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Athletics: Life is tougher in Baulch's fun zone

The pin-up boy of British athletics supplements his teen-dream image with a new-found determination.
THEY USED to scream for Roger Black. Now they scream for Jamie Baulch. Wacky hair, cheeky grin, little legs going nineteen to the dozen. Cute.

The object of so much teen and pre-teen affection would be the perfect signing for Gazza's agent, Mel Stein, who has moved into athletics recently by taking on young talents such as sprinter, Jason Gardener, and heart- throb high jumper, Ben Challenger.

But Baulch is already spoken for - a member of the Nuff Respect agency jointly set up by Colin Jackson and Linford Christie and a fully paid up member of Team Linford, the training group directed by the former Olympic 100 metres champion.

Baulch has referred to Christie as "the big daddy coach", and, like the newly established European 100m champion Darren Campbell, he has benefited from the paternalistic approach of one of Britain's greatest athletes.

What Baulch is attempting to do now is to come fully of age as he seeks his first big individual title at his specialist distance of 400 metres. Starting on Friday, at the IAAD World Indoor Championships in Maebashi, Japan, he seeks to improve upon the silver medal he won two years ago in Paris.

At the age of 25, Baulch is still trying to achieve the level of consistency which has established his Welsh colleague, old rival and near-contemporary Iwan Thomas as Britain's No 1 400m runner.

So far this season his indoor record could not have been better - four consecutive wins on the European circuit, including one over the man who beat him to gold in Paris, Sunday Bada of Nigeria.

"I feel totally differently about these championships," he said. "Two years ago I had raced a lot more beforehand and I felt people were putting pressure on me to win. This year I am a lot more relaxed and ready to enjoy myself."

Enjoyment is something Baulch always manages to communicate when he appears on or around a track. It is a crucial part of what he does.

"A lot of athletes at this level make everything seem so serious," he explains. "At the end of the day, they have all started in the sport because they love running or jumping or throwing. But once they get good at it they forget that. It is so important to have fun."

The most obvious manifestation of this personal priority is Baulch's hair, which, in the space of the last five years has been bleached and styled relentlessly. His most dramatic effort was what appeared to be a tribute to "Wildman" Keith Flint - as the tabloids prefer to call him - lead singer with Prodigy. But Baulch knew nothing about old Firestarter before he had his hair done at Junior's salon in Newport. He just fancied the look.

"I always like to come out with a new style. Short back and sides ain't for me," he said. His current tonsorial arrangement is a two-tone, brown and blond affair - "Quite boring, actually." Junior can expect another visit soon.

The fun factor also evidenced itself in Energize, a Saturday morning ITV prog- ramme Baulch hosted, which featured a range of "extreme" sports including waterskiing, quad biking, go-karting and, according to Baulch, "general craziness". He adds blithely: "I do it all. There's nothing really dangerous."

Black did not allow himself even to ski or play tennis until he retired for fear of injury. Baulch's approach is more rumbustious - what you might expect, in fact, from a former schoolboy trampoline champion.

His performance at last September's Commonwealth Games, where he laughed and joked with Thomas as both qualified easily for the final, appeared to be another classic example of Baulch's lighthearted approach.

But the joking masked a new-found determination for a runner whose season had been undermined by injury and then a debilitating virus which left as mysteriously as it had arrived. Baulch was forced to miss last February's European indoor championships, and although he ran the AAA trials in July, he ended up in tears after failing to gain an individual place for the European Championships.

It was his worst year as a competitor - and it brought home to him the precarious nature of his calling. "Athletics is a very harsh world," he said. "I watched the European indoors on television, and there was not one mention of me when they showed the 400m, even though I had been second in the world the year before.

"People forget you very easily. But things like that inspire me. I thought, `OK, if people want to choose to forget me I'll make people remember again quickly.'"

Being in the relay team, he acknowledges, helped him through a difficult year as he added gold medals in the European Cup and European Championship to the silver he had taken with Black, Thomas and Mark Richardson at the Atlanta Olympics - the highlight of his career thus far.

But he was aware of the need to re-establish himself in the public eye, if nothing else, before the season's end. "By the time the Commonwealths came around, I almost felt I had to prove myself," he said.

A sub-45 second time as he had a lark with Thomas indicated his true quality as a one lap runner, although disappointment lay ahead in the final, where he missed out on a medal as his disrupted preparations finally told on him.

Overall, however, he was satisfied that he had made an impact. "I was pleased to have performed well even though I was less than 100 per cent fit," he said.

Baulch will be the only one from Christie's training group who will travel over from their current training base in Australia to compete in the world indoors. He believes his journey will not be in vain.

His winning time at the Bupa grand prix in Birmingham earlier this month, on the eve of his departure Down Under, was 45.60sec - not so far away from his 1997 personal best of 45.39. But he derived at least as much encouragement from the reaction of the 8,500 sell-out crowd.

"I was almost scared by the roar when my name was announced," he said. "A couple of years ago it would only have been my parents clapping. I went weak at the knees, to be honest."

The feeling, in many cases, is mutual. Rejoice! British athletics' love object is back in the running!