A showman to shout about; close-up; Du'aine Ladejo

Critics say he only talks a good race but Britain's leading 400m man is on a fast track to Atlanta. Norman Fox reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT MAY NOT rank as low on the scale of bizarre, designed-for- television diversions as tractor pulling and topless darts, but indoor athletics remains a contrived and ignored sport. This winter there have been times when pictures from the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham have looked like Spot the Spectator competitions. So it was all the more extraordinary that last weekend the extrovert 400 metres runner Du'aine Ladejo was officially reprimanded for trying to bring a little showmanship to the proceedings in Glasgow where he was making his first international appearance for Britain for many painful months.

Ladejo is not one of your Chariots of Fire, jolly modest chaps who always says that the guy who was second deserved just as much praise. "Who cares who finished second?" could be his motto. He thinks of himself as a winner, which takes a lot of self-belief in an event that these days is a lung- searing, extended sprint with everyone chasing the standards of the supreme champion, Michael Johnson. Next weekend in Stockholm, Ladejo has to prove that the win he achieved at the European Indoor Championships in Paris two years ago can be repeated. Then he goes on to the Olympics and afterwards probably a career in television - LWT wanted him to do another series of Du'aine's World this year but he pleaded "prior commitments".

Only when running for Britain against France in Glasgow last Saturday did the 25-year-old Ladejo really feel that winning the European title again after many months of competitive inactivity was something he could talk about. "What I needed more than anything was to race. I was rusty. I'd forgotten how to run indoors." And it was in personal celebration of recovering the knack that he deliberately slowed down in the relay, waving the baton at the crowd and allowing the French runner to close up. He then took off again to win.

The British team manager, Verona Elder, came over all statesmanlike and told him off for showboating. "It's just not done," she said. "But I just did it instinctively. They said I was taking the mickey out of the French guy, but I just wanted to give the crowd some entertainment. They loved it," he said. Well some did, others booed, but it seems that having over- the-top public address people yelling inane requests to "put your hands together" for some minor stadium record is fine, yet lifting the spirits, or even raising a boo, with a touch of showmanship from a leading athlete in a sport in need of crowd-pullers is considered unseemly.

An athletics entertainer and great champion of a previous era, Steve Ovett, who was not averse to waving and blowing kisses, forgave him. "We can do with a bit more of that especially after everything he's been through." Everything? It began towards the end of last winter just after Ladejo had talked a good summer season (his critics continue to say he talks far too much for someone who has yet to prove himself at the very highest level). In these columns, he had said that he had never felt better, never been so sure that he was going to show the world what he was made of.

Then he went out training a shade too hard and strained a hamstring. That delayed his preparations for world championship year and things got worse. Later in the summer it was discovered that the real problem was a trapped nerve. "It turned out that it was the scar tissue in my left hamstring that was trapping the nerve but two sessions of acupuncture completely relieved it," he said. "The injury was unusual and very, very annoying. I'd been in such good shape, even better than 1994. But I think the television work gave me an alternative. I just had to decide that if I couldn't run I had to get on with something else. But it was hard to be away from the sport. It must be even harder for people with no alternatives."

Training in South Africa this winter allowed him to return to Britain in much healthier shape, good enough to beat two of his many British 400m rivals, Mark Hylton and Iwan Thomas, in Birmingham earlier this month with a time of 46.48sec ("better than I usually open up with at that time of the year but nowhere near what I'm capable of doing"). And why has Britain so many good 400m runners? "I just think it's coincidence, like when we had so many good middle-distance runners - it goes in cycles."

Once again he says he has never felt stronger or quicker, but this time he has the disadvantage of insufficient competition. "That's why my coach, Tony Hadley, wants me to run as often as possible indoors." That also sets him apart from many of the other leading British athletes who have turned down Stockholm in case it should add unnecessary pressure in a season dominated by the AtlantaGames. The Olympics obviously remain his personal goal. Making up for lost time trackwise is the long road that leads there.

As well as running his controversial relay leg last weekend he also won the 400m in 46.39sec, crossing the line 10 metres ahead, again emphasising why in 1994 he had become the natural successor to the popular Roger Black, whom he beat to add the European outdoor title to his indoor success.

Even after only two competitive runs in Britain this season he was not going to let the satisfying moment pass in Glasgow without sending messages to all of his rivals in the European Championships. "There is so much more there, so much."

His attitude to success has always been a degree less modest than that expected of a British athlete. But then, his Britishness has a strong trace of American-style certitude. Although born in Paddington, he was educated for eight years in the States but only because of the hard work of his mother who, after her marriage broke down, raised the funds to continue her children's private education and send him on an exchange scheme. She then talked him out of taking various scholarships offered simply because he showed promise in American football and basketball. She encouraged him to go to the University of Texas, where he majored in communications, with obvious results. His athletics also came on line.

As for the Olympics, Ladejo says that he is not losing any sleep over the spectre of Johnson. "He's an awesome athlete but I know that I have to beat him. I just don't think about him - if you train for second then get out of the sport, that's what you deserve. In Stockholm and Atlanta I'll think of everyone as being my main rival because you never know when someone you hadn't considered is going to run out of his skin."

To overcome the American this summer, that's exactly what he has to do. But at least he should travel with another European title to his name.