Athletics: Regis powers back from the wasteland

Simon Turnbull finds sprinting's old head is ready for new heights
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JOHN REGIS' first sporting love affair ended in rejection on the banks of the Tyne in November 1984. The sprinting powerhouse, who will be challenging for the 200m title at the world indoor championships in Maebashi, Japan, next weekend, spent four weeks attempting to make his muscular presence felt as a teenage trialist with Newcastle United. "Arthur Cox was the manager," he recalled, "and I can remember playing against Kevin Keegan and Terry McDermott in training. I didn't do too badly. But I was a charging right winger and they were looking for a Kenny Dalglish, someone with a bit more subtlety."

Instead of providing wing power for the Magpies, and following in the stud-marks of his cousin Cyrille, Regis has spent his professional sporting life in the fast lanes. There were those who thought his days as a world-class sprinter were over when he spent the best part of two years off the international map after being knocked out in the Olympic 200m semi-finals in 1996. But the Londoner with the outhouse build and the panther-like pace has made the doubting Thomases think again. When he blasted off the final bend in the National Indoor Arena two weeks ago, leaving Kevin Little, the reigning world indoor champion, a stunned also- ran in the Bupa Games 200m, the resurgent Regis was not just back to his best. He was on top of the world too.

Regis has since dropped to fourth place in the world rankings but his winning time in Birmingham - 20.50sec, a mere two-hundredths of a second slower than his lifetime best indoors - stands as tangible proof that he is a force to be reckoned with again. At 32, he heads for Maebashi, after a final sharpener in Sindelfingen, Germany, this afternoon, as one of Britain's golden shots.

"If people only knew how tough it's been to get back to world-class," he said. "I always knew myself that I had it in me. But until you actually do it you still think that you're yesterday's man. It's good to cross the line first and show the young guys that you haven't gone away. All those people who think they're over the hill at 32 shouldn't believe it. It's all lies.

"People have been talking about me hanging up my spikes, but I won't be doing that for a long time. I'm enjoying my athletics again and when that happens I run well. I've got to thank my coaches, Clarence Callender and Donovan Reid, for their help. They've done a tremendous job for me."

It was evident that Regis was regaining form under the joint guidance of his two former training partners and rivals (Callender finished sixth in the Commonwealth 100m final in 1986; Reid was seventh in the Olympic 100m final in 1984) when he re-emerged on the international scene at the end of the 1998 outdoor season. Back in training for just four months following an Achilles tendon injury, he was a surprise 200m bronze medallist at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, behind Julian Golding and Christian Malcolm. He has returned to find British 200m running in a thriving condition, with a Commonwealth champion in the 24-year-old Golding, a world junior champion in the 19-year-old Malcolm and a European champion in the 25- year-old Doug Walker. There has never been such a wealth of British 200m talent. But, then, there has never been a British 200m runner as talented as John Regis.

That he has not been given due credit for his mastery of the event has probably been due to Linford Christie's board-sweeping success at 100m. Christie has a full set of major championship gold medals: Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth. Regis has only collected a European title, in Split in 1990, though he did win the world indoor 200m crown in Budapest in 1989 and has twice had a tantalising sniff of world championship gold outdoors. He led the 1987 final in Rome for 195m before the American Calvin Smith and the Frenchman Gilles Queneherve flashed past him. And he was ahead for more than three-quarters of the 1993 final in Stuttgart, before he was obliged to settle for a silver-medal, behind Frankie Fredericks but ahead of Carl Lewis.

Just as Christie is the only Briton who has broken 10 seconds for 100m, though, Regis is the one British sprinter who has dipped under 20 seconds for 200m. Indeed, he is the only European who has done so at sea-level, with the 19.94sec he clocked in Stuttgart. The continental record, Pietro Mennea's 19.72 sec, was achieved in the thin air of high altitude - in Mexico City in 1979. So was Regis's British record: the 19.87sec he recorded ahead of Fredericks in the Italian Alps at Sestriere five years ago.

Whether the 14st 10lb Belgrave Harrier can smash through the 20 seconds barrier again remains to be seen. For the time being, though, he is a heavyweight contender for the 200m crown at the world indoor championships, which run from Friday to Sunday.

Of the other challengers, the American holder is likely to pose the most serious threat. Little recovered from his Birmingham defeat to knock Regis off the top of the world rankings last Sunday, running 20.44sec in Lievin.

But Britain's vintage speed merchant has regained his taste for success. "I'm like a fine wine," Regis mused. "When I was younger people said I was nice and sweet. But now I'm nicer and sweeter."