Athletics: Black comes back in style

ROGER BLACK last night laid down a morale-boosting marker for a season in which he will attempt to earn a third European 400 metres title when he beat several of his closest rivals at a meeting in Bratislava.

In what was his first race since 7 September last year, when he was fourth at Gateshead, Black won in 45.36sec, finishing 0.10sec ahead of Tomasz Czuback of Poland. The next three places were filled by fellow Britons, two of whom are expected to be among the main contenders for the gold medal in Budapest - Iwan Thomas and Jamie Boulch.

Thomas, who surpassed Black's British record last season, was timed at 45.70 in third place, with Boulch fourth in 45.93. Black's training partner, Mark Hylton, was fifth in 46.06sec.

Black, who missed out on the World Championships last season because of a debilitating viral infection, had been hoping to start this year's campaign with a flourish in Seville last Saturday week, but had been thwarted by a dispute involving Spanish air traffic controllers.

Last night he told his manager, Mike Whittingham, that he was "very pleased" with his performance on what was a windy evening. "Roger was inwardly confident going out there because he had had a very impressive individual time trial a couple of days after being forced to miss Seville," Whittingham said.

"To be honest, we had been hoping for something even faster. Roger was a bit cross with himself because he said if he'd run his own race he would probably have ducked under 45 seconds."

Black, running outside all his domestic rivals in lane six, responded to a burst of speed from Thomas between 200 and 300 metres and although he did enough to win he paid for his sudden effort over the last 50 metres.

Black, the 32-year-old British captain who plans to retire this year, is next scheduled to race in Helsinki on Saturday against Thomas and the in-form Mark Richardson in what is likely to be a British selection race for the European Cup in St Petersburg at the end of the month. "Roger is in similar condition this year to the way he was in 1996, and equally strong mentally," Whittingham said. "I think he could be dangerous."