Athletics: Richardson one lap from salvation

British 400 metres runner seeks a fresh start in Seville after a shattering disappointment in Budapest
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ATHLETICS IS the most brutal of sports. You win, or you lose. For all the occasional camaraderie, it is an individual sport where individuals stand or fall by their own efforts, where individuals put themselves on the line in every sense.

Mark Richardson has a bright, mobile face. But in Budapest last summer, in the aftermath of his failure to win the European 400 metres title, that face was replaced by a mask. Beneath it, a turmoil of emotion - frustration, regret, despair.

Less than two months earlier Richardson appeared to have all his ambitions within grasping distance. At the Oslo Grand Prix on 9 July he astounded the athletics world by beating the double Olympic champion Michael Johnson into third place. The 30-year-old American was not at peak fitness, but Richardson's performance in finishing ahead of him and his main British rival Iwan Thomas in a time of 44.37 seconds, just 0.01sec off the British record, promised even greater achievements.

What made that time even more impressive was that he ran it from Oslo's tightest of tight inside bends. Most athletics observers looked at that time and shaved at least a 10th of a second off it, taking the lane draw into account. Richardson, whose European season gets underway at Nuremberg tomorrow, made exactly the same calculation. He admitted yesterday that it was the first of a sequence of mistakes.

"For the rest of the grand prix season I was always expecting to gain those extra fractions of a second. It was almost as if I expected it, and in the end I just started trying too hard for the time," he said.

Most of Richardson's early season races after Oslo were preceded by announcements that he intended to despatch Thomas Schonlebe's 11-year-old European record of 44.33sec into oblivion. But somehow it did not happen.

As Richardson approached the European Championships he was still regarded as a strong possibility for gold even though he had been beaten in the trials by Thomas, in a race which marked the effective end of the career of Richardson's mentor, Roger Black.

With Black off the scene after 13 years at the top, the way seemed open for the man who he described, only half jokingly, as "a monster of my own making" to succeed him. But it was the Welshman, Thomas, who rose to the occasion in a season which saw him finish as European, Commonwealth and World Cup champion.

Thomas in turn has suffered his own traumatic reverse since then, sustaining a stress fracture while training in South Africa earlier this year which caused him to announce that he would not be able to run in this year's World Championship trials, and was therefore likely to miss the World Championships in Seville this August.

Whether Thomas makes what would be a miraculous recovery in time to compete or not, Richardson knows that his salvation as an athlete will lie in Seville. In his customary laid-back fashion, the 26-year-old from Windsor referred to 1998 as "quite a strange year". But even the characteristic sang froid of this Loughborough University sports science graduate could not hide the extent of his suffering in Budapest. I have had a number of setbacks in my career," he said. "I missed two years with injury before coming back in 1995, and I can remember the frustration of having to watch Roger [Black] and Du'Aine Ladejo running at the 1994 Europeans. But what I experienced in Budapest was the lowest of my low points."

That night he went out to dinner with his father, Ashton, and sister, Marsha, who were in Hungary to watch him, and other close friends such as Black and their training partner, the former World decathlon record holder, Daley Thompson. "Nobody pussy-footed around me," Richardson recalled yesterday. "They all told me that I couldn't leave the season there because it would always be a burden. The Commonwealth Games were only a month later and I had to go and exorcise my demons there.

"My confidence was absolutely shattered at the Europeans. I didn't put enough into running the rounds and by the time of the final my mental attitude was wrong. I had no reference point. It was a harsh lesson, but when I got to Kuala Lumpur - even though Iwan beat me again - I felt I could leave with my head held high. I did what I set out to do and I ran 44.6, so I couldn't feel too unhappy with that. I was just beaten by the better man on the day."

Richardson, who planned to ring Thomas and pass on his sympathy and support yesterday, was thus able to approach a World Championship year in a more stable frame of mind. Recently returned from a 10-week spell at his customary training base in California, he stresses that stability will be the key to his ambitions this season, with next weekend's European Cup in Paris, where he defends his 400m title, forming an important part of the preparation.

He will be racing less often this season, although he will take in an appearance at Gateshead next month, and plans to approach the state of fitness he demonstrated at Oslo last year more gradually.

He is still in regular contact with Black, having phoned him for advice while in California, and the continuing support of his coach, Tony Lester, and physio, Mark Zambada, combined to send him into the 1999 season with renewed confidence.

His first race of the season, in Eugene, California, on 30 May, saw him produce a time of 45.26sec in windy conditions. It was roughly on a par with his performance at the same stage of the 1998 season, a pointer, perhaps, to record-breaking performances later this summer. There was, however, a certain runner ahead of Richardson in Eugene - at the age of 31, Michael Johnson showed little sign of taking things easy. That is a problem which Richardson hopes to be in the right condition and frame of mind to solve in the hundred degree heat of Seville.