Athletics: One-track mind of a one-lap wonder

European Cup: Richardson takes the lonesome road to Paris as his 400m rivals fall by the wayside

WHEN MARK RICHARDSON approached the finish line in the Petrovsky Stadium 12 months ago he could afford to stroll the last few metres, putting the relay baton to his lips and puffing on it like a victory cigar. "I don't think it'll be the same this year," the Churchillian anchor man mused, looking back on the comfortable 4 x 400m win that clinched the European Cup for the British men's team in St Petersburg and looking forward to the defence of the trophy in Paris next weekend. "The 4 x 400 is going to be tough for us this time. There's no doubt about that."

Some fear Britain will not be half as good in the traditional finale to the two-day competition. They will certainly have only half the team which prevailed so convincingly in St Petersburg. Roger Black will be in the commentary box in the Stade Charlety, having run his final competitive lap 11 months ago. And Iwan Thomas will be on a physiotherapist's treatment table back home, his entire season more likely than not hamstrung by an ankle injury.

After eight years battling to become the best of Britain's one-lap wonders, suddenly Richardson is out in front on his own. Jamie Baulch, even as the recently-crowned world indoor champion, and Solomon Wariso, the man who hastened Black into retirement last summer, are some way behind the Briton the Americans rate as the second best 400m runner in the world. It must be a beguiling position for Richardson to find himself in, having spent so long in Black's shadow and having been eclipsed so acutely by Thomas last summer.

The 26-year-old star of the Windsor, Slough and Eton club was actually Britain's fastest 400m man in 1998, twice equalling Black's English record, 44.37sec. He also won the one 400m race Michael Johnson lost, at the Bislett Games in Oslo - only the American's second defeat at the distance in nine years. But when the gold medals were up for grabs at the European Championships in Budapest and at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur it was Thomas who snatched them. Richardson had to settle for European bronze and Commonwealth silver. He had to watch and applaud, empty-handed, while his rival picked up the end-of-season Athlete of the Year awards. And he will have to do so again when Thomas collects the MBE he was awarded in the Queen's birthday honours list yesterday.

"I've just had to accept it," Richardson reflected. "Iwan won the races that mattered last year so fair play to him. He's deserved the rewards he's got. It's a shame he's injured now. It's been fortunate for me having Iwan around. He may have been my nemesis but the competition between us has taken us both on to another level."

With or without Thomas, the level Richardson wants to get on to this summer is the world championship medal podium in Seville. For all the talk of Britain's great 400m tradition no British one-lap runner has struck gold at world level - in a global outdoor senior event - since Eric Liddell's blazing chariot rumbled to Olympic victory at the Stade Colombes in Paris 75 years ago. Only two Britons have even won medals since then: Godfrey Brown, runner-up in the 1936 Olympic final, and Black, who was second in the 1991 world championships and in the 1996 Olympics.

"Is that right?" Richardson said. "I didn't know that. A world championship medal would be fantastic. That's the benchmark of our sport: winning medals at the world championships and the Olympics."

Richardson does, in fact, possess a world championship gold medal. Back in 1991, as a 19-year-old, he was a member of the British relay squad that won the 4 x 400m in Tokyo. He was not a member of the final quartet but, having run in the semi-finals, he still collected a gold medal. "I don't really count that, to be honest," he said. "I didn't even run in the final."

Richardson has run in two world championship 400m finals. In Gothenburg in 1995 he finished fifth and in Athens two years ago he was fourth, missing a medal by a mere 0.08 sec. He has not yet, though, fully realised the potential he showed 10 years ago when he set a world age-best time as a 16-year-old, 46.53sec. Since graduating to senior level he has yet to break the British record, though the 44.36sec Thomas clocked in the world championship trials two years ago is likely to be at his mercy this summer.

Thomas Schonlebe's 12-year-old European record, 44.33sec, is also beckoning on Richardson's horizon. The 44 seconds barrier is more distant but Black has predicted that his former training partner will be the first European to break it. "He certainly has all the attributes," Black said. And he should know.

"I've created a monster," Black famously remarked when his training group protege started leaving him in his wake early last summer and, in his retirement, he is still helping fashion Richardson into the fearsome finished article. "Roger's always there for me at the end of a phone," Richardson said. "He's part of my team."

Not that Richardson needed to consult his illustrious adviser before deciding to adjust his approach to the 1999 season. Having left his best form on the early-season grand prix circuit last year, he has committed himself to a reduced programme this summer and delayed the switch from speed-endurance to speed-sharpening in training. He still ran encouragingly enough in his opening race a fortnight ago, clocking 45.27sec for second place in the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene. Johnson was a clear winner in 44.51.

"The only time I got close to Michael was when I shook his hands after the race," Richardson said. "But I'm not too disappointed about that because we're on different agendas at the moment. He's got to be sharp for the American trials at the end of this month and our trials are not until the end of July. I'm looking for a more progressive build-up this season. My run in Eugene was still virtually on a par with my first run last season so everything's fine."

This afternoon Richardson will be back on the track in Nuremburg and his schedule also includes the Gateshead Classic on 27 June. In between, he will be battling for Britain in Paris next weekend - as a leading member of the men's team challenging for a third consecutive European Cup win, a fourth in total. Richardson believes they can complete the hat-trick, even without the ailing Thomas, the retired Black and the absent Colin Jackson. "We've still got a strong team," he maintained. "We're confident of doing it."

This time, though, the 4 x 400m anchor man will probably have to be smoking - in the metaphorical sense, that is - all the way through the line.

PARIS MATCH: FOUR WHO CAN MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE FOR BRITAIN

DWAIN CHAMBERS

100m: After the selectors' controversial decision to ask Colin Jackson to double up last year, Chambers is only the second British sprinter to contest the European Cup 100m since 1985, when Lincoln Asquith ran. Linford Christie is, of course, the other. He won all eight of his 100m races in the competition and the British team will need maximum points from Chambers on an opening day likely to yield just one other individual victory (Mark Richardson in the 400m). Chambers, the 21-year-old Belgrave Harrier, can deliver, having emerged from winter training with improved strength to match his speed.

JULIAN GOLDING

200m: While Doug Walker waits to discover the outcome of the inquiry into his failed drugs test, the formerly flying Scotsman's 200m crown will be up for grabs in Paris. Walker's stunning win last year played a crucial role in Britain's success and Golding is capable of following in his victorious spikemarks. Indeed, the 24-year-old Blackheath Harrier has already clocked 20.20sec this summer, a time that only three Britons have ever bettered - John Regis (19.87), Linford Christie (20.09) and Golding himself, who recorded 20.18 when winning the Commonwealth title in Kuala Lumpur last September.

STEVE BACKLEY

Javelin: It was on his European Cup debut at Gateshead 10 years ago that Backley made his big breakthrough, beating Jan Zelezny. His Czech rival is back in action following a shoulder injury but the great Briton will have to contend with other throwers who have shown better form so far this summer: The Russian Sergey Makarov, Aki Parvianen of Finland, Kostas Gastoudis of Greece and one from the German trio Peter Blank, Boris Henry and Raymond Hecht. Having re-established himself as world No 1 last year, Backley will be anxious to make his mark. And Britain will want maximum points from him.

JUDY OAKES

Shot: Unlike their male counterparts, the women's team will not be travelling with genuine hopes of victory. They will, however, make at least one mark in the record books. Or, at least, Judy Oakes will. At the age of 41 the Croydon Harrier will be making her 11th appearance in the European Cup. Her first was in Helsinki in 1977 in a different athletics age. Valery Borzov and Irena Szewinska were still competing, not to mention Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. The extraordinary thing about the remarkable Oakes is that she has got better with age. She finished sixth back in 1977. Last year she was second.

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