When John Regis comes off the bend, what the crowd sees is half a dozen standard-size athletes and one other figure that appears to be functioning according to an entirely different set of physical laws and parameters: muscular, gravitational, aerodynamic.
It shouldn't work. To look at him, you'd think it would be like trying to win the Monaco Grand Prix with a 16-wheel Mack truck. By the time you'd got it into gear, the rest would be long gone; and the wind resistance would be nobody's business. But John Regis arrives in Helsinki tomorrow as the reigning European 200 metres champion, travelling from there to Victoria, British Columbia, as the favourite for the Commonwealth Games title. And there has never been a sprinter quite like him.
For those in the main stand, the 200 metres starts around the corner, semi-obscured. It's not until the runners come off the bend, that the shape of the race starts to clarify. That's the point at which Regis's presence imposes itself, when his silhouette, almost as wide as it is high, separates from the slighter shapes alongside. Carl Lewis flies, Leroy Burrell rumbles and Linford Christie bursts. But John Regis? He looms.
'These are the cards I was dealt,' Regis said in Monaco on Wednesday morning, talking about his remarkable physique. 'My father was a bodybuilder, so the size initially came from him. It's only in the last five or six years of athletics training that I've actually toned it into this shape. But I was always a person of this size. I could've been a flabby person of this size, of course, but I decided, no, I'll tone it and make sure it works for me on the track.'
This was a few hours after Regis had finished behind Michael Johnson, the 1991 world champion, at the Mobil Grand Prix meeting on a warm, airless night in the Stade Louis II. Johnson, who had run the bend in second place but then burnt off the Englishman as the track straightened, hit the beam in 19.94 sec, with Regis just seven hundredths behind. Only three days earlier, on the mile-high track in Sestriere, Regis had set the fastest time in the world this year, a personal best of 19.87sec, just a year after he became the first Briton to break 20 seconds during his run to the silver medal at the world championships in Stuttgart.
Regis, born in south London 27 years ago, doesn't have much left to prove. The silver medallist at last year's world championships, a member of Great Britain's outstanding 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 relay teams, he is up there with the Christies and the Jacksons, even if he doesn't yet have an Olympic gold or a world record to his name. But still people look at him and wonder how much faster he'd go if he could only lose a stone or so.
He's heard all that advice a thousand times, and he knows exactly what to do with it. 'Oh, yes,' he said. 'I made that classic mistake back in 1989. I had a conversation with David Coleman, the commentator, who said to me that he thought I was about 10lb too heavy - he thought that was why I was only running consistently 20.3, 20.4 at the time. I thought, maybe he's right. So I lost weight. But the problem was that in losing weight, my power to weight ratio went down as well. That season I couldn't break 20.5.
'I thought to myself, these guys don't know what they're talking about - I'm going back to the weight I'm comfortable at. And in 1990, my best year up until then, I won four medals in the European championships, and I ran 20.1 consistently. Now I know that to run well I've got to be at my proper weight, which is 14 stone 10, 14 stone 11. I went down to 13 stone 8 when I listened to other people - and I couldn't train, let alone compete. I was very weak. Everybody said, 'Yeah, your body looks good' - but I couldn't run.'
What benefit does Regis - along with the likes of Christie and Andre Cason - derive from such pronounced upper-body strength?
'Power in the arms. And your arms control your legs. They dictate what your legs do. If I have a big, powerful arm action, I'll have big, powerful strides. It's as plain and simple as that.'
His father, who is 65, was a bodybuilding champion in St Lucia in the mid-Fifties. 'I loved sport when I was at school,' John said. 'You name it and I could do it. Tennis, golf, snooker . . . anything involving eye-hand co-ordination, I could pick up in seconds. But I never did bodybuilding.'
Curiously, given his build and the fact that he has chosen to spend his life in a fiercely competitive environment, aggression is not a part of his natural character. 'I'm aggressive when I have to be,' he protested. 'I may look placid and playful, but I can assure you I'm very aggressive when it comes to competing. If you see me in a hotel lobby or walking around town, I'm a nice person - because that's my general persona. The only time I'm really aggressive is 20 minutes before the race, because then I focus and tune in, putting the race together piece by piece.'
Psychology continues to play a big part in the training routines devised in a telephonic collaboration between his two coaches - John Smith, the great American quarter-miler who took Quincy Watts and Kevin Young to gold in Barcelona, and Mike McFarlane, the British sprinter who made the Olympic 100m final in 1984 and dead-heated with Allan Wells for gold in the 1982 Commonwealth Games 200m final. Specific aggression-enhancing techniques, Regis said, are counter-productive: 'The trouble is that they can breed tightness in the race, because you get so wound up that you go overboard. It's a fine line. If there's a scale of aggression from one to 10, eight is my maximum. I know that if I go to nine or 10 then I'm too tight, and the race goes down the toilet, basically.'
These concerns go back to 1987, and the world championships in Rome, when the 20-year-old Regis came within three metres of a gold medal, only to be pipped by Calvin Smith of the US and Gilles Queneherve of France. 'I'd never been in that situation before,' he reflected last week. 'It was probably my fourth senior international meeting, and it was the world championships. I was very young, I didn't know what I was doing, and I just went there to have fun. It was a mistake many freshmen would have made. A lot of people talk about it, but as far as I'm concerned it happened in '87 and that's where I'll leave it.'
His coaches are still working on achieving the right blend of aggression (McFarlane) and relaxation (Smith). Over the last three winters, the Los Angeles-based Smith has taught him to break the race down into four phases: 'You can't run a 200 hard from start to finish, because you'll only get to about 130 metres and then you'll find your body's starved of oxygen. He tells me to take breathers at certain points. For the first 80 metres you go hard. Then there's a relaxation period from 80 to 95, when I take a breath through my nose and exhale through the mouth twice - that clears me out, and if tightness was beginning to creep in, I've got rid of it. If I haven't got the speed up in the first 80 metres, it's pointless to take the relaxation phase, because I won't be tired. Between 95 and 120 you pick up the pace, and then for the last 80 metres it's a case of relaxing and getting to the line.'
The problem is to learn the trick of simultaneously relaxing and kicking hard, particularly during the bend - where, according to Regis, a sustained attack can produce a sort of catapult effect. He is an outstanding bend-runner, positioning himself squarely on both feet rather than leaning into the curve, as most others do. 'When you run the turn square, it allows you to open up your stride. A lot of athletes cut their stride short because they think that if they create a cyclic type of movement then they'll get round the turn faster. The problem with that is that they're using more energy, which you'll need in the latter part of the race. I really attack the bend, run it very square, and I know exactly what I'm doing with every stride.'
A third adviser, Mike Greenberg, a California chiropractor by profession, has recently come in to help on the psychological side, dealing mostly with Regis's tendency to allow his concentration to be disturbed by the presence of his peers. 'Sometimes I get to a race, I warm up and I feel great,' he said. 'Then I see who I'm competing against and I think, 'Ooh, there's Frankie Fredericks,' or 'There's Michael Johnson.' That can take away a bit of sharpness, a bit of adrenalin. He gives me a couple of ideas to think of during the warm-up, and when I get out there I forget who I'm competing against. One thing athletes must remember is that they don't control what the other athlete does. I only control what I do. I used to be caught up in thinking, well, they've run 20 flat and I've only run 20.3, so can I beat them?'
Not even Greenberg, though, could persuade Regis to go along with John Smith's belief that his destiny points away from the 200 and towards the quarter-mile. 'He's told me that many, many times. I don't like the 400, plain and simple. It's the pain. I wouldn't enjoy track and field if I was a 400 metre athlete. I admire all the 400 metre athletes because I think they train really well, and they're probably in the hardest event in track and field, because to run 400 metres it's a case of anaerobic and aerobic all in the same event. I just find that too hard for me. I don't mind running relays, but the individual . . . I'm just afraid of the pain, to be honest. Pain? I don't like pain. Where pain is, I don't go.'
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