Athletics: Smith sets sights on summit: Mike Rowbottom talks to the promising high jumper whose fledgling career has advanced in leaps and bounds

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FOR high jumpers, the annual meeting at Wuppertal in Germany is not to be missed. Theirs is the only event on the programme, which means they have the full attention of knowledgeable spectators who create an atmosphere as intimate as a theatre as they pack round the jumping area. The jumpers themselves perform, like ice skaters, to their own choice of music from a mobile disco. It is just up Steve Smith's street.

Britain's world junior champion, who has spent the last year living up to his pugnacious predictions, had a suitably combative choice of music when he competed just over a week ago - the 'War Fanfare' from Rocky IV. He was inspired to a height of 2.36m, a centimetre below his best, and enough to put him top of this year's world rankings alongside Germany's Ralph Sonn, who won the Wuppertal meeting on countback of jumps failed. Before he left the arena, Smith had a crack at jumping 2.40; from the landing pit he looked up to see the bar tremble and, finally, fall.

'I was well over,' he said. 'I just came down on it. I'll get it next time.' Smith has done enough in a short career for such an avowal to be taken seriously. At 19, there will be plenty of next times for an athlete who has had the experience of an Olympic final - painful as it was - and who finished last season top of the world rankings.

Smith's coach, Mike Holmes, has described the approach of this Liverpool athlete as almost one of arrogance. 'He has no fear of the bar. It is one of his greatest assets. He always believes that he knocks off the bar only by accident.'

Smith is happy to agree. 'You have got to have the mentality to think that wherever the bar's put, you are going to clear it. That's the difference between being a good jumper and being a great one.'

There is no doubt which category Smith is aiming for. His confidence, he says, is simply something he was born with - 'I think I'm a very lucky person.' But it is not the brittle confidence of a young man for whom nothing has yet gone wrong. Only last year his indoor season was wrecked by an ankle injury. Come the summer, he found himself jumping 2.06 in a British League match, and then 2.11 at an international match in Norway.

'I began to wonder if I would ever jump well again,' he said. '2.30 seemed a very long way off.' However, after a three-week break, and an injection to the injury, he jumped 2.24 at a meeting in Loughborough and his season was properly underway.

It may have ended in triumph a month later at the world junior championships in Seoul, but before that he had to cope with the chagrin of finishing 12th in the Olympic final, having gone well over at 2.34 on his last attempt only to brush the bar off with his heel. Had he cleared it, he would have won the silver medal; the gold, which went to Javier Sotomayor of Cuba, came for the same height.

Since then, Smith has studied a recording of that effort with a horrified fascination. 'To have won a silver medal at 19 would really have set me up,' he said. 'It was easily my worst moment in athletics.'

His best soon followed, prompting Primo Nebiolo, president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, to ring his counterpart on the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, to boast that his high jump champion had gone three centimetres higher than the Olympic champion.

Following that will take some doing, but Smith, who jumps in today's Great Britain v United States international at Birmingham's indoor arena, is concentrating his mind towards the task. He recently deferred a sports science degree that he was taking at Loughborough University along with Brendan Reilly, Britain's other highly promising high jumper.

'If I wasn't an athlete, student life would be absolutely brilliant,' he said. But an athlete he is, and the lure of the campus bar - 'I'm the sort of person who is very easily tempted' - was beginning to prove too great a distraction. There was also the problem of fitting in study. He hopes to return for the next academic year; but his life is not going to get less demanding. He is realising that he has reached a significant level in his sport.

Smith has come a long way since, as a gangling youngster, he won the English under-15 title despite not having a coach. The world class jumpers who used to offer friendly advice are more circumspect now. Patrick Sjoberg, the European and former world record holder, has invited Smith to train with him in Spain this summer. But there have been one or two others who have regarded the ginger-haired kid from West Derby as an upstart.

That was one reason why jumping 2.36 the other week was crucial to him. 'It was such a relief. I thought, 'Thank God for that.' I'd shown that jumping 2.37 was no fluke, and that I really could be the best in the world (the record is 2.44m). For the rest of the season I've got nothing to prove. I can relax now. And that's when the high heights are going to come. I said I would break the world record in two years, but now I'm thinking, why not this year?'

And as far as breaking 2.40 is concerned, Smith is thinking why not today. 'It is definitely on at Birmingham,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)