Athletics: Richardson searching for the right answers: 400 metre man ready to start tapping bio-mechanical potential. Mike Rowbottom reports

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The Independent Online
EVERYBODY in life faces problems, and Mark Richardson, who will seek a 400 metres medal at this weekend's European Indoor Championships, is no exception.

Here is one problem he was set on Tuesday: 'Is sports science giving the right answers to aspiring international athletes?'

This particular intellectual challenge arose as part of Richardson's degree course in sports science and recreation management at Loughborough University. 'It is an alarming paradox,' he said.

'Because sports science is helping people legally to make the most of their bio-mechanical and physiological capabilities. But it is also helping people to succeed illegally through means such as anabolic steroids and human growth hormones.'

At 21, Richardson is an unusually thoughtful and articulate athlete. The essay question he was set by Loughborough's legendary middle distance coach, George Gandy, holds a certain irony for him. Richardson's bio-mechanical capabilities, hugely promising, have yet to be fully realised because of a depressing sequence of injuries.

At 16, Richardson was a potential world beater. In the World Junior Championships of 1988, competing against runners two years older than himself, he finished fourth, clocking a world record for a 16-year-old of 46.43sec in the semi-final.

Domestically he was the No 1, consistently beating David Grindley, the current British record- holder. But then the performances began to be interrupted by injuries.

The 1989 season was a write-off. In 1991 he was world junior bronze medallist and European junior silver medallist and the following year, after running a personal best of 45.09 at Crystal Palace, he picked up an Olympic bronze - he ran in the 4 x 400m heats - and a silver at the World Cup in Havana.

That performance - in which he finished ahead of the reigning European indoor champion, Slobodan Brankovic - indicated that he was ready to break through. But 1993 was laid waste for him by back and knee injuries.

He tried to hurry things to get fit for the world championship trials. He finished out of the qualifying places in 46.4. 'The time was quite good considering how much time I'd had to get fit,' he said. 'But it was not the level I would have been at if I had been fit.'

By the time of the World Championships in Stuttgart, he was reduced to the status of a frustrated television viewer. 'It was unbelievably disheartening,' he said. 'I saw people I had beaten indoors out there running marvellously well. I was just sitting at home wondering, if only, if only I'd been fit. It is not a good way to live.'

This season he is proceeding with caution - 'I will be quite satisfied to break 45 seconds outdoors,' he said. 'I have seen the harsh side of athletics, and I don't want to be too greedy.'

But he has no need to be humble either. He goes to Paris as the fastest European runner indoors this season - he ran 46.11 at Glasgow in January to win in the match with Russia. One of his main rivals in Paris, Britain's Du'Aine Ladejo, was in second place.

'I am looking for a medal in Paris. And if everything goes well I'm in with a chance of winning,' he said. 'In broader terms, my main aim this season is to stay injury-free. There is no point in hanging around. I have got to show the world that Mark Richardson is back.'

The Paris Bercy stadium on Sunday night would be a good start. If Richardson can hit his stride unhindered, he can claim his first senior international title.