Athletics: Glittering return of glory days

World Athletics Championships: From Johnson to Macey, Seville has staged moments to savour
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The Independent Online
IT IS the athletes' changing area in the bowels of the Estadio Olimpico on Thursday night. Michael Johnson enters, steered past the screaming media scrum by a man who was rejected in a former life by Alex Ferguson. The Aberdeen manager of 18 years ago was doing Brad Hunt a favour when he showed him the front door at Pittodrie. The American, a failed goalkeeping triallist with Fergie's Dons in 1981, is now a manager himself. He looks after the man with the Midas feet.

Johnson places his shoes on a bench. They are gold in more ways than one. Thanks to Hunt, and to his own special powers as the Superman of track and field, Johnson gets pounds 2m a year for wearing them. He also gets a team researching to Nasa space-launch lengths to keep him running out of this world.

"We have an advanced projects team researching new materials to make Michael's shoes as good as we can get them," Simon Taylor said. "The upper part of Michael's shoe, for instance, is parachute nylon." No wonder the Texan Superman was flying on Thursday night.

Taylor, a former 800m runner with Sunderland Harriers, is international product line manager at Nike's headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. Tony Bignell, a former miler with Boxhill Harriers, is another Briton on the team that develops then designs Johnson's shoes to his personal specifications. "They're only made for Michael," Taylor said, "and they're not built with durability in mind. He might wear them for only one race. They're the world's fastest slippers, you could say."

Johnson eased off his golden slippers at roughly the spot where Dean Macey had stood in bog standard racing spikes some 24 hours previously. "Shoe deal?" the Essex boy who came second had said. "No. I haven't got one. I've just been wearing what I've got." Reebok in the 400m, Nike in the pole vault, Adidas in the discus, Asics in the 1,500m, Macey could have made a mint as a changing billboard through the 10 events of the decathlon in the Estadio Olimpico. If he'd had a manager, that is.

But, then, Macey arrived in Seville with nothing to manage. No income, except for an overdue Lottery grant cheque. No sponsors. And no public profile. Tomas Dvorak, the world-record holder who was mightily relieved to take the gold medal ahead of him, didn't even know who he was. "He thought I was Dmitri Markov, the Australian pole vaulter with bleached blond hair," Macey chuckled.

He could even have been Alf Tupper. For Macey's story was torn straight from the comic book pages. Come to mention it, the Tough of the Track did nothing as fantastic as the Tough of the Track and Field did over the course of two riveting days here last week.

His right ankle bandaged, his right elbow strapped, his left foot held together by a titanium plate, his shoulder aching from a recent dislocation, his left hamstring threatening to snap at any minute, the former lifeguard who shares a bedroom with his 13-year-old brother on Canvey Island burst on to the international scene as not so much a breath as a hurricane of fresh air. He laughed when the established guard of the decathlon tried to give him the frosty, psych-out treatment.

He kept going into the changing-room, in between events, just to "mess about and wind them up". He kept going when his ankle jarred in the long jump, when his pole snapped in the pole vault and when he was stuck at the hotel as the javelin competition was about to begin.

If Johnson's 43.18sec 400m world record has been the performance of these World Championships, with Hicham El Guerrouj's breathtaking 1,500m win not far behind, Macey's takes the Oscar for best supporting role hands down. In one fell swoop the nerveless, disarmingly affable 6ft 5in 151/2st giant of a 21-year-old has emerged as the world's greatest all-round athlete in the making.

"I just want to show a few people there's a new kid on the block," he said in these pages five weeks ago. With a silver medal and 8,556 points in the bag, Macey is now talking, and not unreasonably, of Olympic gold and world records. "It's incredible," Paula Radcliffe said. "I had heard of Dean when I came out here but I couldn't have told you what he looked like."

Not that Macey has been the only British athlete to have played a starring role in Sevilla '99. Colin Jackson's smoothly executed high hurdles win ended a four-year wait for a British world champion, but all that has glittered in Great Britain vests has not been gold. In taking the 100m bronze medal behind Greene and Bruny Surin, Dwain Chambers became the youngest ever medallist in the event, breaking Ato Boldon's record by 70 days. Like Macey, the Londoner is only 21. His best is yet to come.

The same can be said of the 25-year-old Radcliffe, who may have been beaten by Gete Wami in the 10,000m final but whose inspirational attacking run could hardly be described as a defeat. It earned the British women's team captain her first major championship track medal and a time, 30min 27.13sec, that happens to be 13 seconds quicker than the men's world record Paavo Nurmi set in Stockholm in 1921.

The Bedford girl has made it up there with the all-time greats. And she intends to get quicker, like Michael Johnson, with new technology. She is planning to buy a special tent to sleep in which simulates the conditions of high altitude. "The trouble is there's not much room in it and I'm getting married in April," she chuckled. There's not much of Radcliffe either, as David Hemery observed in the British team hotel on Friday morning.

"How on earth," the president of UK Athletics pondered, "do you get such a big heart into such a small body?"