Athletics: Smith soars back to the high ground

Simon Turnbull says Sydney is calling Britain's leading leaper
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The Independent Online
AS STEVE SMITH walked back to the competitors' bench next to the high jump area at Gateshead Stadium last Sunday his rivals bowed down before him in homage. It was a poignant moment for the Liverpool Harrier who has risen Lazarus-like from a hospital bed to the top of the world rankings in 12 months. Smith arrived on Tyneside sensing his high-jumping colleagues no longer considered him a threat. "I could see it in their faces," he said. Suddenly, after one jump in the CGU Classic, they were not worthy.

"That gesture meant a lot," Smith admitted, "because I had to sit watching them on television, thinking `I'm the man' but not being able to do anything about it. Once upon a time I was a special athlete and then I got injured, was out for a while, and suddenly I was an average athlete. Now I think I've shown people that I'm a special athlete again. I'm back among the elite and I can't explain what a massive, massive relief it is."

The height to which Smith soared at Gateshead a week ago was a massive 2.36m: the best high-jump performance in the world this year, the Liverpudlian's best outdoors for six years and just 1cm short of his outdoor British record (he has jumped 2.38m indoors). It was only natural that the relief he felt was massive too. With that one mighty clearance Smith left behind the psychological baggage he had been carrying for 10 days short of a year - since last 7 July, when he landed awkwardly on his neck and suffered a prolapsed disc in a practice jump at the Wavertree Athletics Centre in Liverpool.

The Olympic bronze medallist has long since tired of telling his tale of woe: of the 20 minutes he spent in agony on the high-jump bed waiting for paramedic assistance; of the 10 days he spent on his back in the Liverpool Royal Hospital, four of them in a neck brace; of the fears that he might not compete again; and of how his personal problems were put into perspective by the plight of fellow patients such as the man next to him whose final memory before dying was of "some poor simple soul, a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic, stumbling into the ward at 4am and pissing all over his stuff."

"I really don't want to dwell on it all any more," Smith said, drawing a final line on his troubled past. "I'm sick of talking about it. It's become a cliche. I'm sick of reading about the Steve Smith injury story. What I want to read about is the Steve Smith great performance story."

Unfortunately, there was no great performance to write home about from Smith in Paris yesterday. After clearing 2.28m in the Stade de France, he withdrew from the high-jump competition in the Gaz de France meeting "as a precaution" because of a pain in his right foot. "Things can turn around fast in athletics," he mused. "You get massive ups and downs. The great thing about my jump at Gateshead is that I have set my stall out. I said, `yeah, I'm back'."

Twelve months after his career hung in the balance, Smith is certainly back on course for a third shot at Olympic glory. His first was off target (12th place in Barcelona as a teenager in 1992) but he finished on the rostrum in Atlanta in 1996, taking the bronze medal behind the American Charles Austin and the Pole Artur Partyka, and clearly has gold in his sights for Sydney.

"Sydney has always been the main target," he said. "This year for me was just about getting back to this sort of level again. It's not about the world championships in Seville in August. It's about the Olympics in Sydney. That's what matters. Everything else is a stepping stone. Seville will be a stepping stone, just like Gateshead. It's been a long time since I've been fighting with the medallists. That's where I need to get back to. Then I can concentrate on going for the right colour medal."

Concentration is something Smith has found easier since making the decision to uproot from his beloved Liverpool as he planned his athletic rehabilitation last winter. He now lives and trains in Birmingham under the guidance of Tudor Bidder, the British team coach responsible for jumps. "I'm more disciplined about my athletics now," Smith said. "I've always had the motivation and the dedication but Tudor's channelled that and made things far more structured for me.

"The move has made me hungry too because I don't want to be in Birmingham. I want to be in Liverpool. All my friends are in Liverpool and all my family are in Liverpool. But I have to be in Birmingham because Tudor is based there. You make these sacrifices and it makes you more and more hungry. Of all the jumpers out there no one's more hungry than me."

Smith's hunger for success has already won him, at the age of 26, medals from every major championship - world bronze in 1993, European and Commonwealth silver in 1994 and Olympic bronze in 1996. But his appetite for more has been further sharpened by the role of non-competing British team captain he agreed to play while recovering from his training track accident last summer.

"It was a frustrating time for me," he reflected. "I want to inspire people by what I did in competition rather than by what I say in a team talk. I want to lead by example." And, having gone from the depths of despair to the top of the world, there could be no finer example than the inspirational Mr Smith.