Athletics: Grindley tries to maximise chances of success in Stuttgart: Mike Rowbottom on the strategy adopted by a British 400 metres runner with World Championship ambitions

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IT WAS Roger Black - now, alas, laid low by a demoralising post-viral condition - who was pondering earlier this season on the propensity of British 400 metres runners to be very good, very young.

Black was just 20 when he won the Commonwealth and European titles in 1986. Fifteen years earlier, David Jenkins had won the European Championships from the outside lane at the age of 19. Last year the impact over one lap came from another 19-year-old who travelled to the Olympics as third choice in the event behind Black and Derek Redmond and returned as a finalist and national record holder - David Grindley.

Arriving is one thing. Staying is another. Black, who missed nearly two years with foot and ankle problems, could tell Grindley all about the problems that can involve. As could Redmond, another prodigious young British record breaker whose career in the last six years has been punctuated by so many operations on his Achilles tendons that after a recent one he jokingly suggested to the surgeon that he fit a zip in.

Grindley's success last year came off the back of a lot of preparation and not much racing. This year has been different, as he has attempted to simulate the requirements of heats, semi- final and final which this summer's World Championships will make on him. Last Saturday's 400m in Oslo, where he kept in touch with the two leading runners this year, Michael Johnson and Butch Reynolds, to finish third, was his fourth in the space of eight days.

After competing in both the individual and relay events at the Great Britain v United States match in Edinburgh, he ran with staggering assurance at Lausanne, defeating a field which included the Olympic bronze medallist and the world champion with enough to spare to stage his own anticipatory celebration 25m from the line.

That startling moment, a mixture of high spirits and assertion, indicated Grindley's potential in the most memorable way. 'I was enjoying myself so much,' he said. 'Especially on the last turn where I was really in control.'

Having cruised through the line in 44.53sec, his British record of 44.47, and perhaps the European mark of 44.33, seemed up for grabs at Oslo. But a cold wind, and a small, nagging pain in his left knee, obliged him to postpone the fulfilment of that particular ambition.

The problem with his knee - an inflammation behind the tendon - had been troubling him for three weeks before Oslo, and after a week of training interspersed with physiotherapy he decided yesterday not to risk competing in this weekend's combined AAA Championships and world championship trials, where he was down to do the 200m. It may turn out to be his best decision of the season.

Grindley has come a long way in a short time. In the aftermath of his record run in Barcelona, he confessed that if anybody had pushed him with their little finger in the last 50m he would have fallen over, because he was simply trying to hang on.

In less than a year, however, that gauche figure who feared he would not look the part in the Olympics has become a hardened racer. 'I used to run scared,' he said. 'Last season I just got dragged around with the field. Now I've got a more confident approach. I know I can run my own race.'

For that new confidence to thrive, he requires the basic criterion of race fitness as he seeks a medal in Stuttgart next month. 'All the action starts in the championships,' he said. 'It doesn't much matter what times you run in the races beforehand. Once you get into that kind of cauldron, things are different.'

There will have been pressure on him to turn out at the trials in Birmingham this weekend as one of Britain's six European Cup winners. But his decision is the right one viewed from a longer perspective.

'One of the main things my coach, Chris Butler, and my manager, Vicente Modahl, say to me is that I have to careful about over-racing,' he said. 'I'm still pretty new on the scene.'

Like all competitors in the stressful single-lap event, which produces a higher level of lactic acid in the blood afterwards than any other, he has a history of injuries, ranging from a hamstring tear this Easter to stress fractures of both feet and a fractured wrist - the latter, admittedly, stemming from a motorbike accident while on holiday in Corfu.

Sometimes fate intervenes whatever precautions you take. But Grindley's is too great a talent to be dragged down by a small injury that is allowed to become a big one. 'I just don't want it to develop into anything serious,' he said.

One pictures Black and Redmond nodding their heads in agreement and support.

(Photograph omitted)