With the Zika virus epidemic showing no signs of abating in and around Rio de Janeiro, Liz Byrnes talks to Jessica Ennis-Hill and her coach Toni Minichiello about how it is affecting their Olympic preparations, and the very real concerns the health scare is throwing up
Toni Minichiello has known Jessica Ennis-Hill since she was nine years old. He has coached her since she was thirteen and watched her bloom from a child to a teen, from a young woman into a wife and mother. In between she has become a world and Olympic champion. Their relationship is very much like a father and daughter, so when Minichiello admits he is unsure whether Ennis-Hill should be defending her Olympic heptathlon crown in Rio de Janeiro this summer because of the Zika virus epidemic, his dilemma is tangible.
The coach in him says the athlete should be in Rio, challenging for back-to-back titles and hang the risk; the father figure is concerned about leaving his athlete vulnerable to the Zika-carrying mosquitos prevalent in the region, and whose bites have been linked to birth defects.
Authorities in El Salvador, another country affected, have advised women not to get pregnant for two years, just in case. They are not the only ones. And it is not only women living in South America who are at risk, but potentially those travelling to Brazil for the Games this summer.
Ennis-Hill is 30 and gave birth to her first child in July 2014. Who is to say when she and husband Andy are planning to produce a brother or sister for Reggie? And it is only any of our business because we are worried their choices may be hindered by the imponderables of the Zika situation.
Minichiello said: “Let’s look at Jess specifically: being bitten by the mosquito, it would affect her. How does she go forwards? When would she be likely to maybe have another child? It kind of affects her on a very personal level.
“If you are a 21-year-old at the beginning of your career, probably children are not the first thing on your mind. It is different perspectives. So if you look at it from Jess’s perspective, yes, it’s an issue, yes, it’s a concern. It is real for Jess.”
Ennis-Hill, joining her coach after a training session at the English Institute of Sport facilities in Sheffield, admitted: “It is concerning. I just want to have as much information as possible so I know everything, I know what is going on. I know things are still changing on a day-to-day basis, and we are still five months out. For me, I want to be really aware of everything so I can have as much information and be aware and make the right decisions when it comes to Rio.”
Among those decisions is whether her family should join her in Rio, especially since Andy was left at home last year to look after the then one-year-old Reggie while mummy was away in Beijing winning the world title.
She said: “Our plans are to have the family there and I’d love for everyone to be there, but it is just taking it a week at a time, a month at a time, and seeing how things are changing. I’ll have a better idea much closer to the time. I’m not making big decisions now, I’m just training, and trying to prepare and be the best shape I can be to be competitive.
“And then having all this information that we are gathering, and the BOA and British Athletics are providing us with, as we get closer to the Olympics we can make a proper decision about everything.”
Minichiello recently found himself at loggerheads with the domestic authorities on the question of whether the British holding camp before the Games should be in Belo Horizonte or not. He was not, he maintains, questioning the rights and wrongs of Team GB pitching up at Belo Horizonte, but whether it was the best place for Ennis-Hill.
“I am only speaking for me and Jess,” he said. “Speaking for British Athletics? No. Speaking for the BOA? No. Speaking for the IOC? No.
“I would look at Jess and think, ‘Where is the sensible place for you to have a training camp that avoids anxiety, that avoids Zika, what are the options? Outside Brazil? Inside Brazil? Straight into the Village? Stay here and just fly to Brazil?’ We equals me and Jess. Not the rest of them.”
Even so the Sheffielder was hauled over the coals for his words. “Of course, everybody is very sensitive,” Minichiello says. “Any bloke in their upper-fifties becomes very sensitive to any comments that are made. As a northern oik I was admonished. They ring you up and grrrr … You point out a few issues to them which they disregard and admonish you accordingly. Everybody judges things based on their own personal perspective, their personal agenda. I get it. The viewpoints of large bodies are very different to individuals. I work for Jessica Ennis-Hill and myself and these are the issues we have and I need to deal with these issues. I have to do it this way.”
Warming to his theme, he goes on: “Let’s jump forward two years, Rio has come and gone. Let’s say Jess has retired after Rio and two years later she gives birth to a child who is affected by this. So in two years’ time where is everybody [then]? Where am I? Where is the BOA? Where is the IOC? What is the situation?
“It [El Salvador’s approach] may be over-cautious, but two years after the Olympic Games finish and Jessica Ennis-Hill gives birth to a child, should that child suffer in any way that is related back to Zika, do you think I could ever look her in the eye?
“Do you think all these people who are telling me to keep it quiet, keep it on the lowdown, would be around to look her in the eye?
“So how do you deal with this? The hope is come August it’s a lot colder and [the problem] doesn’t exist. But if we have a mild August, and it’s warmer, does the Zika mosquito continue?
“What do you do as a coach? As a coach you are dealing with process, relationships, environment. Within the relationship and the environment what I am trying to do is reduce anxieties: a happy athlete is a more productive athlete, a happy athlete will train better.
“Let’s look at this now. Am I going to relieve your anxiety now and say, ‘Here is plan B, here is plan C? This is what we are going to do, you have got nothing to worry about and here is why’. That is my job as a coach.”
Minichiello has held discussions with British Athletics performance director Neil Black, but he knows that at some point he and Ennis-Hill will have to have the conversation.
“There are no assurances in life, I don’t expect assurances. I just expect ‘give me the information’ and we’ll make the decisions accordingly. We’ll try and plan sensibly for the eventualities, we’ll take it very seriously.
“Ultimately we will have to go to Rio to do the Olympics, we can’t do it in Guildford.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Liz Byrnes. After an early career in PR and marketing, Liz changed her focus to what she had always really wanted and re-trained as a journalist in Sheffield. She spent 12 years at PA where she covered football, athletics and swimming before going freelance in January 2014. She now works for a number of organisations including The Guardian, BBC, Sheffield Star, Wardles, SwimVortex, AFP and Arena. Liz’s latest articles