Athletics: Robb in the running again

Simon Turnbull follows a three-year comeback trail
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The Independent Online
CURTIS ROBB has made a notable comeback once before. When he was two and suffering from meningitis his heart stopped beating. After two despairing minutes for his parents it started again. Twenty-five years later, it is his career as an international middle-distance runner that Robb is attempting to revive.

Three years after he last competed for Great Britain, in the 800m semi- finals at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, the Liverpool Harrier who once seemed the natural successor to Ovett, Coe, Cram and Elliott is making up for lost time. With a handful of low-key early-season races behind him, not to mention three years of injury problems, Robb is preparing to step back into the spotlight at the World Championship trials meeting in Birmingham on 23-25 July.

"I've been out so long it's just nice to be involved again," he said, reluctant to be drawn on the subject of targets. But Robb's return could not have been better timed for British middle- distance running, which slumped to a new nadir at the European Cup a fortnight ago with Andy Hart a distant seventh in the 800m and John Mayock a hugely disappointing fourth in the 1,500m.

The days when great British middle-distance men challenged for global honours seem long gone now. It is six years since a male Briton came close to an 800m or 1,500m medal at the outdoor World Championships or the Olympics: when Robb finished fourth in the World Championship 800m final in Stuttgart in 1993. The personal best he clocked in his semi-final, 1min 44.92sec, remains the most recent sub- 1:45 performance by a Briton.

"Running 1:44 again would be nice," Robb mused. "I'd be delighted with that. But at the moment I'm just happy that I'm running confidently again." That confidence was evident when Robb returned to the European circuit last night in the Grand Prix II meeting at the Nep Stadion in Budapest. Third place in 1:46.79, 0.65sec behind Assane Diallo of Senegal and 0.30sec behind Grant Cremer of Australia, represented an encouraging step for an athlete who started the season with just one race on his competitive cv - an 800m victory in the British universities indoor championships in February 1997 - since the Atlanta Olympics.

Robb is grateful to Gerard Hartmann, a physical therapist based in Limerick, for putting him on the recovery road after pelvic and Achilles problems. "The Achilles still niggles," he said, "but I'm quite pleased with the way I've been able to manage. I'm doing up to two hours each day of exercises. I couldn't get any better now."

Hartmann has gained a reputation for saving seemingly lost careers - those of Liz McColgan and Kelly Holmes included. But injury has not been the only threat to the 27-year-old Robb fulfilling the potential he showed when he won the Bislett Games junior 800m in Oslo in 1991, ahead of Wilson Kipketer, who has since become the world champion and world record holder, and Vjebjorn Rodal, who has since become the Olympic champion. His international career might have also been lost, ironically enough, to the medical profession.

Having graduated with a degree in medicine from Sheffield University and served a year as a junior doctor, however, he has put his medical ambitions on hold, deferring a place on a three-year postgraduate surgical course he had been due to start last August. "I'm back in Liverpool now, living with my parents and training full time," he said. "I wanted to see if my legs would take the training and I'm delighted that they have. I've asked for another year off, to take me up to the Olympics, and that's been granted too."

Time has moved on for middle-distance running since 6 May 1954, when Roger Bannister spent his morning immersed in his studies at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington before spending his evening, or 3min 59.4sec of it, making sporting history.

"It might be just about possible to combine the medical studies with the running today," Robb pondered. "But you wouldn't have time for anything else in your life. You'd have to be a sad git." And the affable Robb is no sad case - happily for British athletics.