ATHLETICS: Mayock's middle ground

Norman Fox in Barcelona meets a runner who hopes to lead a British revival
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ALTHOUGH the World Indoor Athletics Championships have been denuded of outstanding competitors and embroiled in the business of whether Linford Christie would or would not run, it was possible to discern a glimmer of light in Britain's most embarrassing athletics situation of all.

This evening a determined young Yorkshireman called John Mayock could start to claw back his country's prestige in events that Britain - through Seb Coe, Steve Cram and Steve Ovett - dominated: the middle distances.

Mayock has reached the 3,000m final, an event that is neither fish nor fowl but at least shows he has endurance and some pace. Ideally, what he would like to do is emulate the fabulous three, but at least he wants to improve on the record of his mentor, Peter Elliott, whose success came too soon after the Coe-Ovett days to be properly acknowledged. With most of the world's leading middle-distance runners ignoring the indoor championships here, Mayock has a chance, and, with Linford Christie, Sally Gunnell and Colin Jackson all nearing retirement, the search for new stars is getting desperate.

Mayock has been promising a lot for some time and has even been projected as a potential 1996 Olympic medal winner. He surprisingly won silver in the European indoor championships 3,000m in 1992 and was a bronze medallist in the 1500m at last summer's Commonwealth Games. But he came to prominence at the World Student Games in Sheffield the year before. Coming from nearby Barnsley, he was keen to impress and did by winning the 5,000m. But since then he has floated in and out of the spotlight.

He works at the Staffs Polytechnic and goes training most weeks with Elliott. He remembers their early track sessions. "I wanted to use him as my benchmark but I couldn't because he was so often too fast for me." Not so now, but at 24 he urgently needs to show that his promise was not false.

His Commonwealth medal in Victoria might well have been the gold that Elliott (1990), Steve Cram (1982 and 1986), and Dave Moorcroft (1978) had won before. But he blundered tactically and admits it. "With 150m to go I got myself in a bad position. I was behind Chesang and Tanui and had to wait until it was too late to get myself out. But I learned from that."

The thought of recovering Britain's long-lost pride in the 1500m is not something he feels strongly about. "People think I should be running the 5,000m; that can wait. It's probably what I'll go for in Atlanta." His phlegmatic "take each race as it comes" attitude is typical of his character. "You can set your sights on things like the Olympics but it takes time to understand the tactics of any race."

Unlike a lot of British athletes who have tried and failed to follow Coe and the others to the top in middle distances, Mayock is convinced that "quality work" in training is much more important than mileage. Coe's secret was that he never believed that the building of stamina was more important than the ability to "fly" over the last 200 metres. Mayock would like to be the same but says he accepts that there was "something special" about Coe, especially his turn of speed when it mattered, which is exactly what Mayock is working on to copy.

The dilemma for middle- distance runners is whether high mileage in training can ever provide the athlete with the proper preparation for events in which speed is as important as stamina. "I know there are still runners around who do 100 miles a week, but I like to leave something left for improvement on the day." Not that he has ever been afraid of hard work; he was the English Schools cross-country champion in 1990, the year before he set 10 personal bests at five different distances. Since then, his career has suffered from a widespread assumption that middle-distance running in Britain is no longer important since most of the medals these days are won by sprinters and hurdlers.

Linford Christie's decision not to run here has brought about all manner of rumours, not least that he is running scared after a couple of defeats earlier this season. He gives no such impression but remains a champion who knows his value. A tiring winter season chasing fitness and further finance has left him slightly vulnerable and losing here was a slight risk not worth taking. That suggestion was not denied.