Athletics: Smith contented with quiet achievement: One American sprinter overshadowed by celebrated opponents has built a successful career on a unique technique

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THEY tried to make Calvin Smith run properly at college. It didn't work. So he had to settle for breaking the world record for 100 metres and becoming a double world champion at 200 metres.

In comparison with the technical excellence of Carl Lewis's style, Smith's rolling, head-back-and-race approach to his sport looks like another form of exercise.

Needless to say, it comes naturally to him. But at the University of Alabama in the early 1980's, it seemed even more natural to the coaches there to try and smooth out an distinctive technique which had already brought Smith considerable success at high school level.

'We concentrated on more forward lean,' Smith recalled. 'I do it in practice, but when I got into competition. . .' The experiment was soon dropped. 'The mechanical, Lewis- type of style is the one most people try and get their athletes to run,' Smith added. 'But it can possibly hinder some runners.'

Since he trusted his instinct again, Smith has flourished consistently. At 32, he is of the same generation as Lewis, who is the same age, and Linford Christie, who is a year older. Sprinters used to retire early, but the current pre-eminence of the thirtysomethings is a testimony to the commercial opportunities which the sport now offers. Last night's pounds 200,000 100 metres challenge in Gateshead, in which all three took part, being a choice example.

Smith is at the opposite extreme from Lewis in more than technique. While the bemedalled world champion has raced sparingly throughout his career - his manager, Joe Douglas, estimated this week that he had averaged only 12 individual outdoor races per season since 1980 - Smith has thrived on a busy schedule.

When he won his second world 200 metres title at Rome in 1987, overtaking Britain's John Regis a metre before the line after a leg injury had slowed his running round the bend, it was his 22nd sub-20.70sec race of the year.

What has kept Smith running is a training programme which he has supervised himself for the last 10 years comprising far more endurance work than Lewis would even care to think about.

'I do a whole lot of distance-type work, running two and three miles at a time, before I get into my speedwork,' he says. 'That covers me for a long type of season. I don't feel any old-age fatigue at this time. I believe I can carry on running for at least another year.'

If Smith manages that, it will mean he has been at the top level for a remarkable span of 15 years. He made his name in 1983, when he set a world 100 metres record of 9.93sec at altitude, then took his first world 200 metres title before winning at both distances on the same evening at the Zurich Grand Prix with times of 9.97sec and 19.89.

His tape of that Zurich meeting hs been watched many times. One of the fetures which ensures its lasting appeal, you fancy, is the fact that the 200 metres field included Lewis.

It is clear that Smith is not overly fond of his compatriot. 'I wouldn't say I dislike Carl but there are things about him that I dislike. He wouldn't be considered one of the runners that I would admire. If I had made more noise and talked about other athletes I'm sure more attention would have come my way. But I am happy with my career and the things I have achieved.'

(Photograph omitted)