The British 800m runner is focused on reaching the top again after injuries, illness and a strange anti-doping incident blighted his progress

Oliver Dustin has just finished detailing that 800m race, which took place in the setting sun of southern France in mid-June 2021: the stillness of the pre-race wind, his concern at falling “way too far back” in eighth place at the bell, the astonishing finishing speed that blitzed his rivals, and the disbelief when he crossed the line in 1:43.82 to break Seb Coe’s longstanding British under-23 record.

“It is a good memory,” he summarises, before hastily adding: “But I don’t want it to be the defining point of my career.”

Dustin’s story is one that might appear horribly familiar from the outside; the promising talent who began to crack the big time at a young age, only for setbacks to start mounting. Approaching three years ago, he competed at his debut Olympics in Tokyo – a short-lived campaign that ended when he crashed out of the 800m heats. In no small part that was due to a horribly disrupted build-up dominated by a strange anti-doping incident which, much to Dustin’s chagrin, was detailed in the national media.

Since then, one part of his body or another has let him down, restricting him to just six 800m races in the two full outdoor seasons that have followed. Last October, he was dropped from British Athletics funding. In December, he underwent surgery on his nose and sinuses in a bid to clear up a succession of issues.

It has all been brutally hard to endure. In a British middle-distance cohort that increasingly warrants the often wrongly used description of a golden generation, Dustin is in danger of being a forgotten footnote. So it is a pleasant surprise to hear nothing but contemplative positivity from the 23-year-old after what he describes as “by far the toughest couple of years of my athletics career”.

 

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The former European under-20 champion says: “Until 2021 my progression was linear, going through the age groups, doing well nationally and then internationally. These last couple of years have really, really tested me but made me so much better as an athlete and a person, physically and mentally.

“It has undeniably been really tough, but it’s caused me to look elsewhere to see how I can better myself in the pursuit of perfection.”

Dustin’s ailments have been multiple. There was the glandular fever that struck in early 2022 and an extended period of post-viral fatigue that also impacted his 2023 campaign. He also suffered a plantaris rupture last April, followed by a couple of tears in his calf. When he developed a sinus infection and breathing issues during the summer he decided it was time to seek out an operating table after two years in which his best 800m time was 1:48.37 – close to five seconds off his personal best.

“I work so hard and don’t have the target of running 1:48 or 1:50 so it’s difficult,” he admits. “It really taught me how to deal with disappointment and failure, and that I just need to get back up, dust myself off and go again.

“When you’re performing well and winning races everything seems to fall into place pretty easily and you don’t think about the mental side of things. But when things don’t quite click together that’s when you really question if what you’re doing is right.

“That’s where I need to have faith in my ability and what we are trying to achieve.”

Oliver Dustin, Ben Pattison and Finley Mclear (Getty)

Dustin need not search hard for inspiration, with the rollercoaster summer of 2021 still seared into his memory. Front and centre is the race in Nice that, for a brief period a couple of months out from the rescheduled Tokyo Games, made him the fastest man in the world that year.

Dustin had arrived on the French Riviera with a lifetime best of 1:45.71 clocked at a BMC Grand Prix meet in Manchester a fortnight earlier. Gifted the ideal conditions of a quick track, a pacemaker, Wavelight technology set to the Olympic qualifying standard and a balmy, perfectly still, summer’s evening, he flourished. Despite not passing a single athlete from the initial lane break until the 600m point, he rounded the field in astonishing fashion on the final bend to leave both his rivals and the blinking lights located in the inner rail trailing in his wake down the home straight.

“It was all a bit surreal,” he recalls. “I knew I was in good shape but I wasn’t really expecting to run that fast. I was a long way down in the pack. I kind of knew everyone was going to come back to me, but there was a point about 500m in where I thought I was in trouble.

“But everyone did come back towards me very quickly. At that point I just knew I had to finish the race strong.

“Even then, it wasn’t just about one race – I had the rest of the season. The next day I had 12 miles to run and was very much focused on the Olympic trials.”

Yet when that task of securing a Tokyo spot had been successfully navigated with a narrow second-place finish behind Elliot Giles, a rather more unexpected issue arose.

Elliot Giles wins the British 800m title (Mark Shearman)

Dustin was informed that a urine sample he had volunteered to give after the Nice race to ensure his British under-23 record would be ratified had returned minute traces of cocaine. It is understood the case was subsequently dropped by French anti-doping authorities due to cross-contamination with another test in the laboratory. But, amid all the upheaval, the news then emerged in the national media. It all combined to cause a hugely disrupted build-up to the Olympics, where Dustin could only finish sixth in his heat and did not progress. 

He has never spoken publicly about the episode and has no wishes to be drawn on specifics, but he does admit the anti-doping errors and subsequent unwanted publicity tarnished what should have been the highlight of his career to date.

“It was the toughest time of my life by far and I would never wish that feeling on anyone – where your privacy and reputation is totally disregarded,” he says. “It’s a horrible thing. I got through it at the time but it doesn’t sit well and it never will.

“We were building something really special and it disrupted that. It’s unfinished business because I was doing something really good, but there’s no reason why I can’t do it again.”

His exclusion from British Athletics funding for this season was anticipated – “it’s the nature of a cut-throat business” – but Dustin explains that his daily programme has remained largely unchanged thanks to a longstanding sports scholarship from the University of Birmingham, where he completed a chemistry undergraduate degree and is now studying part-time for a masters in healthcare technology. He has also retained a Nike sponsorship deal that was signed just before the Tokyo Olympics.

While others might have been tempted to switch coaching set-up after reaching the international stage, Dustin remains under the guidance of Graeme Mason, a coach at Border Harriers in his native Cumbria, who began looking after him aged 11. With Mason setting the training programme from afar, Dustin mixes solo sessions with work alongside the university group in Birmingham.

 

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“It just works,” says Dustin. “The continuity allows us to look at the past, look at the future and understand what we want to do.

“I don’t buy into the mentality of needing to move on. If someone has the ability to get me from my first 600m race well outside two minutes to 1:43 for 800m in 10 years, there’s not much wrong there.

“There’s nothing about my personality or physiology that has made me think I need to go to an international or professional coach. It doesn’t work like that. He got me there and I have complete faith in his ability to get me back to that.”

The hope is for that to happen this summer. The recent surgery means no indoor racing, but he fully expects to be back to his best outdoors and insists qualification for the Paris Olympics is “absolutely realistic”, so long as he can muscle his way back into a burgeoning pack of global-level British 800m runners headed by world bronze medallist Ben Pattison, alongside the likes of Max Burgin and Daniel Rowden.

What happened at – and before – the Tokyo Games remains what spurs Dustin on every day. “I feel like I’ve got unfinished business,” he says.

“I was in fantastic shape and a few things derailed my preparations. It’s always in the back of my mind and is a bit of fire every day to get me out of the door, get me to complete the last rep, to push the limit to get back on the world stage and prove what I’m capable of.”

» This article first appeared in the February issue of AW magazine, which you can read here