LONDON, July 25 (Reuters) - Mitchell Watt could not even be bothered to get out of bed and switch on the television to watch the long jump competition at the Beijing Olympics four years ago.
Such has been his meteoric rise in the intervening years, however, that more than a few of his fellow Australians will forego a couple of hours sleep to watch Watt’s bid for gold in the London sandpit on Aug. 4.
The 24-year-old was always a talented athlete but it was only in early 2008 that he was persuaded to return to the sport he had abandoned in his teens.
Within 18 months, he was standing on the podium at the world championships with a bronze medal around his neck and he bettered that with a silver in Daegu last year.
An Achilles problem that possibly robbed him of the world title in South Korea delayed his start to this season, but he still owns four of the five longest jumps of the last two years.
That has established him as one of the favourites for gold in London, a prospect that he admits has yet to fully sink in and was highly unlikely when Irving Saladino won gold in Beijing.
“I didn’t even watch the long jump, which is a bit weird because if it was on now, even if I wasn’t involved I’d be up all night watching it,” he said at Athletics Australia’s training camp in Kent this week.
”I think that sort of sums up my transition from a few years ago.
”When I was younger I’d have been excited about things like how much kit you get given, but when you get it now it’s just another bump in the road and you know the real deal’s in two weeks.
“I think up until now, my season has been pretty much the same as previous years, but I think when we go in to the Olympic village on Monday it will really hit me.”
The man who deprived him of the world title last year, Athens Olympic champion Dwight Phillips, will miss the London competition with an Achilles problem of his own, making it even less predictable than it already was.
Watt has not yet approached the form he enjoyed before his injury and this year has come nowhere near the 8.54m he jumped in Stockholm last year to better Jai Taurima’s 11-year-old Australian record.
Briton Greg Rutherford owns the best jump of the year at just 8.35m, however, and Watt thinks the long jump is going to be a particularly tight competition.
“The two Diamond Leagues I won in the lead-up, I only won by two centimetres,” he said.
”There’s maybe a dozen guys in the top 10 centimetres so it’s going to be extremely close. If your run-up is not perfect or you’re getting a bit of headwind, it could knock you back really.
“I definitely think I can win the gold but I wouldn’t be disappointed with a silver or a bronze. I want to be on the podium, and the higher the better.”
What Watt has managed to achieve in the European season is to improve his season’s best in all but one meeting, which has given him the confidence he is on the right trajectory.
His one setback was the outing in Monaco last weekend, when Saladino beat him by four centimetres with a jump of 8.16m.
”It was kind of strange,“ said Watt. ”It was probably the best conditions of the season and everyone jumped pretty poorly.
“When I first woke up in the morning my first thought wasn‘t, ‘I‘m jumping in Monaco tonight’, my first thought was, ‘The Olympics start in two weeks’. That probably just summed up where I was mentally that night.”
A week earlier he had jumped 8.28m in cold, wet conditions at the London Grand Prix and, despite the sun shining down on the school where the Australian team were training, Watt thought that might be better preparation for the Games.
Watt, a law student with rugged good looks and a wit frequently displayed on his Twitter feed, is an advertisers’ dream and he knows that success in London is going to make him a magnet for sponsors.
“Nothing will raise your profile like a gold medal,” he laughed. (Editing by Justin Palmer)