Athletics: Stewart learns to tread a very fine line: Mike Rowbottom talks to the former iron man who is beholden to nobody as he tackles the delicate task of rebuilding the battered reputation of British athletics

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THERE are no camera crews or gaggles of journalists outside the British Athletic Federation's headquarters now. They have all gone. And so, of course, has Andy Norman.

In the wake of the storm which swept the promotions officer out of his job for misconduct, and of the coroner's court verdict that Norman's allegations of sexual harrassment had contributed to the suicide of the writer and coach, Cliff Temple, in January, a relative calm has descended upon the modern building set back from one of Birmingham's leafy avenues.

While Norman picks up his operation as an agent for top athletes such as Linford Christie, John Regis and Tony Jarrett - officially he is restricted for 12 months to arranging their competition abroad - it has fallen to his former assistant, Ian Stewart, to fill the gap at the head of the federation's promotions unit. The former European and Commonwealth 5,000 metres champion is now responsible for putting on the major meetings of the domestic season.

Stewart does not attempt to gloss over the difficulty of his task, or the circumstances in which it fell to him just 18 months after he had joined the federation. He and his colleagues, Wilbert Greaves and Peter Hier, have, he believes, learned more in the past six months than others will in a lifetime.

'We haven't had a learning curve,' he said. 'We've been looking at the north face of the Eiger. I tried to sift as much information out of Andy before he left as I could. It would have been letting the sport down if I hadn't. And contrary to public opinion, Andy was very, very helpful to us.

'People will always say that he is still pulling the strings, and that I am an Andy Norman man. That is not the way I see it. We worked very hard to get through the indoor season by our own efforts.

'People said that I was talking to him at last week's meeting in Bratislava. I was. And I was talking to a lot of other people, too. I see it in terms of the good of our sport. I don't think I or anyone else will match up to Andy in what he did. I do not see myself as a Mr Big. I just feel I can contribute to athletics in a very positive way.'

Stewart is a likeable and direct character. At 45, he looks little different than he did in his racing days. He feels he has been misrepresented by the press in recent months. But he has been down this road before.

'I was just a kid off the street in Handsworth, a gunsmith by trade, and suddenly I found myself at the age of 20 winning major championships and getting involved in press conferences. I had short, cropped hair and a strong Birmingham accent, which I felt people were taking the piss out of. I was not sure of myself so I thought it was better to say nothing.

'The press made out that I was some kind of iron man who took no prisoners, trained like a lunatic and wasn't particularly pleasant to people. It really isn't that true.'

And yet, as he relates the memory, there is a little twinkle of satisfaction in it for him. Stewart still takes pride in being a good operator, a man to respect. He is nevertheless realistic about how much of the athletics landscape he can change.

'I don't blame Linford and Andy's other athletes from saying they are sticking with him as an agent. Whether you like or dislike what Andy did, their involvement with Andy regarding their racing programmes has been extremely succcessful.

'Andy can't do any deals for meetings in this country, but I'm sure he will discuss their whole programme with them before they commit themselves to any domestic meetings. It's all part of the same business.'

Stewart, however, does not envisage the operation of the post- Norman promotions unit as being a matter of business as usual. It will be different in at least one important respect. To Stewart, putting on meetings and representing individual athletes does not mix.

'In the past, people have complained that Andy's athletes have got better deals from competing in his events. I don't have any athletes, and I don't intend to have any athletes. I will assist any athlete as much as I can, but it must be across the board.

'I coach four athletes at Birchfield, including Darius Burrows, who could be giving Rob Denmark a hard time in two or three years' time. It would be the easiest thing in the world for me to say to him, 'Don't worry son, I'll sort out your races and your finances'. But the moment I do that I have crossed that line.

'By then I think the federation will have sorted itself out to do that for athletes, who will be under contracts. It will be dealt with by a separate section of the federation.'

Since Norman went, Stewart has been keenly aware there are other lines he must be careful not to cross. But this is the man with whom he used to work until three in the morning in these same offices, and he does not see any sense or reason in spurning him.

'It's a very emotive subject, and I am in a precarious situation. I have tried to take the middle road. Whatever he did or didn't do, he has been punished for it. You can't go on and on and on.'

In the meantime, Stewart is relishing his role in a sport that is operating in a markedly different atmosphere.

'We have had people ringing, saying Andy owes them favours. One of the main advantages we have now is that I don't owe anybody favours. As long as we stay down that line I think that's as good as we can get.

'The emphasis is on teamwork now. A lot more people in and around this building know what is going on. And that has got to be good for the sport.'

(Photograph omitted)