Athletics: Jackson rediscovers his pride

Wales' top hurdler, still the 110 metres world record holder, has recovered his hunger for competition and predicts success in the two major titles to elude him.
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The Independent Online
TWO MAJOR titles have eluded Colin Jackson in his 12-year international career - but don't worry, he has them in his sights. "One I'm going to pick up in three weeks' time," he says with a chuckle. "The other one I'm going to pick up in 19 months."

Jackson's prediction of success at next month's World Indoor Championships and next year's Olympics would have constituted a clear case of wishful thinking had it been made a couple of years ago. But now, you could picture it happening. At the age of 31 - 32 next Thursday - he has rediscovered the intensity which once established him as the world's greatest high hurdler.

While his friend and erstwhile business partner, Linford Christie, is enjoying an open-ended excursion from the retirement he announced two years ago, Jackson, who runs over 60m hurdles in tomorrow's Bupa Indoor Grand Prix at Birmingham, has never physically absented himself from the competitive arena. In mental terms, however, he has made a major comeback after what he refers to with uncharacteristic sombreness as his "dark years".

He spent much of 1995 embroiled in an acrimonious pay row involving the British Athletic Federation and Nuff Respect, the management group he founded with Christie. Jackson, who claimed he had been lectured "like a schoolboy" by the BAF executive chairman, Peter Radford, vowed never to run in any domestic meetings while Radford was still in his job. He missed the 1995 World Championships, claiming that the Federation had given him insufficient leeway to prove his fitness after a bout of tonsillitis.

The following year was scarcely better, as he finished fourth in the Olympic Games, hampered by a knee injury that was only cured by a cartilage operation in September 1997.

"I basically couldn't be bothered," he recalled. "It was just after the battle with the Federation, and my body was starting to crack up. I thought: `Dear God, just tell me, what is the point?' I had no pleasure in performing well. My pride had been shattered."

Retirement seemed logical. But before accepting that, Jackson - who set the current 110m hurdles world record of 12.91sec six years ago - decided to make one last attempt to prove a point, as much to himself as anyone else. The testing ground was Athens, for the 1997 World Championships.

"Coming fourth or fifth in major championships was no good for a world record holder," he said. "I thought that if I couldn't actually win a medal at these championships I should consider my future in the sport."

Against all expectation, he won silver behind the American who has dominated the event in the last three years, Allen Johnson. "That was a big thing for me. When Allen saw how I was running in the heats, he apparently said `Oh dear. Colin's back.' "

With pride in his performance restored, Jackson set about cutting his ties with Nuff Respect, which he felt was draining his time, and moving to Bath to restore closer links with the coach who had guided him since junior days, Malcolm Arnold.

"Malcolm makes at least half-a-second's difference to my time," Jackson said. "He notices all the technical problems, and he's always looking for perfection. It forces you to concentrate when you know he's there hounding you."

Last August, Jackson earned the third European title of his career in a time of 13.02sec before deciding to run in a lucrative Japanese meeting the following month rather than seeking a hat-trick of Commonwealth victories.

"I didn't need another Commonwealth title in my head," he said, adding that he half expected the ferocious criticism his decision generated in Wales.

But he still feels hurt by the reaction. "People forget a lot," he said. "For instance, Roger Black missed the 1994 Commonwealth Games and ran in Rieti. I thought to myself, `Jesus, is it only me they pick on?' "

Jackson, however, is concerned with what he regards as the bigger picture - his return to the level he reached in his World Championship year, 1993.

Part of his motivation stems from a desire to show the training group he works with, athletes such as Allison Curbishley, Tatum Nelson and the 21-year-old fellow hurdler Ross Baillie, the power of mental application.

"I want to show people what Colin Jackson is made of," he said. "I want to inspire other athletes, particularly those in my group, that you can have bad years but you can always come back - if you put your mind to it."

Jackson takes a pride in passing on his experience to his younger charges, not least in being ultra-cautious about taking any substances to enhance performance. "I take creatine - it's something that works very well for me. But anything I take is checked first by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, and I get a certificate back. If you make one mistake it can have huge consequences."

Baillie will join Jackson in Maebashi, Japan, next month as the Welshman seeks the world indoor title he would have had in Toronto in 1993 had it not been for the flying start allowed to Canada's Mark McKoy.

Jackson's anger in Munich last weekend, when he was frustrated by a similarly blatant flyer from Germany's Falk Balser, provided ample evidence of an athlete who cares desperately about his performance - very far from the disillusioned figure of 1996.

As he homes in on next month's target, his intention at the National Indoor Arena tomorrow is to beat the meeting record of 7.38sec. His own record, presumably? "Yeah." So, final question. Is he in similar form this year to last? He replies in the negative. "No, no, no," he says. "Much better."