Athletics: Black back up and running on the hard Helsinki road: Britain's double European 400 metres champion has recovered from a debilitating virus and is looking ahead to more gold

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A YEAR ago it was not just running which had become impossible for Roger Black. He could not concentrate on reading properly. Even playing guitar, an enduring source of pleasure for him, was too much of an effort.

Now, the only man to win consecutive European 400 metres gold medals appears to have recovered from the Epstein-Barr virus which so debilitated him. Six months of rehabilitation at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, and a further six weeks' training in France, have brought him on sufficiently to contemplate defending his title in Helsinki this summer.

But first, Black has got to qualify - and today in Sheffield he runs the heats of his first individual 400m event in over a year at the KP National Championships, which serve as a trial for this season's major international events.

At 28, he has already made two major comebacks - he endured three years of injury in between European titles, requiring surgery on a stress fracture, and went under the knife again in 1992 to relieve a long-term hip mobility problem.

Upon reflection, he connects his viral complaint with an over-hasty attempt to recover after the hip operation. He raced only twice over 400m last season before the illness dragged him down. The experiences have left him understandably wary. 'My sights are firmly fixed on defending my European title,' he said. 'But you can't just come back after a time out like I have had and start running 44 seconds.

'I have been very depressed. But I have never felt that it was the moment for me to walk away from the sport. I know that there are a lot of athletes who stay on too long. I know I will never have the luxury of feeling 100 per cent again. But I have competed like that before - when I won the world silver in 1991 I was like that. I still believe in myself and when things are okay I know I can run fast again. Athletics is one of the few things in life that gives you a purpose and a goal.'

Black's immediate goal is to beat Du'Aine Ladejo, the 23-year-old European indoor champion, who has made a promising start to the season with victories at Long Beach on 25 May and Budapest on 3 June in times of 45.95sec and 45.99 respectively. Black has nothing more to go on than his 47.4sec relay leg for Team Solent in last weekend's Division Five match.

Some of the pressure has been taken off Black and Ladejo by the injuries which have wrought havoc among British one-lap racers. David Grindley, the British No 1, looks in danger of missing the season with an Achilles tendon problem. Derek Redmond is also hors de combat, while Mark Richardson, Grindley's talented but unlucky contemporary, has a stress fracture.

The way could be open for youngsters such as Grindley's training partner, Guy Bullock, and Haringey's David McKenzie to raise their profiles. Bullock, the European junior champion, ran 46.77 in Hengelo last Saturday.

The first British athlete in each event will qualify for the European Championships, assuming they have the qualifying standard. If they are English, they will be given the option of going to the Commonwealth Games as well. The full party for each championship will be finalised on 20 July. Selections will also be made for the European Cup a fortnight hence - one per event - but these are not tied in to results this weekend.

Athletes received written notice in January that they would be deemed to have ruled themselves out of selection if they did not compete at these championships, although not necessarily in their specialist event. A medical note was required for absentees.

The javelin rivalry between Mick Hill and Steve Backley - both relatively fit and well, both victorious in separate European meetings last Sunday - should be one of the highlights. The 400m hurdles, with Peter Crampton and Gary Cadogan seeking to establish themselves as No 1 following Kriss Akabusi's retirement, could also prove a compelling spectacle, as could the 1500m, with Kevin McKay, John Mayock and Jon Finch seeking to underline their potential.