Athletics: Richardson out to master his mentor

Roger Black's pre-eminence as Britain's top 400 metres runner is under threat from his protege. By Mike Rowbottom

MARK RICHARDSON does not exactly come across as a monster. Thoughtful, articulate, talented - these are the words you would readily ascribe to the 25-year-old sports science graduate who will travel to St Petersburg this weekend as Britain's choice for the European Cup 400 metres.

But on the day the team was named last week, Richardson was referred to by Roger Black as the monster he had helped to create. Britain's team captain, naturally, was jesting, but there was an identifiable element of chagrin as he described the progress Richardson has made since they began training together two years ago.

The 400m is Britain's boom event, bursting with talent - apart from Richardson and Black, there are the two Welshmen who have joined them to take successive relay silvers at the Olympic Games and World Championships, Iwan Thomas and Jamie Baluch. All four, to varying degrees, have proved themselves capable of making an impact in the individual event.

However, while Thomas burned most brightly last year, earning the title of Britain's Athlete of the Year after lowering Black's UK record, Black himself believes that Richardson is the man most likely to be become the first Briton to break 44 seconds for the event.

Black believes that the 400m has changed fundamentally with the domination of Michael Johnson, who became the first man to win both the 200 and 400m at the Olympics in Atlanta two years ago. "Now to be an outstanding 400m runner you have to be a great sprinter," Black said.

"There is no doubt that Mark is a great sprinter, but the weakness he has had in the past has been his lack of strength. He doesn't have that weakness anymore. Now he has it all. More fool me."

A few years ago, such an alliance between rivals would have been unthinkable. But with Black, now 32 determined to retire this year after a 12-year career which has brought him Olympic and world silver medals and European and Commonwealth titles, the emphasis has shifted.

"The relationship is perfect," said Richardson, who approached Black following the Atlanta Olympics having decided to move on from the guiding influence of his coach, Martin Watkins.

"Martin was a really valuable part of my development and it was an amicable split," Richardson said. "But these are exciting times for me. The arrangement between Roger and myself works well because we are at very different stages. He is in the twilight of his career, although obviously he wants to sign off by winning the European title for a third time, but he has his Olympic silver and that was an enormous satisfaction to him. I am still up and coming in the event, still very hungry".

So eager was Richardson to prepare for this season's campaign that he cut short his planned six-week break. "I rang my sprint coach, Tony Lester, and told him I couldn't tolerate it any more. I wanted to get out on to the track".

Richardson readily confirms that there is a sense in which Black feels he is passing on the torch. "Most definitely. Roger has been so generous in passing on the knowledge he has gained. I have learned so much in the last two years and I hope that he will advise me for the rest of my career. There is no edge between us. We are kindred spirits. But we are both still confident we can beat each other."

That matter is likely to be settled conclusively at the European Championships in Budapest later this summer. But 10 days ago, Richardson demonstrated outstanding early season form with a clear victory over his mentor in Helsinki, recording 44.53sec - just 0.06 sec off the personal best he set in finishing fourth at last year's World Championships. The performance established him as more than half a second faster than any of his British rivals at this time of year, settling any doubts over who was worth an individual place in St Petersburg.

It was all the more remarkable for the fact that Richardson was still recovering from whiplash injuries he had sustained in a car crash two days earlier. The only good thing about the incident was that it occurred outside the home of his massage therapist, Mark Zambada.

It was just another blip in the career of an athlete who has suffered more than his fair share of injury and ill fortune, albeit it that he competes in an event which is notorious for its brutal demands on protagonists.

Richardson indicated his huge potential at 16 when he set a world age best of 46.43, but his ambitions were curtailed by injuries - he missed the 1989 season, and then lost most of the 1993 and 1994 summer seasons with what turned out to be a fractured hip. In that time he saw two new talents emerge to earn glory - David Grindley, his rival from junior days, and Du'Aine Ladejo, who won European indoor and outdoor titles in 1994.

"It was heart-rending watching Du'Aine winning the outdoor title in 1994," Richardson said. "I was sitting in front of the television, thinking 'if only'."

Two years later there was more frustration for him as his performance in the Olympic trials was undermined by an untimely bout of food poisoning he had suffered two weeks earlier. Running a personal best just two weeks later was a bitter-sweet achievement after missing out on an individual place.

That sequence of events and a lingering sense that he did not receive his due for last year's performance in Athens makes Richardson's ambition burn brightly.

"I don't think I have had enough respect," he said. "It is very important to me. This season I want to win the European title and I also think it's possible, if I get into a very fast race, to beat 44 seconds."

Illness and injury permitting, Richardson seems ready to explore new territory in the next three months.

n Injury has robbed Britain of two of their leading field event exponents for the European Cup - the pole vaulter Nick Buckfield and the high jumper Steve Smith. Michael Edwards and Ben Challenger are the replacements.

THE TOUGHEST SPRINT IN THE WORLD

THE 400 metres has a reputation for pushing its protagonists to the limits. Here are four Britons who have found the going hard.

DEREK REDMOND: UK record holder at 19. Missed 1986 Commonwealth Games, 1988 Olympics and 1990 through injury. Pulled his hamstring in 1992 Olympic semi-final. That finished his career.

ROGER BLACK: Now 32, he won the 1986 Commonwealth and European titles, but missed 1988 and most of 1989 with a foot injury and in 1993 had viral infection. Had operations on knees before and after 1996 Olympics. Last season was undermined by another viral problem.

DU'AINE LADEJO: Won the 1994 European indoor and outdoor titles, but niggling injuries took the edge off his form the following year and again caused him disappointment at the 1996 Olympics. He switched to the decathlon, but his progress in that sphere has also been checked by injuries.

DAVID GRINDLEY: At 19 he set UK record of 44.47sec in the 1992 Olympic semi-final. The following year he won the Grand Prix title, but he missed the World Championships with a calf injury. Missed 1994 season with Achilles tendon and calf injuries from which he has never fully recovered.

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