Athletics: Steele shows mettle to revive enduring dream: British middle-distance aims lifted by blast from the past

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SEBASTIAN COE, introduced to the crowd during last Saturday's Oslo meeting as one of the Bislett stadium's most revered record-breakers, shifted uneasily in his blazer as he was asked the inevitable question.

'So tell me,' said Arne Haukvik, the promoter whom Coe rewarded with four world records in his first four visits to Oslo in the early 1980s. 'Where are the new Seb Coes?'

The reply was as judicious as one would expect from a man who was a politician long before he entered the Houses of Commons. 'At the moment we don't seem to be producing quite as many middle-distance runners as in the past,' Coe said. 'But that will change. We've a lot of young talent coming through.'

There were indeed green shoots of recovery later in the evening, in the form of young Kelly Holmes, running her first sub-2min 800 metres, and Matthew Yates, setting a personal best of 3:52 for the mile. But with lovely irony, the two up-and-coming middle-distance talents to make the biggest impression were Steve Cram, recalling former glories at the age of 32 with third place in the Dream Mile; and, starting afresh at the age of 30, a man with no former glories to recall, Martin Steele.

For the last eight years, since he took up running at the comparatively late age of 22, this Huddersfield athlete has laboured in the wake of the golden British generation of middle- distance runners to which Haukvik alluded - Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram, Peter Elliott, Tom McKean.

Although he has experienced some success indoors, where he won the national AAA title in 1991 and 1992, and finished fourth in the European indoor championships of 1991, his career outdoors has been unremarkable. An aggressive runner, he tended to move into contention with 200 metres remaining, only to see the high - and sometimes moderate - achievers stream past him half-way down the straight.

This season has been different. He won the British championships, which were being used as a trial for last month's European Cup final, breaking 1min 46sec for the first time. The following week in Belfast he lowered his personal best to 1:45.28 in beating McKean.

That was promising. What followed was astonishing. At Oslo, running his usual positive race but sustaining it thrillingly to the line, he beat a world-class field in 1:43.84. It was the fastest time in the world this year, and the fourth fastest ever by a Briton - only Coe, Cram and Elliott having run quicker. Not bad going for a runner who had retired.

The decision, admittedly, was a private one. Having started last season in what he thought was the form of his life, Steele vowed to himself that if he did not make the Olympics, he would quit. 'I was running so well that I didn't think I could fail to make the Olympics,' he said. 'But the week before the trials I seemed to run out of form. I flopped. I remember just qualifying for the final in 1:46.9, and I knew coming off the track that I didn't have anything to give on the next day. It was the worst disappointment I have had in athletics.'

Having failed in his objective, Steele stopped running for six weeks. But he could not quite bring himself to tell Andy Norman, the British promotions officer, when he came on the phone enquiring about this year's indoor season. 'I was digging myself a hole by saying I was still running,' Steele recalls.

It is a hole which he is now glad to fill. Pinpointing what has made the difference to his running is something he finds difficult. 'I can only think it is my training,' he said. 'I have a new coach, Richard Hepworth, and although I am not working any harder than I used to, the things I am doing seem to have better results.'

Has his belated success changed his life in any way? 'Yes, it's given me a sore ear,' he says wryly. In the last couple of days his 32-hour week as a supervisor of young offenders at a residential centre in Dewsbury has been punctuated by requests for interviews. 'I had Yorkshire television down here,' he said yesterday. 'And Sky News wanted something. And all the papers have been on to me.'

Doesn't he find it all a little difficult to believe at a time when most runners are planning retirement? 'It's been a long time coming,' he said. 'But I don't have a problem believing what has happened because I've always known I have the talent. It is not so much a surprise as a relief.'

This weekend he returns to Birmingham, scene of last year's disappointment, for the world championships trials. 'I've got to prove a point and win,' he said. It would be wonderful if the old talent came through at last; but he has less to prove now.

Marcus Adam, the Commonwealth Games 200m champion, will miss the rest of the season due to an Achilles tendon injury.

(Photograph omitted)