Athletics: Richardson ready to win recognition

Mike Rowbottom meets the 400m man with plenty to prove in Lille
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Mark Richardson's career has had more than its fair share of bad moments. His latest came three weeks ago at Loughborough University where, as a former student, he was due to race over 200 metres.

Many old college friends were there to watch him; his father, who had travelled up from Maidenhead, had got himself nicely settled in front of the pavilion. And Richardson had just decided against running.

A combination of a cold wind and a stiff calf persuaded him that he could not risk injury, especially as the team for the Europa Cup was being announced the following day. After consulting grimly with his coach, Martin Watkins, he addressed himself to the awkward job in hand. "Now I've got some apologies to make," he said.

For all the embarrassment, it was a decision which this hugely talented 22-year-old had to make. Having returned to fitness this year after two ruined seasons, caution is now second nature to him.

His name duly appeared as Britain's 400m representative the next day, and this weekend in Lille he has the chance - finally - to earn the attention that his abilities deserve.

Last month at Dijon, in his first outdoor race for two years, he ran 44.92sec, lifting himself to fourth in the United Kingdom all-time rankings. Even though runners are not supposed to watch the clock, Richardson could not resist it as he approached the line. "I proved a lot to myself that day," he said.

Back home, Watkins, who has coached Richardson since 1990, heard about the performance on his mobile phone while on a golf course. "I had just had the best game of golf in my life," Watkins recalled, "and then I got some wonderful news." He went straight round to the Richardson family home in Maidenhead and watched a video recording of the race. Twelve times.

Now that Richardson appears to have put his injury behind him - he consolidated his form with a win in Crete earlier this month in 45.35 - he has felt able to survey the British 400m scene with some equanimity. Roger Black and Du'Aine Ladejo are running well, but David Grindley, the national record holder, is only now returning to the track after missing all of last season with Achilles tendon injuries.

"It's been unfortunate for David," Richardson said. "I've been through it too and I know how it feels." Five years ago, Black used almost exactly the same words in reference to his major rival, Derek Redmond. New 400m runners arrive, but the longest sprint of all continues to have a brutal effect on its exponents.

Richardson, who indicated his potential with a world age best of 46.43sec when he was 16, lost almost the entire summer in 1993 with what were diagnosed as muscle injuries in his leg and back. He reached last year's European Indoor Championships, but he was still running in pain and his season ended there. Suddenly he had plenty of time to study for his sports science degree and contribute regularly to the sporting columns of the Maidenhead Advertiser and the Bucks and Berks Observer.

In cruel parallel, Ladejo, whom Richardson had beaten earlier in the season, won the title in style and went on to secure the outdoor title for Britain in Helsinki. Everything Richardson might have wanted - and it was all happening to someone whom he felt he could beat. "It was heart- rending watching Du'Aine in Helsinki," Richardson said. "I was sitting in front of the television, thinking 'if only, if only...'"

By that time, however, Richardson had already endured his lowest point. "The worst thing for me after the Indoor Championships was that I knew I had another serious problem, but I didn't know what it was."

He soon found out, after an MRI scan involving a sequence of 20 X-rays disclosed the prime cause of his continuing discomfort: a stress fracture of the pelvis.

"I was told I needed three months of complete rest from sport and intensive physiotherapy," Richardson recalled. "I actually had to wise up to how bad the situation was. But it was a relief to find out. I had been trying to train in the way I'd heard the top American and other British guys had been. Now I have reverted to the training I did as a junior."

Throughout the past three years, Richardson has received particular support from Redmond. The two have in common outstanding natural talent and outstandingly bad luck with injury, although Richardson will hope fervently not to be tormented for years as Redmond has been with a succession of Achilles tendon problems.

"Derek has always said that we have similar running styles," Richardson said. "We empathise with each other. He was one of the first people to ring me when I broke 46 seconds, and he did the same thing when I ran 44.92."

If his race today goes as he hopes and deserves, another congratulatory call from Redmond will be in order.