Athletics: Robb comes on strong

Simon O'Hagan talks to Britain's 800m contender profiting from a bold approach
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The Independent Online
RECENT events in athletics may have given the impression that it has more prima donnas than a first night at La Scala. But in Liverpool last Thursday, it was possible to witness the side to the sport that its defenders would argue reflects it more accurately: homely, egalitarian, and, dare one say it, innocent.

The Wavertree Athletics Centre, to the south of the city centre, consists of a running track, an infield, a solitary stand, and the Liverpool Harriers clubhouse, where groups of youngsters were getting ready to go out to train. There is a tuck shop and, at one end of the track, a bank of rough grass where onlookers reclined in the evening sun.

Into this scene of utilitarian charm steps the tall, shaven- headed figure of Curtis Robb, Britain's leading 800m runner, who this week leaves for Gothenburg in the belief, shared by his coach Ernie Gallagher, that he can improve on his fourth place in the last world championships in Stuttgart.

That would be quite an achievement after the two years Robb has had since then. A knee injury put him out of contention for the European Championships and Commonwealth Games in 1994, and after a good winter's training his progress this year has been disrupted by a virus. He has only had three proper races - Gallagher thinks seven are needed before big championships - and his best time of 1:46.35 is way off his personal best, set in 1993, of 1:44.89.

The opposition is formidable - it includes a host of Kenyans of whom Wilson Kipketer, now running for Denmark, ran the fourth best time ever of 1:42.87 in Monte Carlo on Monday night.

"I would think Kipketer is about the only one certain to reach the final," Gallagher said. "But after that it's seven out of about 12. Getting through will be difficult. Curtis will probably need to run a short 1:45 or even a 1:44 in the heats. But if he gets through, he'll have as good a chance as any." Robb, just 23, thinks he is stronger now than ever. "I feel very confident," he said.

Robb grew up a 10-minute run from Wavertree - 10 minutes for him, that is - and has trained there since he was a boy. He supports Liverpool and remembers, with a mixture of pride and chagrin, being beaten at cross- country by the Anfield winger Steve McManaman when they were at primary school. "One of my old teachers keeps reminding me," Robb said.

Gallagher, a 69-year-old retired schoolmaster, has been Robb's coach since he was 14. "He was what you might call an intermittent trainer," the kindly, soft-spoken Gallagher said. "He came up when it suited him. He got reasonable results, but I used to say to him, 'If you settled down and did some real training, you'd be very good.' "

Once Robb began to try, he fulfilled Gallagher's prediction. His bold approach helped him reach the Barcelona Olympics final in 1992, where he finished sixth. In the world championships the following year, he came of age in a rough-house of a semi-final which ended with the American Johnny Gray accusing Robb of elbowing him from the race.

"The trouble is it's the shortest distance that's not run in lanes," Robb said. "And in that race it was just the fact that it was fast for the first 200 and then everyone came together. You were bound to have something going on. But it's more like leaning on people than really going out to give them a shove. Otherwise you're going to get disqualified. I suppose there's a bit of a code of practice, really."

The other practice on Robb's mind is of the general variety as he nears the end of his medical studies at Sheffield University. Many people have advised him to choose between his studies or his athletics, but Gallagher is not one of them. "I've always said that if he thinks he can do both, he should try." For Robb, medicine has always been his priority, a calling which grew after he found himself caught up in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. But he is making a concession to next year's Olympics by delaying his final exams until 1997.

For the independent-minded Robb, there is another prospect that appeals to him: that of helping run the sport he loves. "It needs a big shake- up," he said, referring to this season's controversies. The Colin Jackson affair baffled him.

He believes that the national selection policy is one area that needs improving. "Athletes shouldn't be being asked to prove their fitness. And there should be more done to keep talent in the sport and to look after people when they're injured. You can disappear for months on end and nobody from the Federation even rings you up." No doubt the phone will start going if Robb returns triumphant from Gothenburg.