Christian Malcolm: Welsh wizard seeks his own odyssey in lap of the gods

The home flags will fly for local hero Kenteris but Britain's 200m man has been training for a year for this moment. Simon Turnbull talks to him
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The Independent Online

If everything goes to plan for Christian Malcolm, the affable Welshman will be the most unpopular person in the cauldron of the Spiros Louis Olympic Stadium on Thursday 26 August. It is Malcolm's intention to become the Olympic 200m champion in Athens on that evening, and to do so he must beat the man who is expected to fulfil the Cathy Freeman role at the 2004 Games.

Like Freeman in Sydney four years ago, Konstantinos Kenteris is the hero the host nation is looking towards for a golden home run in the showpiece track-and-field arena. The atmosphere for his rivals in the 200m final is sure to be intimidating.

"I'm not going to let a little thing like that bother me," Malcolm says, smiling at the prospect of settling into his starting blocks alongside the golden boy of Greek athletics in front of a 75,000-strong Greek crowd. "If I do that and it messes up my race then I've just wasted all my 11 months of training - training for that one moment. It ain't going to come round again. So why let something like that get to you? I'll just get on with it... unless some sniper comes down from the stand."

Not that Malcolm is seriously concerned about a doomsday firing-line scenario either. Getting worried is not something that comes naturally to him. The 25-year-old is so laid-back he is in danger of being horizontal even when he is supposed to be propelling himself around half of a track in a high-speed vertical state. At the European Cup in the Polish town of Bydgoszcz last weekend the only thing that moderately ruffled his sang-froid was not the standard of the opposition nor the pressure to perform but the discovery that he had left the control pads for his PlayStation back home in Newport.

It failed to knock him out of his stride. In the Zawisza Stadion last Sunday the Welshman with the featherweight build and the smooth sprinting style surged to an impressive victory in 20.56sec. It was Malcolm's fastest time of the season, but it was not the fastest European Cup time of the day.

Running in the second-tier A Group of the competition in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, Kenteris clocked 20.33. The Greek missed the World Championships in Paris last year because of injury but has been unbeatable in the last three major championships he has contested: the European Championships in 2002, the 2001 World Championships and the 2000 Olympic Games.

He is not the only threat to Malcolm's golden dream. Usian Bolt, the 17-year-old Jamaican known for good reason as "Lightning Bolt", heads the world rankings with a staggering world junior record of 19.93sec. Then there is Shawn Crawford, the American who pipped Malcolm to the world indoor title in 2001 and who last year raced a giraffe and a zebra on a "Man v Beast" show on Fox TV (he beat the giraffe but lost to the zebra). His best 200m time so far this season is 20.23, but last weekend he beat Maurice Greene to win the 100m at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, clocking 9.88.

"To me, it's wide open," Malcolm says. "The Greek is beatable. Bolt is beatable. The three Americans will be beatable too, and the two other Britons. There's no out-and-out number one. If I can get to the final, I will have as good a chance as anyone. I learned in Edmonton [at the 2001 World Championships] that I can challenge the best. I still believe that."

That self-belief will be vital if Malcolm is to fulfil the promise he showed when winning the 100m and 200m at the World Junior Championships in Annecy in 1998 and which had his career on an upward curve right up to the World Championships final three years ago.

Fifth in the Olympic final in Sydney in 2000, he looked on course for a medal through the rounds in Edmonton, setting Welsh records of 20.13sec and 20.08sec in his quarter-final and semi-final, despite easing up in both races. Then, however, when it came to the final, he tightened up under the strain and finished fifth in 20.22, 0.02sec behind Crawford and Kim Collins, who tied for third place.

Malcolm's progress has been held in check ever since. In 2002 he was eighth in the Commonwealth Games and fourth in the European Championships, and last summer he failed to get beyond the semi-finals at the World Championships in Paris, where Collins took the 100m crown. Injury has played a major part in his apparent stagnation, but his easy-going nature has been a factor too.

"I am laid-back," Malcolm acknowledges, "and I always will be. My whole family's laid-back. That's just the way I am. But, training-wise, if you speak to my coach he will tell you my attitude has totally changed this year. I've been more focused. I've been more willing to train. If my coach says, 'Take a day off,' I'll say, 'No, I feel fine', and I'll do a session. In the past I'd go, 'Oh yeah, I'll take a day off'."

So what has prompted the change of attitude? "Not achieving what I want to achieve," Malcolm replies. "Getting injured. I want to be free from injury and I want to get back to being what I know I can be. I want to get there. I've wasted - what? - four, five years now. Those are four or five years in which I could have achieved more if I had done this or that, just little things, instead of being so laid-back.

"I just want to give it seven years of putting it all in, of giving everything to my athletics. I don't want to be 40 years of age and saying, 'I just didn't do it. I didn't give it everything'. I really want to go for it now."

Malcolm's new maximalist approach has included linking up on the training track with Mark Lewis-Francis. The pair have trained together in Newport, Birmingham, Johannesburg and Cyprus, under the direction of Jock Anderson, the former Scottish professional sprinter who has been Malcolm's coach and mentor for 12 years now.

"The training has been going well," Malcolm says. "I'm focused and I'm injury-free for the first time since 2001. As long as I'm fit and healthy, I believe I can still do it. But, first things first, I've got to make the team. The way British 200m running is at the moment, any eight of us can make the three team places. And whoever makes those is capable of making the final in Athens."

The race for Olympic team places will be decided at the trials in Manchester on 9 and 10 July, but at Gateshead this afternoon Malcolm faces his first test of the season against his domestic rivals. The field for the 200m in the Norwich Union British Grand Prix includes Marlon Devonish, who won the world indoor title last year; Chris Lambert, the European Under-23 champion; and Julian Golding, the former Commonwealth champion. Darren Campbell, who took the Olympic 200m silver behind Kenteris in Sydney, runs in the 100m against the short-sprint specialists Lewis-Francis, Jason Gardener and Collins.

One notable absentee, of course, will be Dwain Chambers, who won the 100m at Gateshead a year ago. He has been suspended for two years after testing positive for the designer steroid tetrahydrogestrinone - something which clearly came as a shattering blow to Malcolm, a close friend of the European 100m record holder.

"We came up through the ranks together and Dwain's still one of my best mates," Malcolm says. "It's happened and that's that. It's all done and dusted now. There's no point in me dwelling on it. We have just got to move on. We're still best friends. That's all I've got to say about it."

The suspension of Chambers caused Malcolm to lose his share of the £25,000 prize the British 4 x 100m relay team were entitled to by finishing second at last year's World Championships. "But we never actually got the money," he points out, "so, as far as I'm concerned, there was nothing to lose." It was, nevertheless, money that Malcolm could have done with after a couple of lean years on the circuit. "It has been a bit of a struggle," he admits. "I've had to dig into my savings."

It might have been different had he persevered with his first sporting love. As a flying right-winger, Malcolm played in the Nottingham Forest youth team until he decided to concentrate on athletics at the age of 16. He also supplied the crosses in the South Wales Schools team for a scrawny young striker by the name of Craig Bellamy.

"I still keep in touch with Craig," Malcolm says. "But I don't really wonder what might have been if I'd stuck to football. I knew other lads who were amazing schoolboy players but never made it with professional clubs.

"The great thing about athletics is if you win something you've won it on your own. It's your achievement. There's no better feeling than that." Especially when you've overcome 75,000 screaming Greeks along the way too.

BIOGRAPHY

Born: 3 June 1979 in Cardiff.

Senior international career: 200m: 5th Olympic Games 2000. 5th World Championships 2001; semi-finalist 2003. 4th European Championships 2002. 2nd Commonwealth Games 1998; 8th 2002. 1st European Cup 2003 and 2000. 2nd World Indoor Championships 2001. 1st European Indoor Championships 2000; 2nd 2002.

Junior: 1st 100m and 200m World Junior Championships 1998. 1st 200m European Junior Championships 1997, 2nd 100m.

Personal bests: 200m: 20.08sec (2001). 100m: 10.11sec (2001).

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