hope it wouldn’t affect how people view the British athletes because we’re doing things properly.”
Doing things properly could be a suitable epithet for Ennis-Hill, who has restructured her training so she is still able to do two sessions a day while also spending as much time as possible with her son. Ennis-Hill says her winter training is “progressing nicely” and she is back running and hurdling again after injuring her calf during the 800m in Beijing.
Already her thoughts are turning towards Rio in eight months’ time, and the possibility of retaining her Olympic title. But having Reggie has given her perspective. “I don’t think about Rio every day, because it’s not healthy,” she says laughing. “I obviously do think about it and it’s what we’re ultimately working towards. It’s why I’m training and putting in the hard work but I’m not obsessed and fixated on it right now – although my coach Toni Minichiello is already reminding me how many days it is to go during every training session, which is really annoying!”
Ennis-Hill knows how tough the challenge will be in 2016, and she is convinced that she will have to step up again to retain her title as the world’s best heptathlete. “I definitely think it will be harder to win in Rio than Beijing,” she says. “It’ll probably take about 6,800-6,900 to win, or a one-off amazing performance of 7,000 points if someone’s got it in them.” The steeliness in Ennis-Hill’s words leaves little doubt that she is again up for the fight.