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Mother of late judo champion Craig Fallon warns mental health problems rife in sport

Wolverhampton | Sport | Published:

The mother of a former world judo champion who killed himself last year says she has been inundated since her son’s death with stories of elite athletes suffering similar mental health problems.

Britain's Craig Fallon celebrates after winning gold in the -60 category class during the World Judo Championships in Cairo in 2005. IMAGE: REUTERS/Ali Jarekji

June Fallon's son, Craig, grew up in Wolverhampton and became Britain’s last world judo champion.

He was found dead in woodland near the Wrekin campsite, about three miles from his home in Lawley Bank, Telford, in July last year.

June believes the issues that affected her son have become endemic in sport and, ahead of this summer’s Tokyo Olympics and ­Paralympics, has urged any ­concerned athletes to seek help and governing bodies to be vigilant and uphold their duty of care.

A final letter from Craig to his partner, Rebecca Dunning, said that “depression is very much a problem in sport” and outlined a hope that his experience could be used to help others.

Craig Fallon at the British Judo Performance Institute in Dartford in 2011. Image: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Mrs Fallon said she had been shocked by how many people, particularly in judo, had been in touch since her 36-year-old son died by suicide last July.

She believes there are significant flaws in the elite system and that Craig, for all his vast success, felt like a failure after ending his career without an Olympic medal.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, she said “With his tragedy, there are a lot of people in the same boat.

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"I’ve had quite a few say, ‘We nearly did what your son has done’. There are a lot of people suffering the same. I would like to make sure they get the help they need.”

The headquarters of British Judo is based in Great Barr and its centre of excellence is run from Wolverhampton university's Walsall campus.

A spokesman for British Judo said Craig was an incredibly talented individual and one of the country's most successful at judoka on the mat, becoming one of only two British men to hold the world and European titles at the same time.

The 2002 England Commonwealth Games champion also went on to represent Great Britain at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, placing seventh.

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Craig in action against North Korea's Kyong Jin Kim during their first round match of the Men's 60kgs Judo at the 2008 Olympics

The British Judo spokesman said: "Throughout his career, he received full medical support and specialist care throughout the most troubling stages of his life.

"A lot has changed in the 12 years since that time – lessons have been learnt, not just by judo, but by sport as a whole and it has seen mental health issues become a lot less stigmatised both in practice and in the media.

“All athletes now receive six months transition support post career and are actively encouraged to pursue dual career programmes which has seen a number of athlete combining their training schedule alongside studying for a degree.

"Judo was one of the first sports to employ a Performance Welfare Officer , and this programme continues to develop even to this day.

“Although Craig never got the recognition that he deserved in the mainstream media and wider sporting environment, he was revered by his own – kids and adults alike would step onto the mat wanting to be 'Craig Fallon.

"He may not have realised it, but the impact he had on the judo community was immeasurable and he still, to this day, leaves a huge hole in the sport.”

Craig aged 14 was already a member of Wolverhampton Judo Club

“It also proves that sport can have a positive impact on people’s lives. Craig was at his happiest when he was on the mat and training and helped him forget about the issues that he was facing in his personal life."

The Great British Olympians’ ­Association has chosen Mind as its charity of the year in memory of Craig but despite such changes, major concerns remain.

Mrs Fallon still fears elite sport is a different world, where toxic masculinity, fierce competition and extreme pressure in some cases can excuse symptoms and compound the problem of mental health.

"If medals are your sole priority, there is not much motivation for anything substantive to change," she said in the Daily Telegraph. “Athletes are seen as a commodity by UK Sport and some governing bodies.

"No employment protections, legal protections or job security. Any talk of ‘welfare reform’ and ‘culture surveys’ are meaningless until the athlete contracts change. Those above the coaches need to examine their motives.”

A survey by the Professional Players’ Federation in 2018 found more than half of former ­professional sportsmen and women had concerns about their mental well-being since retiring.

A “culture health check”, published by UK Sport the same year, found nearly a ­quarter of athletes were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the ­“measures taken in their sport to optimise” mental health.

Craig Ranson, the director of athlete health at the English Institute for Sport, said there had since been a “step change” which included the launch of the “More To Me” programme and performance lifestyle advisers, as well as more avenues for athletes to voice concerns.

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