HOW WE MET: KRISS AKABUSI AND ROGER BLACK

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The Independent Culture
Kriss Akabusi, 40 (right), began his international athletics career in 1983 and helped the British 4 x 400m relay team to secure the silver in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He went on to win two gold medals in the 1990 European Championships. In 1993 he retired and began to work in television, presenting The Big Breakfast and Record Breakers. He lives in Southampton with his wife, Monika, and their two daughters. Roger Black, 32, a 400-metre runner, won his first Commonwealth Games gold medal aged 20 and has since won five other European titles. Currently the British men's athletics team captain, Black also works as a sports presenter for the BBC. He lives in Surrey with his fiancee, Elsa, and their dog, Jasper

KRISS AKABUSI: I met Roger in the autumn of 1984, when I'd just come back from my first Olympic Games in Los Angeles. I was in the army at the time and had moved down to Southampton to train with Mike Smith, the best coach in the country. Todd Bennett, who had also been in LA, was in my training group. One day a new lad appeared - a gangly, spotty, well-spoken youth. I remember watching the incredible ease with which Roger bounded over hurdles, and thinking, "Gosh, he's strong." He'd just finished his A-levels and was a very good junior English schools athlete, but he had never trained before. Most athletes turn up for coaching all ready to go - I was sponsored by Adidas and Todd by Nike, so we had matching uniforms with logos down to our socks - but Roger turned up in an old jumper and a huge pair of canvas shoes which looked like boats .

By January 1985 it was clear that we had a talent here. The "internationals" - Todd and I - trained twice a day, six days a week, while the other athletes trained once a day, five days a week. Pretty soon Roger was promoted to our training group and we got to know each other a bit. When we were going to the indoor championships in Birmingham, I arranged to drive up with Roger, and that was the real beginning of our friendship.

Even though I was the recognised international athlete, it was easy to see that he was better than I was - he had pure speed and aggression. There was a sense of joy and anticipation in seeing what he was capable of. I respected his talent and I think he respected my knowledge and seniority - there was an element of hero-worship to begin with.

Once you're in the limelight there are different pressures to contend with. I have lots of acquaintances and not that many special friends, but Roger and I pause and reflect on similar issues. He knows intimate details about me; there are things I tell him which I wouldn't tell my wife. Roger is self-assured, maybe to a fault. Some people find him arrogant. He's not really - he just knows that he's talented. Ask him how he rates himself in athletics and he'll reply that he's pretty damn good.

I'm poor at keeping in touch with my friends. If Roger doesn't phone for a while, it doesn't occur to me to ring him - but it's not because I don't love him and think of him. Roger nurtures and nourishes his relationships. He'll ring me and say, "Kriss, let's have a boys' night out," or, "I've got tickets for horse-racing, do you want to come along?" We see each other at least every fortnight - we move in similar circles, attending formal dinners and charity functions, and we have mutual friends.

Roger's very talented, a real all-rounder. He writes, composes, sings, plays guitar. Some of my happiest memories are of the time when we were training with Daley Thompson in California. We used to sit round a camp fire, post-barbecue, listening to Roger's songs. Because he's so happy now, he's not composing; he used to write the best songs while he was going through a horrible romantic break-up. I'd hate for Roger to go through a hard time but when he gets those songs going he's incomparable.

We disagree on religion and politics. I'm a Christian, Roger is an agnostic. He used to be a choirboy and knows the liturgy, but he doesn't see the relevance of religion except as a social institution. He thinks his life wouldn't be his own if he did believe. I don't try to drag him into the pews. We have had some fantastic discussions - we are both adult enough to agree to disagree. I vote Conservative, he's New Labour. So what? Politics isn't the basis of our friendship.

While I was growing up I wouldn't have been seen dead with the likes of Roger. He was a Tim Henman prototype - I'd have thought he was like sliced white bread. He was the first middle-class person I ever knew. But I love and cherish him, he's enriched my life in so many ways. I'll be an old man with Roger and when I build my home on my ancestral plot of land in Africa, he'll visit me with all his bambinos.

ROGER BLACK: I had a year off before going to university to read medicine and I decided to take up athletics seriously. I went along to train with the Southampton Athletics Club under Mike Smith, who also coached Kriss Akabusi and Todd Bennett, both members of the British 4 x 400m relay team which had just won a silver medal at the Los Angeles Olympics. They were beginning their winter training, and I went along on a wet, windy and cold Monday night.

I was very nervous: I was an 18-year-old kid and suddenly I was training with my heroes. The first time I met Kriss he didn't really take much notice of me - I was just another kid - but I had an impression of him as a very loud, gregarious, larger than life character. Now I know there's a very serious, intelligent side to him - it frustrates him that people don't perceive it. His depth of knowledge is far superior to any other person I know.

The first time we really connected was when we drove up to an indoor meeting in Birmingham. We got on very well but I was still the kid and he was the big international star. The following day I won the 400 metres, beating a well-known British international, and Kriss started taking me under his wing - he recognised my talent and became my mentor. The next year we went to America to train with Daley Thompson. We shared a hotel room for three months and were together every day, and we discovered that we were very compatible.

We see each other a lot more now I've retired. I always keep in contact. We speak to each other on the phone regularly and go out for dinner with Daley Thompson, our mutual friend. When Daley, Kriss and I get round a table it's not about food - we're too busy laughing and reminiscing. For a few years we spent three months a year in California and it was a relatively carefree existence. Those were the days that really cemented our friendship.

Kriss and I have very different temperaments. He walks into a crowded room and makes sure people are aware of his presence; I will slide in, sit down and be quiet. We are a good foil for each other. Our friendship is very much boys together. We've formed a little clique with Derek Redmond, John Regis, Daley and others. Wives and fiancees don't really play a part in our relationship, which might sound terribly laddish. But we want to play games together - snooker, darts, tennis, cards. We spend 90 per cent of our time with our partners but we rarely meet in the world of coupledom, it's too conventional.

Kriss and I are very close because we have shared crucial times in each other's lives. The times when we've needed each other as friends were ones of significant personal change. Kriss was a great friend to me during the painful break-up of a relationship and he really needed me when he found religion. His whole life changed then. Although I'm not religious I supported him and never saw it as a threat to our friendship.

Kriss's strongest qualities are his decisiveness and tenacity. When he sets his mind on something he gets on with it, on and off the track. He exudes lust for life and is unashamedly loud. It's a wonderful quality and people love being around it. The flip side is that there are times when he should just shut up. We never argue or row, even though Kriss has some pretty wild opinions on life. He's very right-wing - I'm more liberal - but we agree to disagree. There's no reason to fall out. Life's too short.

One thing Kriss said to me recently was that what he missed most about being an athlete was hanging out with other athletes. In the real world we're surrounded by adults, which is actually quite boring. Athletes are quite childish, we prolong our adolescence. Every time we get together now we're still trying to prolong it, knowing we can't because he's a successful family man with responsibilities and I soon will be.

On the face of it, it seems odd that we should be such good friends. On the one hand you have this white middle-class boy, with traditional English reserve, who has grown up in comfort. On the other hand you have a black guy, born an Ibo prince in Nigeria, who then lived in a succession of foster homes in England and joined the army. I was very proud and pleased for Kriss when he got his MBE. I know it meant a lot to him because of his background.

Our friendship has never been tested because we've never allowed it to be tested. We are simply two guys who shared seven fantastic years together and there's an enormous bond because of that. Twenty years on we will still be having ribald boys' nights out, hanging on to our youth, our respective families tucked up safely in bed. We'll still be on a tennis court thrashing the life out of each other, kidding ourselves we're 21, because that's how we'll feel inside.

! Kriss Akabusi is appearing in 'Cinderella' at the Wimbledon Theatre from 19 Dec-24 Jan. Roger Black's autobiography, 'How Long Is The Course?', is published by Andre Deutsch, price pounds 15.99

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