Athletics: Pride and the prejudicial starting positions

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The Independent Online
OF COURSE, Kris Akabusi didn't mind being beaten by Brian Whittle in last weekend's Masters Sprint.

Brian was his old mate, wasn't he? His old relay partner... All these years after retiring from top-class athletics, why would Akabusi, successful TV presenter, man with the trademark cackle - hold that hyena! - mind about not winning a race designed as no more than a light-hearted diversion during an afternoon's athletics at Gateshead?

Then again, perhaps he did mind. Because while he was his normal, manic self in the post-race interview, he made a point of mentioning - casually - that he felt the handicapper for the race had done his job too zealously on his behalf.

This was no Powderhall Sprint. Money was not in question, or jeopardy, but something beyond price was - pride. Even worse, the pride of men past their prime.

At 47, the former Olympic 100m champion Allan Wells was the oldest of the seven competitors, and required the biggest advantage. "There's no way we would have got him here if he'd been given a scratch-start," said one of the event organisers. "He didn't come here to get blown away."

Akabusi's old mate Daley Thompson also got his excuse in early - he'd just come back from holiday, where the only thing there was to do was eat and sleep, so there it was. The double Olympic decathlon champion had been beaten, but it wasn't a properly fit Daley. It was a Daley who had eaten all the pies.

For all the jostling camaraderie of the occasion, there was no hiding the vulnerability of the reputations on show for this little contrivance. And when it comes to his reputation, there is nothing your top-class sportsman appears ready to stop at to maintain its standing.

Akabusi, Thompson and Roger Black, the former 400m runner now working as a presenter for BBC Sport, used to play a lot of tennis during their regular training jaunts in California. After a couple of years the tennis had to stop, by mutual consent. They realised they were all trying so hard to win, throwing themselves about the court like lunatics, that they were risking serious injury.

This would have been far from the first instance of an athlete being injured while participating in another sport. At the peak of his fame, Britain's mile world record holder Steve Cram put himself out of the running for several weeks after kicking a Coke can he saw lying invitingly on the pavement. Steve Cram! You are not Sunderland's centre-forward!

Donovan Bailey, Canada's Olympic 100m champion, badly injured his Achilles tendon while playing basketball. Britain's former 400m record holder Derek Redmond did the same. Oi! You! Who do you think you are - Michael Jordan?

And the man who holds the British 400m record now, Iwan Thomas, once put himself out of action with a knee injury sustained during a warm weather training break when he took a penalty in a pick-up football game. There was a small consolation for Thomas, however - he scored. Even so - Oi! Iwan Thomas! Who do you think you are, Michael Owen?

How many times have you read or heard that such and such a sportsman is so naturally competitive that they can't bear losing at anything - not even tiddlywinks. I do wonder, by the by, how many top sportsmen have actually played tiddlywinks. But let's leave that aside for now.

It does seem that you can take a competitor out of the sport, but you can't take sport out of a competitor.

Midway through Alan Hansen's recent television portrait of Britain's best and brightest footballers, the former Liverpool and Scotland defender - a mad keen golfer now, wouldn't you know - visited Owen while he was relaxing in his local snooker club. Hansen, naturally, fancied himself as a bit of a snooker player as well as a golfer and ex-footballer. And Owen, gleefully, sunk the Scotsman's aspirations into the nearest pocket.

Did Liverpool's young forward look more pleased to have scored against Argentina in the World Cup in France? Only marginally. Owen was patently thrilled to have defeated the former Merseyside idol. Because a win is a win, whatever the sport.

The Gateshead Masters sprint was so popular that Thompson, Akabusi and co plan to do it all again later in the season. A quiet word to the handicapper: tread softly because you tread on their dreams.