Athletics: Challenger ready to make big leap

Britain's 21-year-old high-jump star is confident he will take his chance on the world stage.
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WITH THE likes of Colin Jackson, Jonathan Edwards and Steve Backley once again carrying the nation's gold medal aspirations into a major championship,one could be forgiven for wondering where, and when, there will be a changing of the guard in British athletics. Other than in the men's sprints, it is long overdue.

There have been some good signs - none more so than in Zurich last week when Chris Rawlinson ran himself right into the 400 metres hurdles reckoning with the third fastest time in the world this year. But those searching for other fresh faces to make an impact in Seville would do well to keep their eye on the men's high jump. Not just because, in the absence of Cuba's Javier Sotomayor, the experienced Steve Smith will be favourite for gold - but because in 21-year-old Ben Challenger, son of Romeo, there might just be a pleasant surprise in store.

Challenger's progress through the ranks since giving up basketball to concentrate full-time on athletics has been impressive, to say the least. After winning a world junior silver medal, behind Canada's Mark Boswell, his first senior meeting came in last year's European Indoor Championships. "That was really a bit of a shock and it was a bit weird," he said. "I didn't do too well but I really enjoyed it."

Later that year he was drafted in as a last-minute replacement for Smith in Britain's triumphant European Cup team in St Petersburg and equalled his personal best in finishing second. "After that I trained hard for the European outdoors in Budapest but I got injured so I thought I may as well wait for the Commonwealth Games and I got my first senior medal there," said Challenger.

That was silver, behind Britain's other high-jumping stalwart Dalton Grant, and it set Challenger up for what, so far, has been a memorable year. He began it by winning the AAA indoor title in Birmingham, then went on to win the World Student Games, gaining revenge over Boswell in the process, recording a new personal best of 2.30m and picking up Britain's only gold medal of the meeting. Earlier this month he added the European Under-23 title for good measure.

As befits the offspring of a man who played the drums for the 1970s pop group Showaddywaddy, Challenger is very much a showman in his own right as well as an athlete. He plays the guitar himself and his penchant for dying his dreadlocks red has already helped him to attract a cult following among the country's younger athletics fans. He is the most popular figure on the British athletics website.

"I try to be a little different," he has admitted in the past. "I like to do mad things and be a bit of a character. The sport has been in the doldrums for a long time but a new generation of athletes are coming through and we want to give something back to the fans. Kids love stuff like this."

Challenger is one of those rarities among Loughborough graduates, in that he actually hails from the Leicestershire town whose university has provided so many of Britain's top athletes. He began high-jumping at the local school.

"None of us really wanted to do the high jump - we all wanted to play football like everybody else," explained Challenger. "But we decided to have a go at one or two events and I did the high jump and the long jump. I broke the school record in the high jump the first time I ever tried it. I was about 14 then."

For the next few years he divided his time between high-jumping in the athletics field and high-jumping on the basketball court. "I was juggling the two for quite a while and it wasn't until I came second at the world juniors in Sydney that I decided to stop playing basketball. But I played for Leicester Riders in the Budweiser League at a very young age. I was only 18, but because I could jump so high it had its advantages."

His basketball prowess even attracted the interest of a couple of American colleges and for a time Challenger was the proud bearer of the epithet European slam-dunk champion. But for a blatant fix he would have been the Budweiser League champion, too. "It was a bit controversial because I wasn't affiliated into the Budweiser League and they wanted someone for promotions so they gave it to the guy who came second," he explained. "The Leicester crowd went mad.

"But it was good fun. I had to jump over Suzanne Dando and another presenter who were sitting on chairs on the free-throw line. Up until then I was just doing everything for fun, but then I started to realise I could make a career out of sport if I concentrated on one of them and just got on with it. I was second best in the world for my age at high jump and I wasn't the second best at basketball, so that was the cut-off point."

Seville will undoubtedly be the biggest test of his talent and temperament thus far, but it seems unlikely that Challenger will be overawed by the occasion or the company. "If you look up to people in your own sport then they're going to beat you all the time," is his philosophy. "It's the same with Steve Smith and Dalton Grant. I get on well with them and they've been helpful to a certain degree, but now I've become a competitor they don't really want to help me any more and that's the way it should be. There's a little edge which is good.

"I've achieved what I wanted to achieve this year. My goal was always to win the European Under-23 Championships, which I've done, and I topped it with the World Student Games. Going out to the World Championships, there's no pressure on me whatsoever. I think I'm ranked in the top 10 in the world so I might as well give it a go.

"The way I see it is that I'll get into the final and people aren't jumping too consistently at the moment. Things aren't going well for a lot of people but the World Championships brings the best out of everybody so I'll just go out to do my best and to get a medal. I think that's quite realistic. If I jump to my full potential there's a medal there waiting for me."

There might also be an extra motivation for Challenger, who, despite being a member of Belgrave Harriers in London, still lives at home with Romeo and the rest in Loughborough. How can he afford to leave? "If I win the World Championships," he said. And what greater incentive could a 21-year-old have?