Michael Bingham: The 'American' inside Team GB

Born in the hometown of the Krispy Kreme doughnut, he is now Britain's top 400m man and tells Simon Turnbull why a London win can follow European silver
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The Independent Online

Michael Bingham has a date at the Palace at the end of the week but yesterday he took time out from his preparations for the Aviva London Grand Prix to check out the home of the Arsenal.

"This is my first time here," the 400m runner said, after completing a guided tour of the Emirates Stadium. "It's immaculate. I haven't seen any of the players. They're getting ready for their match against Liverpool on Sunday."

Bingham is getting ready for the big homecoming of Britain's medal winners from the European Championships in Barcelona: the Diamond League event at Crystal Palace on Friday and Saturday. He runs in the 400m on the second day. In Barcelona he won a silver medal in the individual 400m and the 4x400m relay as part of a record haul of 19 medals plundered in the Catalan capital by the British team.

"Arsenal's my favourite team in the Premier League," Bingham added. "I'm actually a Nottingham Forest fan. I follow their results. I watched them two or three times when I was a kid – not in recent years, though, because I've been too busy travelling."

Bingham's father is from Nottingham. Norris Bingham is a retired professor. He is also the reason his talented son happens to be running the quarter-mile for Britain rather than trying to fight his way into the United States team.

Michael was born in Sylva, North Carolina. His hometown is Winston-Salem, the North Carolina twin city that gave the world the Krispy Kreme doughnut and Pam Grier, star of Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown. Only last summer Bingham Junior graduated from Wake Forest University, where the professor of American Studies was Maya Angelou, and where Arnold Palmer, a four-times winner of the Masters, studied on a golfing scholarship.

After gaining a degree in political science and economics, and leaving the amateur US collegiate system, Bingham became a professional athlete and joined the roster of the Universal Sports Performance Management group, run by Michael Johnson, the fastest one-lap runner of all time. Happily for British athletics, he had already chosen to make his way in the world as a 400m man for the land of his father.

A bronze medal winner as a decathlete for the United States at the Pan Am Junior Championships in 2005, Bingham obtained a British passport three years ago. He ran for Britain in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, failing to gain selection for the individual 400m but helping the 4x400m relay team to fourth place with a 44.61sec split time on the penultimate leg.

At the World Championships in Berlin last summer he got on the rostrum as part of the silver-medal winning British 4x400m relay team. He also reached the final of the individual 400m, finishing seventh. Then, two weeks ago, came the two European Championship silvers in Barcelona – both disappointments.

Still, at 24, and just 12 months into his career as a running pro, Bingham is set on an upward curve. The young man from Krispy Kreme City is an outside shot for a 400m medal and a big shot for a 4 x 400m relay medal at the London Olympics of 2012.

Bingham has no regrets about switching allegiance. "Absolutely not," he said. "When I switched it was wholeheartedly genuine. Great Britain was a place I wanted to be and a place I wanted to run for. It wasn't financial or anything like that. I wasn't on funding for two or three years. It's just because this is where I want to be.

"I think it's been an awesome decision. Everyone's accepted me. And we've run well as a 4x400m team. It's been good. I can't wait until London 2012."

The accent is more North Carolina than east Midlands but Bingham is no transatlantic, two-season, one-lap wonder, like Malachi Davis before him. Davis burst on to the British track and field scene in a blaze of disapproving publicity at the Olympic trials in Manchester in 2004, attracting headlines like "Malachi Malarkey" and "Instant Brit". His British passport, for which he qualified courtesy of his London-born mother, had been delivered by Fed-Ex to his Los Angeles home just two days before the trials.

Davis qualified for the British team and ran in the 400m heats at the Athens Olympics that summer. He also competed in the opening round at the World Championships in Helsinki the following year but then dropped off the British athletics radar, despite continuing to receive Lottery funding up to 2007.

"I don't know Malachi very well," Bingham said. "I met him once, in passing. I don't know how long he was here for, maybe a year or two. I think he was older when he switched, too – maybe 25 or 26. I'm trying to make this a long-time career. You'll see me around for a few years yet."

From May to October every year, you will find Bingham around Loughborough University. He spends half of his year based at the UK Athletics High Performance Centre there, training alongside Martyn Rooney, whom he pipped to the silver medal in Barcelona. The other six months he spends at the Florida State University track in Tallahassee, coached by Ken Harnden, the former Zimbabwean international 400m hurdler who won a bronze medal at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.

His training group includes Kevin Borlee, who burst past him to snatch the 400m gold medal in Barcelona, and the Belgian runner's identical twin brother, Jonathan, who lined up the clear favourite for the European Championship final but ended up seventh

"I'm here in England for a big chunk of the year but I do a lot of my winter prep in Tallahassee," Bingham said. "I know the Borlees well. We're good friends. They're coached by their father and by my coach. We all train together.

"I can tell them apart. You can't at first but when you get in a group and train with them for a couple of months you start picking up on little things. Jonathan's the quiet one and Kevin's the loud one."

Kevin had a good deal to shout about in Barcelona after shooting through the middle to steal a surprise victory, just as Bingham, out in lane eight, and Rooney, in lane one, looked poised to claim a famous one-two in a Great British pincer movement. "I panicked," Bingham reflected, lamenting the gold that got away. "I think I had the race won, but I knew the others were coming and I panicked. If you panic in the 400m, you lose all technique. Luckily, worst-case scenario, I got a silver. But it definitely should have been a different colour."

His manager was of the same opinion. "He thought I finished out OK with a medal, but he never wants me to settle for anything less than a victory," Bingham said of Johnson's verdict. "There are certain things he thought I could have done better in Barcelona, especially in the relay. But, reflecting back, he said I ran a decent championship.

"Michael's always careful not to step on any toes or anything, but he lets me know his opinion. It's a good help having him as my manager; that's for sure."

Switching sides: Foreign-born British competitors

Athletics

Zola Budd Budd's claim to wear the British jersey came through a grandfather and, in the days before the England cricket team was flooded with South African-born stars, caused something of a controversy. She famously ran barefoot and was involved in a controversial tripping incident in the 3,000m final with the American favourite Mary Decker at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Malachi Davis The Californian 400-metre runner had never been to Britain before his appearance at the Olympic trials in 2004. He ran at the Athens Games that summer before leaving British athletics almost as speedily as he had arrived.

Other sports

Riki Flutey Having won the Under-19 rugby union World Cup with New Zealand in 1999, Flutey opted to play for England after gaining residency in 2008. He was later called up for the 2009 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa. He now lives in France, where he plays for Brive.

Greg Rusedski Born in Canada to a British mother and a father of Polish-Ukrainian descent, the tennis player took British citizenship in 1995 when domestic tennis was at a particularly low ebb. Reached the US Open final in 1997.

Owen Hargreaves Also born in Canada, Hargreaves has a Welsh mother and English father, and lived in Germany long enough to be allowed to take up citizenship there. Instead, in 2001 he chose to become the only footballer to win an England cap without having previously lived in the United Kingdom.

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