Keely Hodgkinson is a strong medal prospect for Team GB


Keely Hodgkinson is living proof that, when it comes to the Olympics, the system does not always work.

Hodgkinson is among Britain’s best half-dozen medal candidates on the track over the coming fortnight and yet has not qualified for a penny of British Athletics funding. As with so many things, Covid is to blame after the decimation of the 2020 season meant the governing body decided it was only fair to retain the identical funding list from the previous year.

For Hodgkinson, a rapidly improving 800-metres runner who only turned 19 this March, it meant she would have to wait for the luxury of the cash that is provided to essentially make it feasible to operate as a full-time athlete.

Step forward Barrie Wells. The millionaire businessman and philanthropist put £2million towards funding 18 athletes, including Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson, to the London 2012 Olympics. He has personally only missed two Olympics since 1972, although these behind-closed-doors Tokyo Games will be his third.

So when he found out the teenager he had read so much about in athletics magazines and newsletters had missed out on the cash, he stepped in and offered the same amount.

For Wells, the joy comes from “being on the journey with them” and there is no requirement for any recipient of his money to hit certain competitive targets.

“Success is not the be all and end all, but it’s a wonderful thing for them if they finish up with whatever fulfils their own ambition,” he says, before a moment of realisation crosses his face.

“I’m not actually sure what Keely’s long-term ambition is. Do you have a long-term ambition, Keely?”

The question lingers in the air as Hodgkinson finishes chewing a bite of the chicken sandwich her mother has just made for her after she returned home late from training.

“Erm… I do want to be one of the best, if not the best, 800m runners in the world,” she replies. “I want to always be competitive at the big champs and be on the podiums.

“With that you need consistency. Keep making the team and stay injury free. Hopefully I fulfil my dreams. We’ll see what happens.”

Jessica Ennis-Hill (centre) and Katarina Johnson-Thompson (left) benefitted from Barrie Wells' generosity


They are bold words for someone who barely even had these Olympics in her plans at the start of the year. Now, it is hard to envisage her not being at the forefront of every British athletics team at a major championships for many years to come.

Hodgkinson’s hot streak began in January when she became the first British woman to break a world under-20 record for 36 years. Two months later she won European indoor gold just four days after her 19th birthday, and then she sprinted past Jemma Reekie and Laura Muir in stunning fashion to win the British title last month.

A huge personal best, where she improved by almost 1.4 seconds, in her final Olympic preparation race means she now sits eighth in this year’s world rankings (Muir, who is not contesting the 800m in Tokyo, is fifth and Reekie sixth).

It has all meant a rather radical alteration of expectations. For Tokyo, she says: “I definitely want to get to the final. If I’m in that final I do want to be challenging for a medal. I like the championship environment. It’s something I really thrive off.”

There is also the less pressing issue of becoming the fastest British 800m runner in history – a three-way battle she looks likely to contest with Reekie and Muir.

In February, Hodgkinson’s mentor Jenny Meadows predicted Hodgkinson could one day break Kelly Holmes’ British 800m record – a further required improvement of 1.3 seconds. With the reality of that looming nearer, Hodgkinson reveals she recently spoke to the double Olympic champion for the first time.

Keely Hodgkinson sprints past Jemma Reekie and Laura Muir to win the British title


“As the season goes on, things become more of a reality,” she says. “But only in the last couple of weeks have I thought maybe I could [break the British record] in the next couple of years. It’s going to be quite a run to break that record.

“Kelly actually messaged me on Instagram after Stockholm [where she set her personal best] and said something like: ‘Awesome run, it’s been great to see your progress’.

“That was really nice. I said: ‘Thank you very much, that’s very much appreciated coming from someone like yourself’. That was pretty cool.”

Hodgkinson also has another reason for trying to make the final in Tokyo. Wells, whose Box4Kids scheme has given almost 10,000 seriously unwell or terminally ill children VIP treatment at major events, is a big believer in rewards for the athletes he sponsors.

When Johnson-Thompson won the world youth heptathlon title in 2009, Wells delivered on his promise to arrange for her to meet her idol, Liverpool footballer Steven Gerrard.

A huge fan of vintage cars – “my dream car is a 1965 Ford Mustang convertible” – Hodgkinson says her dream would be to drive one of the classic Aston Martins from the 1950s James Bond films.

“I tell you what Keely,” says Wells, “if you make the final in Tokyo, we’ll have an Aston Martin for you to drive.”

Sometimes it pays not to be on lottery funding.