Madrid Spanish high jumper Ruth Beitia has one last shot at Olympic glory before devoting herself to her other calling — a career in regional politics and helping the Iberian nation recover from the crippling effects of the financial crisis.
A member of parliament for the conservative People’s Party (PP) in her native Cantabria, Beitia will retire from athletics after trying to convert the European title she won last week into a medal at the London Games.
Tall and slim — Beitia stands at 1.95 metres and weighs 63 kilograms — she finally triumphed in a major competition in Helsinki after a career spanning almost two decades.
Beitia is hopeful she can be equally effective in helping Spain deal with its economic woes.
“We’re in a pretty big crisis and the situation we inherited (from the previous government) wasn’t the best,” the 33-year-old told Reuters.
“The PP relaunched the economy while in government in the past and we hope to do it again,” added Beitia, who spends her mornings in parliament in the northern coastal city of Santander and her afternoons training.
She dismisses the suggestion that sweeping austerity measures and cuts in sports funding being implemented by the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy could damage the prospects of young athletes.
“In a way, practising sport is free,” she said. “If there are going to be budget cuts it is better to do them in sport than in subsidies for families where both parents are unemployed.”
Beitia was practically raised on an athletics track. Both her parents are referees and her father officiated at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Her four brothers and sisters are also athletes.
She enjoys telling the story of when Cuban men’s high jump world record holder Javier Sotomayor, the athlete she most admired, visited Santander when she was a child.
“I will never forget the words he said to me. I was 12 and he said that I would be a great high jumper,” she said.
“I got his autograph, and these days he is my friend and he laughs when I tell him this anecdote.”
Beitia will probably have to improve on her Spanish record of 2.02 metres if she wants to challenge favourites such as Russian world champion Anna Chicherova and Croatian Blanka Vlasic in London.
“I have to keep working hard, keep training with a smile on my face, as always, and we could put the icing on the cake,” she said.
“At the last Games [in Beijing in 2008] I said I would carry on four more years.
“I think it is a good moment to retire, and if it is at the top, even better,” she added. “I have seen many people suffering, reluctant to retire.”
At a time of phenomenal success for Spanish sport, with high-profile champions including the national football team, tennis world number two Rafa Nadal and Formula One driver Fernando Alonso, athletics has been lagging behind in recent years and the outlook for London is rather bleak.
“We lack the attention given by [Spanish] media to other sports, we are always struggling to get a bit of space,” Beitia said.
Nevertheless, Beitia said she believed the Spanish Athletics Federation (RFEA) was doing a good job and insisted that “the young up-and-coming athletes have huge potential”.
Looking ahead to her retirement, Beitia is hoping to find time around her political career for some of the more potentially hazardous sports she has never been allowed to enjoy.
“I will be able to ride a bike, ski, skate, normal things for people, but not for a professional athlete.”