Athletics: Lewis-Francis' 2004 race odyssey

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AUGUST IS traditionally a testing time for athletes, when their efforts and aspiration are weighed in the balance. For Britain's most promising young sprinter since - well, ever - the same holds true. But for Mark Lewis-Francis, next month is when he gets his GCSE results.

At 16, this schoolboy from Darlaston, in West Bromwich, has established himself as a prodigious new talent in an event where Britain is increasingly well served.

Following Linford Christie's retirement - sort of - in 1997, a new generation of 100 metres runners has surfaced. Already this season a 21-year-old, Dwain Chambers, and a 23-year-old, Jason Gardener, have dipped below the magical mark of 10.00sec. And others, such as Marlon Devonish, the European champion Darren Campbell and the world junior 100m and 200m champion Christian Malcolm are not far behind. But before very long, young Mr Lewis-Francis will be breathing down their necks.

Having rewritten the record books ever since he was taken to the Birchfield Harriers track at the age of five by his father, Lewis-Francis has started to run times which already have his elders looking nervously over their shoulders. Earlier this year he reduced his 60m best to 6.69sec, and at the AAA Under-20 Championships two weeks ago he won the 100m in 10.38sec - the fastest-ever time by a 16-year-old European. Christie, Britain's former world and Olympic champion, was not running that fast until he reached 26.

This weekend Lewis-Francis is part of a strong British team competing at the inaugural International Amateur Athletic Federation World Youth Games in Bydgoszcz in Poland. He is a strong medal contender in the 100m which gets under way tomorrow, despite the fact that, in what is an under- 18s championship, he competes against athletes considerably older than himself.

The Birchfield Harrier, however, is already experienced in racing against senior opposition - he beat Malcolm over 60m last year - and he has been heartened by the fact that the hamstring twinge which forced him to pull out of the 100m final at last weekend's English Schools Championships is not troubling him any more.

"I have just been running flat out and it's all right," he said yesterday, having arrived in Bydgoszcz at 2.30am following a four-hour bus journey. "Everything's looking good, and I'm looking for the gold here."

That will be far from a formality - on paper, he faces German and Japanese opponents who have run as fast or faster than him. But Lewis-Francis has an extra incentive to do well after the disappointment of last weekend's schools championship.

"All the teachers from my school came down to Bury St Edmunds specially to watch me," he said. "So it was really frustrating not to be able to run. I want to make up for that here."

Lewis-Francis has drawn encouragement from this season's exploits by his elder rivals. "It's great for Britain, and it makes me more determined to get to that standard myself," he said.

The media attention he has received since his 10.38sec run - he has appeared on television news and even made the Radio One news bulletin last week - is something he has relished. "It's a big, big experience for me," he said.

This season's exploits by the likes of Gardener and Chambers have done nothing to detract from his enthusiasm. "It's great for Britain, and it makes me even more determined to get to that standard myself," he said. "If I make the relay team for the 2000 Olympics it will be a bonus. The 2004 Olympic Games are going to be my Olympics..."

There's a long way to go until those Games in Athens. But if Lewis-Francis, who is being nursed along by experienced coaches in Tony Hadley and Steve Platt, can maintain his learning curve, then watch out world.