Athletics: Home at last for the travelling man

Simon Turnbull catches Bob Weir on a rare visit to his Midlands roots
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The Independent Online
It was just another day for Bob Weir, discus-thrower, globe-trotter, and unsung hero of the European-conquering British men's track and field team. It had started in Austria; the previous night he had thrown 61.62 metres for sixth place in the Zipfer Gugl meeting in Linz. By 10am he was at Heathrow, and three hours later he plonked down his kit back in the Dennis Howell Suite at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham. "Yes, the travelling does make me tired," he said. "I'm usually fine for the first day and then I'm in trouble."

It was probably just as well for Birchfield Harriers that the British League meeting at Solihull eight days ago fell within the day's grace for their loyal long-distance servant. After 22 hours of assorted travel from San Francisco, Weir arrived three minutes before the start of the discus. With his second throw, he broke his own league record. "My performance in Linz," he said, "was probably last weekend's travel catching up with me."

As he spoke, Birchfield's travelling man had two times displayed on his wrist-watch. "I need to know, for instance," he said, glancing at his twin-set timepiece, "that it's 5.30am right now in California because I need to keep in touch with work." Work happens to be Stanford University, the celebrated seat of learning at Palo Alto on San Francisco Bay. "Tiger Woods and John McEnroe went there," Weir said, "and President Clinton's daughter is going there." Whether Chelsea Clinton will require tutelage from the Brummie throws coach in Stanford's track and field department remains to be seen. "I don't think so," he said, chuckling at the prospect.

Weir has spent the past 17 of his 36 years studying or working in North America. He lives in San Fransisco with his Canadian wife, Kim, and their children, Robert, six, and Gillian, four. But, looking out at the Perry Barr traffic, he said emphatically: "This is my home." The Handsworth boy will be on home ground this afternoon, competing in the World Championship Trials at the Alexander Stadium. His place in the British team has already been effectively assured, but the process of formally qualifying for Athens could reasonably be expected to be as disorientating for Weir as his transatlantic lifestyle.

He happens to be the only member of the British men's team from the inaugural World Championships still in the international arena. He competed in the qualifying round of the hammer in Helsinki in 1983, when Daley Thompson and Steve Cram struck gold for Britain. Surely, the veteran campaigner must feel like a survivor from another era. "Not really," he said, in his gentle Brummie-American brogue. "You still hear of those athletes and their accomplishments. It's not as though they've disappeared completely and are not mentioned. To the athletes coming through now it is a different era, but it's not to me."

Weir was the Commonwealth hammer champion back in 1982 and reached the finals of both the discus and the hammer at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. But then, having graduated from Southern Methodist University in Texas, he left his athletics career in suspension for nine years. "I had always planned to go to the Los Angeles Olympics and then to do something else," he recalled. That something else was American football. As a 20- stone defensive lineman, Weir had trials with the San Francisco '49ers and the Indianapolis Colts. "I've been credited with one season in the NFL but I only played in exhibition games. I ended up playing most of my career in Canada."

Since being persuaded back into track and field - by the late Howard Payne, another Birchfield Harrier and Commonwealth hammer champion - Weir has steadily eclipsed his discus-throwing deeds of old. He won a bronze medal in the 1994 Commonwealth Games and the second place he secured in the European Cup last month, behind Lars Riedel, the German world and Olympic champion, was as vital to the British men's team's success as Rob Hough's unexpected steeplechase win. Then, on the eve of his dash to Solihull, came confirmation that he has found the form of his life.

At Los Gatos on 3 July he threw 64.42m, further than Bill Tancred's 23- year-old British record (64.32m). Weir, however, does not consider himself British record holder. He points to two marks that were never officially ratified: 65.16m by Richard Slaney, Mary Decker's husband, at Eugene in 1985, and 64.94m by Tancred at Loughborough in 1974. "As far as I'm concerned, the British record is the longest throw outright," he said. "That's what I'm really interested in. All I've got, for now, is a personal best. But I feel there's a lot more to come. Based on the way things have been going, I think I will get over the 65 metres mark this year."

Getting over the jet leg might be a different proposition for Birchfield's San Franciscan.