Athletics: Fight for the middle ground

Simon Turnbull meets the team trying to escape from the shadow of Coe, Cram and Ovett
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The Independent Online
Life in the driving seat is not always a comfortable experience. John Mayock can attest to that. Attempting to steer British middle-distance running back into the fast lane has left its metaphorical bumps and bruises on the young man with the golden hair and the golden reputation to uphold. "I've got a sponsored car," he said, "and it has 'John Mayock, British 1500m champion' on the side. People say, '1500 metres! We used to be good at that.' They think we must be crap now. It hurts."

That pain has not been dulled by the progress made in the past 12 months by the latest graduate of South Yorkshire's remarkable world-class miling school. Though a disappointing 11th in Atlanta, Mayock was third in last summer's Dream Mile. His time in Oslo, 3min 50.32sec, was four seconds slower than the world record Steve Cram set in the Norwegian capital in 1985, and three seconds slower than Sebastian Coe's record run there in 1981. Only one British man, however, has recorded a faster mile time in the 1990s. And he happened to be a more-than-interested by-stander as Mayock tackled his Saturday- morning training session yesterday at the Dorothy Hyman Stadium at Cudworth, near Barnsley.

"I just advise John," Peter Elliott said. "Pete Watson, who used to help me, is the coach. He stands with the stopwatch." That watch, though, gauges training sessions devised by Elliott. He first became acquainted with Mayock when he invited the talented youngster emerging close to his Rawmarsh doorstep - at nearby Barnsley - to train with him. That was in 1990, when Elliott, outrageously portrayed as a cartoon carthorse by a tabloid newspaper after he justly secured Olympic selection ahead of Coe in 1988, was showing his true, thoroughbred, pedigree. He cantered to the Commonwealth Games 1500m title in Auckland that year and broke the indoor world record for the distance. But injury pushed the crowning glory of Olympic or world championship gold beyond his grasp.

Elliott, a silver medallist at 800m in the 1987 world championships and at 1500m in the 1988 Olympic Games, has been a non-runner, in international terms at least, for five years now. At 34 his personal ambitions have shifted from the medal ceremony to the graduation ceremony. The former British Steel joiner is studying for a degree in physiotherapy. "At least I know all about injuries," he reasoned.

British athletics, sadly, is in need of therapy that would prove beyond even the qualified powers of one of its former standard-bearers. But Elliott's part in helping to fill the void left by Coe, Cram, Steve Ovett and himself is nevertheless significant. Mayock, at 26, has established himself as Britain's best middle-distance man since the fab four. And Elliott's good counsel will ensure he does not settle for second best.

That much was clear last Sunday, when Mayock finished fourth in the 3,000m in the Bupa grand prix meeting at the National Indoor Arena. He broke Rob Denmark's British record, clocking 7min 43.31sec, but was more than six seconds behind the victorious Moses Kiptanui. Elliott was not impressed. "John ran a very bad race," he said. "Kiptanui and the two Moroccans in the race started off at four-minute-mile pace, which John is capable of sustaining, but he let them go and settled for winning what was really a 'B' race within the race. He didn't start closing them down until the final 800m. I said, 'All right, you've broken the British record but you could have broken it by a lot more.' I would have liked to have seen John take them on."

Mayock took the point as well as the record. "I should have gone with Kiptanui and the Moroccans," he said. "I probably would have ended up with 7:40 or 7:41. Pete Watson said the same thing. It's fair comment. They know what shape I'm in and they expect me to do well."

Mayock will get his chance to atone in the world indoor championships, which open in Paris on Friday. He lines up in the 3,000m, the event in which he collected a European indoor silver medal five years ago, and knows he will have to be at his best even to challenge for a medal in a field that will include Kiptanui and Haile Gebrselassie, who last week broke the 13-minute barrier for 5,000m indoors. "I've been in the best form of my life this winter," Mayock said. "It would be nice to get a medal."

It would be even nicer if Mayock returned from the outdoor world championships in Athens this summer with a medal. The Olympic silver Elliott won behind Peter Rono in Seoul nine years ago is the most recent earned by a British 1500m man in either Olympics or world championships. Mayock, who shares his South Yorkshire roots not just with Elliott but with Coe and Alan Simpson, respectively Britain's fastest milers of the 1990s, 1970s and 1960s, already boasts a Commonwealth 1500m bronze medal from three years ago. He still has some ground to catch up, however, on Noureddine Morceli and Hicham El Gerroudj, the clear leaders of the world's miling pack.

"The biggest problem John has," Mayock's training partner-turned-mentor said, "is that he doesn't believe in himself enough. Last Sunday's race was a classic case. He's got to get up there at the front and mix it." Just like Peter Elliott used to, the man himself might have added.