Athletics: Solomon prospects for gold: Richard Williams meets the late developer dubbed the new Linford Christie

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The Independent Online
FOR YEARS, he'd finish a 200 metres race wondering why he'd come off the bend looking at six or seven vests stretched out in front of him, facing a lot of hard work on the home straight.

'Something's wrong here,' Solomon Wariso thought.

The horrendously gradual process of discovering the true nature of his problems didn't begin until one day in 1990, when he went out for a run on Parliament Hill, near his home in north London, and pulled a thigh muscle.

'After that,' he said last week, a few days after putting himself into the headlines by running a 200m race in Malaga in a time that would have put him in Europe's top six last year, 'I kept getting injured all the time.'

Sometimes at the most inconvenient moments. In 1991, at the World Student Games in Sheffield, he made the final. 'I came off the bend,' he remembered, 'and got a hernia. Daniel Effiong came second. John Drummond won it. I was in good company there.'

Even for the hernia, it took a while to get sorted out. 'It was misdiagnosed. They said it was just a bad groin strain. In fact it was a bilateral - a double hernia. A bad one. I still get pains there now.'

The 1992 Olympics were coming up. 'I had a chance of making the team. But the hernia was spotted in January, and the doctor told me to take six months off. They got me into the hospital quick and I had the operation in February. But then I think I tried to come back too soon. Everybody does in an Olympic year, don't they?'

Things got worse. At the World Indoor Championships in Toronto he got through to his semi-final, but he could feel something tugging in his thigh. 'After that, I was injured all year.' The problem wasn't the thigh, though. 'They discovered I've got scoliosis - a curved spine. It's bent towards the left, the whole thing. Because of that, the tendon was really sore. It was a hamstring injury caused by a deformed spine, but they'd been treating the hamstring and not the spine. Last year it got to the stage where I wasn't training. I was just competing.

'You see a lot of people with back injuries and hamstrings - it's from that. A lot of people have deformed spines, and if they don't do a lot of sport they can get by. But if you're running around the curve at 25 miles an hour plus, after a while it'll show up. That's why I could never really get going quick on the curve. I'd always come off the bend seventh or eighth, and then pull people in. And I was in agony every time I ran.'

His speed at the European Clubs Cup in Malaga last weekend, notching three personal bests while winning the 200m in 20.51sec and the 100m in 10.46sec, and running the anchor leg of the 400m relay for his club, Haringey, in 45.91sec, reminded people that no less a figure than Andy Norman had once described him as the next Linford Christie. And here he was, 27 years old, apparently on the brink of fulfilling the promise that many people thought had been blighted both by his history of injuries and by his own temperament.

'Obviously I think if I hadn't been injured all the time, I'd have made the breakthrough much sooner,' he said. But in an era when the first word that comes to a top athlete's mind is 'focus', Wariso is man notably free from the sort of tunnel vision that usually leads to medals.

He was born in Portsmouth, one of three children of a Nigerian couple who came to England in the Sixties and moved to Islington when Solomon was five. He ran at his prep school, St Aloysius's in Highgate, and at Finchley Catholic High School, and at the Polytechnic of Central London, where he graduated in bio-technology. His mother wanted him to be a doctor, but what he really liked to do, even more than running, was read and write.

'I was always good at writing at school. I won a few competitions. And after my A levels, I started writing for Sky magazine. I did a piece on drugs and sport, and one about genetic engineering. I've done something for Just 17, and a piece last month for FHM about future cities from an idea I got when I went to Tokyo a couple of years ago. Quite interesting. I read a lot. Just now I'm reading American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis. My girlfriend bought it for me.'

Yeucch, I said.

'Yeah, I know, but you've got to read it, though. I read a lot of comics. I collect them. I've got about 15 to 20 thousand. Really old and valuable ones as well. DC and Marvel, mostly. Mad magazine. And 2000AD, a British comic. I've got every single one of those. Nearly 900. I don't even read it any more, I don't have time, but I still buy it. I read mostly magazines and newspapers now. I like The Face. Before American Psycho, the last book I read was The Man in the High Tower, by Philip K Dick, about what would have happened if Germany and Japan had won the war. I didn't really like it.'

He's writing a book of his own now. 'Sci-fi. Screenplays, too. I've written a couple. One's called All Our Yesterdays - it's a cop story set 100 years from now, a Judge Dredd kind of thing, when Britain's part of a Euro megastate. I'm turning that into a book. The other one, Sweet Dreams of Escape, is about what would happen if the government created a race of superbeings. Jeremy Bolt at Impact Pictures, he's read them. He loved them. Only thing he said, they're a bit expensive. It's the special effects. About 40 million quid. He said they'd bankrupt the British film industry. But I'm writing another one now, for TV. I've done quite a bit of work for the BBC. Def 2, Reportage. They saw a piece I'd done for a magazine and they rang me up.'

It was becoming easy to see why, in adolescence, his attendance at training sessions had been less than guaranteed. His former coach, John Isaacs, with whom he worked from 1985 until last year in a group that included the likes of John Regis and his great friend Dalton Grant, used to have to come looking for him.

'When I was younger,' Wariso said, 'I just couldn't be bothered sometimes. I'd go missing for a few weeks, just stay at home. John Isaacs was having none of that. If I didn't turn up, he'd come round to my house. He kept telling me for years that I could be good. But I'm the sort of person . . . well, I'd turn up about five minutes before I was due to go off, touch my toes and say, right, I'm ready. I got away with it for a long time.'

Andy Norman used to shout at him, too, and Wariso is one of several black athletes whose opinion of the former British Athletic Federation promotions officer is more favourable than the conventional view. 'A lot of athletes like him, you know. He used to tell people I'd be quite good if only I'd sort myself out. And when I had the injury problem, the bills were mounting up. I rang up the board and they didn't really want to know, but Andy gave me pounds 800 just like that - snap. He's always been all right to me. So when he was having his own problems, I rang him up to have a chat.'

For Wariso, intensive treatment and the ministrations of a new coach, Michael Bruce, put him back on course, to the point where he is now exceeding his own expectations. 'I had a lot of traction last year. When my spine alleviated, I could run the bend better. People always said if I could put the two parts of the race together, the bend and the straight, I'd fly. I ran the first race this year, 21.23 into a headwind. Then 21.12 twice, 21.01 indoors against Russia and in the heat of the European indoors. In Malaga I had lane eight and it was quite a tasty field - 20.2, 20.3 men. So I said to myself, you can't hang about here. I ran a great bend, and a great straight as well. Both together. I knew I was in about 20.7, 20.8 shape. But 20.5 . . . well, I hoped I might be doing that by the end of the season. I certainly didn't expect to be doing it in May.'

The short-term goals include this summer's European Championships and Commonwealth Games. Further away there's Atlanta, and the Olympics.

So, I said, suppose you could have a choice in 1996: an Olympic gold medal, or an Oscar for best screenplay. Which would it be?

He laughed. 'I'll take the gold medal. Because you can always write after that, can't you? And people would listen to me more, if I had a gold medal in my pocket.'

(Photograph omitted)