After a career spanning decades as Britain’s most successful ever 110-metre men’s hurdler, you’d forgive Colin Jackson if he were to slow down a bit in his 50s, but he’s as energetic and effervescent as ever.
He won two World Championships and a silver Olympic medal at the height of his success, his world record standing for more than a decade, and if you watch Jackson as a BBC athletics pundit now, it’s obvious he still takes his health and fitness pretty seriously at 53.
So how does he feel about getting older? “I love it! Because everyone pays me compliments!” he says in his soft Cardiff twang (he was born and raised in the Welsh capital and still lives there), laughing. “People say, ‘Oh I can’t believe you’re in your 50s and that’s a lovely thing.
“I’ll embrace old age, I feel young in spirit.”
And you can’t not believe him; this is a man who says yes, he’s cheerful and optimistic 100% of the time – “It’s because I don’t have any negative things to deal with on a daily basis.” Jackson radiates joy and energy.
What’s his secret then? Many people half his age don’t have this boundless enthusiasm for life. “Hanging around young people – they keep you young – rest as much as you can, eat well, try to get less stressed and have an active lifestyle. We’re not designed to be sat for eight hours in an office, so do what the body is designed to do,” he says.
Jackson, who is working alongside Wings For Life World Run – global running events raising money for spinal cord injuries – says exercise is as important as ever.
“I make the time; if it means I have to get up at 5am, I’ll get up at 5am. It’s an investment in myself. That’s the only thing I have, that’s you, that’s yours. Without my fitness I can not work, I can not function,” he says.
“I wish more people would understand that it’s really important. You’re no good to anyone without your general fitness, and you’re certainly no good to yourself.”
It’s different though, he concedes, looking after his health in his 50s. “You’ve got to protect yourself more, you can’t recover as quickly. I get a little niggle now that I would have got over in 10 days and it now takes three weeks.
“But I feel physically better than I did when I was 26 or 27, because I don’t have the aches and pains that professional sport gives you. When you’re training flat out all the time, every part of your body hurts, and you’ve still got to go out and do it again.”
While he may not be able to get over high hurdles any longer, he does gym work, cardio classes, running, cycling and yoga. “But a day off physical [exercise] doesn’t mean a day off in the kitchen,” he says, adding that it’s “having the right balance though, you don’t want to be obsessive about it.”
Obsessive patterns of behaviour is something he’s dealt with in the past, having opened up last year about struggling with an eating disorder while he was competing. His relationship with food is “much better, much healthier” now, he says. “Hindsight is a wonderful thing.”
Now, he cooks as a means to relax. “Which sounds weird when you’ve had a disturbing relationship with food,” he muses. “I’ve learned being obsessed about anything is a massive downfall.”
But while he may be in great physical shape, he says he wouldn’t describe himself as body confident. “If you looked at my Instagram, you’d think I’d be happy to whip off my top everywhere but it’s not like that,” he says, laughing. “I even struggle on the beach. I always feel like people are looking and judging and I don’t like that.”
As someone who’s been in the public eye since he was a teenager, Jackson’s had his fair share of intrusion. His sexuality was exposed in a kiss-and-tell story in News of The World in 2006, prompting his coming out to his own parents. He didn’t speak about it himself publicly until he was 50 (when his friend and former athlete Kajsa Bergqvist interviewed him), but a big ‘outing’ was never what he set out for, he says.
“I’m not a person who goes around flying a flag. I was born in a community of minorities already [his parents are first generation Jamaican immigrants and Jackson was raised on a Cardiff council estate]. Being born black Welsh and trying to find your way in the world was difficult enough, so I was never going to be a flag-bearer for something else again. Which I think some people in the community got slightly offended by,” he adds, “saying, ‘No, you should be setting an example’.”
Does he think there’s a perception that if you’re famous, you owe the public that knowledge of your sexuality? “Yes, yes, yes,” he nods, emphatically. “It’s your life,” he adds.
Although, he says by 50 he felt more relaxed about other people’s perceptions. “I had a feeling of, ‘It doesn’t matter, who cares, and if you have a problem with it, that’s your problem, not mine’. Whereas I wouldn’t have had perhaps the same view when I was 20 or 30.”
The worldwide interest in the story was certainly a shock though. “I didn’t know it was an offensive topic, it was a story about me and how I felt about it, and if it could help anyone else… My friends were saying, ‘You’re the only one who’s been out twice!’” he adds, laughing.
He doesn’t live a life of many regrets though. “Even not winning the Olympic Games [he was favourite in 1992], it was awful then, but when I look back and reflect… nothing should be flawless. Rebuilding and perking myself back up was an important trait that I can now use – because I know I can do it.”
Well, maybe just one regret: “If I knew the life I was going to live now was the life I was going to live, I’d have retired 10 years earlier – I’m having a whale of a time!”
Colin Jackson is the international sports director of the Wings For Life World Run. 100% of entry fees and donations go directly to the foundation. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the official events are currently cancelled, however runners can possibly still run using the app. For further information and details, see Wingsforlifeworldrun.com.