Tim Benjamin: Burning desire of a man who carries the torch for his sport

The British athlete of last summer is keen to raise his profile and that of track and field. Simon Turnbull meets a runner in recovery

That is another matter. The important thing for British athletics is that its leading male light of last summer is fit enough to set about the task of picking up the baton for the sport in the 2006 track season. Having been stricken by altitude sickness in pursuit of places on the medal rostrum at the World Championships in Helsinki last August and at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in March, Britain's track and field athletes can ill afford to suffer another bout at this summer's showpiece, the European Championships in Gothenburg in August.

In times past, the best of Britain's runners, jumpers and throwers have made a habit of regaining their Midas touch in the quadrennial Continental competition after seasons of strife at global level. At the last European Championships, in Munich in 2002, the British team won seven gold medals. The haul has never been less than six in the past 20 years. This time it is likely to be very different.

Within the context of last year's World Championships, Britons beat the rest of Europe in only three events. Paula Radcliffe won the women's mara-thon; Benjamin finished fifth in the men's 400m; and the quartet of Benjamin, Martyn Rooney, Robert Tobin and Malachi Davis came fourth in the men's 4 x 400m relay. Never outside the top three at the European Championships since 1982, Britain were the eighth-ranked European nation in the medal table in Helsinki.

It is just as well, then, that Benjamin has emerged from an injury-plagued winter - an annual ordeal, seemingly, for the richly talented quarter-miler from Cardiff - in one piece, if not in all-cylinders-firing form. If he blew something of a gasket in the home straight of the 400m at the opening Golden League meeting in Oslo on Friday night, it was not entirely unexpected. He withdrew from the Welsh team for the Commonwealth Games because of a knee injury and is still carrying what he describes as "an ongoing hip/ foot/knee problem".

Though the 24-year-old is back in full training and confident of being able to "manage" his less-than-perfect condition ("I'm getting sensations when I run but I'm not breaking down"), racing against Jeremy Wariner and six more of the world's best in his first competitive test of the summer was always liable to be a fiery baptism. Thus it proved, as Benjamin - running on the outside in lane eight - faded to seventh in 46.01sec.

"At least I've blown the cobwebs away," he says. "I'm definitely lacking in race sharpness, but there's a long way to go before Gothenburg. At this stage last year I hadn't even pulled on my spikes in training yet."

At one stage in Benjamin's spring preparations for the 2005 track season he found himself lying on a bed at the Wellington Hospital in London reading a Teletext report that stated he had suffered a stroke and would never race again. "It was also in a newspaper," he recalls. "People kept ringing up saying they'd heard I'd had a stroke or a heart attack. To this day, I still don't know where it came from."

Thankfully, the reports of Benjamin's demise were vastly premature. He was, in fact, suffering from a leakage of spinal fluid following a routine injection to relieve back pain. It was severe enough to leave him flat on his back in hospital for three weeks, though the Welsh Lazarus was back racing by mid-June. Just a month after that he was breaking into the world-class ranks, shattering the 45-second barrier for the first time with a stunning victory in 44.75sec in the Norwich Union London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace, as he beat a somewhat jet-lagged Wariner.

By the end of the season, as well as finishing fifth behind the victorious Wariner in Helsinki, Benjamin had reduced his personal best to 44.56sec and run the four fastest times of the year by a European. Indeed, he was Europe's fastest quarter-miler by some distance. Tobin, his Great Britain team-mate, was next quickest on the European list, with 45.01sec.

And so, with the 2006 season under way and about to gather momentum in these shores with the Norwich Union British Grand Prix at Gateshead next Sunday, Benjamin - despite his stuttering start in Oslo - is carrying high hopes for at least one British gold in Gothenburg.

"I don't feel under pressure in that way," he says, considering his new place in the scheme of domestic track and field. "I do feel that I want to compete at the highest level, in terms of getting medals year in, year out, in order to bring a figure back to athletics, if you know what I mean. You had the figures before - like Linford Christie, Sally Gunnell, Colin Jackson. Every time you turned on a television set to watch athletics, they were always there and you were always rooting for them.

"I'd love that to happen with me, and I don't feel it's a pressure. That's what the sport needs. You had Linford Christie, Colin Jackson... Every time you watched a major championship on TV, you were thinking, 'Is Linford going to win? Is Colin going to win?' There was always that possibility of them getting a medal, and that's why you watched. Yeah, in terms of representing the sport in that way, I'd love to be in that position."

The sport, in turn, would love Benjamin to be in that position. Since the last European Championships, the golden generation of Jackson, Jonathan Edwards, Steve Backley, Kelly Holmes and Denise Lewis has passed into retirement. Radcliffe remains, though now - at the age of 32 - as an ageing and somewhat solitary standard-bearing figurehead. Benjamin might have become Britain's leading male athlete (he was the only British man even to reach a track final in Helsinki), but his profile is such that he can still risk strolling through Battersea Park without any danger of being mobbed.

"No," he says, chuckling, "I don't get stopped on the street. People do sometimes stare at me, and I think, 'What are you looking at?' It could be that they recognise me, but it's nothing like it was for Linford or Colin or Sally. They all won medals and that's what I've got to do. Making a World Championships final and running a fast time is all very well, but you've got to get the medals. That's why, in my event, people like Roger Black and Iwan Thomas are remembered to this day. That's the step I've got to take next."

It would be a major step if Benjamin, whose next test is scheduled for the Gateshead meeting a week today, were to get back into his assured stride and follow in the footsteps of Black and Thomas, who both struck European Championships 400m gold for Britain. If he were to falter on the road to Gothenburg, though, there would be no shortage of fellow countrymen waiting to take advantage. Tobin, 22, was Europe's fastest 400m runner in the indoor season this year and ranks second outdoors in Europe thus far in 2006 - behind Rooney, the 19-year-old Croydon Harrier who broke Black's British junior record with a time of 45.35sec on the way to fifth place in the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

"I think Martyn Rooney's very, very dangerous," Benjamin says. "He's going to be really good. I've no doubt he's going to be one of my major rivals in years to come, if not this year. British athletics is in a transitional phase, but people who know the sport are aware that there's a lot of young talent coming through. There's a big reservoir there. You just have to look around the room today. Harry's a great talent and Jessica's already got a Commonwealth Games medal."

Aged 20, Jessica Ennis won heptathlon bronze in Melbourne. She and Harry Aikines-Aryeetey are in Battersea with Benjamin, sprinter Abi Oyepitan and hurdler Allan Scott for the launch of Team Vonage, a quintet of burgeoning British athletes backed by Vonage, an internet telephone company. The 17-year-old Aikines-Aryeetey has gained much attention since winning the 100m and 200m at the World Youth Championships in Marrakech last summer. Benjamin first showed his potential by winning the 200m title at Bydgoszcz in Poland in 1999, in a quicker time than his Vonage team-mate.

It was a success that curtailed any thoughts he harboured of utilising his speed down other sporting tracks. As a centre-cum-wing, he was a member of the same Cardiff Schools rugby union squad as Nicky Robinson and Robin Sowden-Taylor, both senior Welsh internationals. As a flying right-winger, he played youth-team football for Swansea City. And as a roller-hockey player, he captained Wales at tournaments in Spain and France.

Now, as a professional 400m runner, the flying Welshman can help save Britain from becoming the sick man of European athletics - if he gets his metaphorical skates on just a little bit.

Life & Times: From Cardiff to Gothenburg

BORN: 2 May 1982, Cardiff.

VITAL STATS: 6ft, 12st.

CLUB: Belgrave Harriers.

COACH: Tony Lester. Trains at Eton with Olympic 4 x 100m relay gold medallists Marlon Devonish and Mark Lewis-Francis and Olympic 200m finalist Abi Oyepitan.

PERSONAL BESTS: Began 2005 with 400m lifetime best 45.04sec; 44.56 in Monte Carlo, Sept '05.

CHAMPIONSHIPS: '99, 1st World Youth 200m; 2000, 3rd World Junior 200m; '01, 1st European Junior 400m; '02, semi-final Commonwealth 400m (2nd 4x400m relay); '03, 2nd Euro U-23 400m; '04, semi Olympic 400m (5th 4 x 400m relay); '05, 5th world 400m (4th 4 x 400m relay).

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