THIS WEEK, at Paddington recreation ground, everyone wants to be Linford Christie. Two weeks ago it might have been Michael Jordan, in a month it may well be Ian Wright, but this week there is only one hero in west London. Three days after 'Union Jack the Lad', as the Sun called Christie, triumphed in Stuttgart, four seven-year-olds were hurtling down the council-owned running track which circles a football pitch, arms and legs pumping away in a parody of the sprinter's style.

'Yes, yes, he's done it,' shouted the little white boy as he came in ahead of his three black running-mates and blew kisses to an imaginary crowd. 'Christie's won it.'

Over on the other side of the track, past a football match of little skill and less athleticism, a group of six young men had taken their enthusiasm for the sport of King Linford a few stages further. Sitting on beach towels laid out like prayer mats on the track, their legs spread flat on the ground at an improbable angle, their noses rubbing their knees as they bent forward to touch their toes, the six were warming up for an afternoon's training session. The group, assembled from the best young sprinters in London, spends hours a day like this, warming up extravagantly muscled bodies before bursts of feverish running.

'Don't do it right and you can pull something you didn't even know you had,' said Lloyd, 24, whose legs possessed Alpine contours. 'We have muscles in places that normal people don't even have places.'

Once warmed up for an hour, the boys spend an hour on the track perfecting their starts or finishes, bursting out of running blocks, bouncing up and down on the spot to improve their spring; then an hour in the gym lifting weights to increase their upper body strength; then another hour warming down. After that, while their mates are in the pub or at the rave, they will go home to bed. To become a champion sprinter takes years of unrequited toil, resolve and self-

sacrifice; the sort of qualities which, in these days of instant gratification, it is generally supposed the inner-city youth of Britain are not over-endowed with.

'Basically, this is my life,' said Nigel, 20. 'Work, train, sleep. That's it.'

Seven years ago Rod Holburton, the group's coach, took early retirement from teaching to train the capital's elite young sprinters - full-time and unpaid. He drew lads from schools, from athletics clubs, from walking across the park and spotting someone shifting a bit on the football pitch. He also took them from local authority care.

'The councils looked at athletics as a last chance, hoped it might pull these kids on to the straight and narrow,' said Mr Holburton. 'One year I spent more time in court giving character references and bailing out my runners than I did working with them on the track.'

Linford Christie has said that athletics saved him from the kind of running other west London youths do a lot of - away from the police. The Paddington six shared a similarly evangelical view of sprinting.

'I guess if I wasn't here I'd be on the estate, messin',' said Gareth, 17, gently stretching his hamstrings.

'Your mates from school, either they're in prison or you see them going round in flash cars,' said Lloyd. 'They take the piss because you don't go out, you're in bed by 10. But you're not tempted. It sounds arrogant, but you feel superior to them because you've got a purpose in life and they haven't. Besides, why go out to the Hammersmith Palais? You probably end up getting shot.'

'This is the best way to keep out of trouble,' added Everton, 24. 'Because when you done training, man, you're too knackered to do any thievin'.'

Rod Holburton, however, was anxious to stress that his programme was not 'some Walter Matthau, Hollywood thing. This isn't about social work, it's about winning.'

And winning is what his squad are used to doing. Three of them - Evans, Nigel and Lloyd - have progressed under his tutelage into the English national junior team and between them own the junior 100 metres relay record. Their top times are less than a second slower than Christie's, but it will take them at least five years of unpaid toil to make the improvement.

With no sponsorship, financing a running habit is tortuous. It is not just that the equipment is expensive ( pounds 40 for a pair of spikey shoes, pounds 100 for a set of starting blocks) or that the Amateur Athletic Association charges its runners to enter top competitions. It is that serious running and normal working practices are not compatible. Unlike rugby players, for whom smart City firms are happy to be flexible because of the prestige of having internationals on the pay-roll, young black inner-city sprinters find employers less accommodating.

'It's hard enough for the likes of us to get a job,' said Everton, 'without walking into the interview and saying: 'Well, I can't work Saturdays, I'll need three afternoons a week off and six weeks away in the summer.' '

Most of the squad save up for trainers from their dole money; Nigel thought he was lucky last winter when he landed a job delivering pizza in the evenings. 'The manager was real helpful, he basically said: 'Look, your running comes first, the job comes second, work whenever you can.' '

Things were going well, Nigel was poised to take up a place in the national under-23 team. Then, in June, the moped on which he made his deliveries was hit by a car, and his leg was crushed. Somebody didn't get their pizza that night.

'I had a bust lip, bruised knee, torn ligament in me ankle,' said Nigel. 'I wrote off the bike and a full season's sprinting.'

He is back delivering pizza ('I drive real slow'), but is only now gingerly testing his leg on the track.

Were Nigel and his mates to make it to the top, however, the rewards are hardly democratically spread: fewer than 20 British athletes have more than pounds 5,000 in their trust funds. So why don't these boys pursue careers in football, for instance?

'Running down that track fast, man, it's a wicked buzz, like nothing I've found,' said Gareth, who had been approached by football clubs. 'If you win, it's down to you. If you lose, you can't slag the goalkeeper. Running, it's pure sport, man. Now I've tried it, I don't want to be the best in England at this, I want to be the best in the world.'

'That's the thing,' said Lola, 21. 'To put up with all this, all the shit and no money, to come down to the track when you'd rather be in bed, to train in winter when it's so cold you're crying, you need a hell of a lot of self- belief. Arrogance if you like. Each one of us here thinks, really thinks deep down, one day we'll be world champion, we'll be Linford. You have to.'

This is how the next generation of British podium pounders are preparing, then. On a council track, shared with seven-year-olds and old men walking their dogs, saving out of their dole or working as pizza delivery men to buy their running shoes.

'Sure it seems hard, but don't weep for us,' said Everton. 'Where we come from and who we are, the choices about what you can do with your life are so limited. You might as well do something that makes you happy. And this makes us happy.'

As the boys wandered across the track to the gym for more of their seemingly endless apprenticeship, they passed the four seven-year-olds. They had stopped playing at Linford Christie and were kicking a football around instead.

(Photographs omitted)