Athletics: Sweet 16 and fast with it

Mark Lewis-Francis is the latest British athlete to be burdened with the `new Christie' tag
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The Independent Online
MARK LEWIS-FRANCIS is excused lessons today - because he has got places to see and people to beat. While his classmates at George Salter High School in West Bromwich work on towards their GCSEs, the fastest 16-year-old on legs this country has ever produced is flying out to Paris, where he will represent Britain in an Under-20 international against France.

Since he was taken along to the Birchfield Harriers track by his father five years ago, Lewis-Francis's sprinting talent has shone with ever-increasing brightness, to the point where those who oversee his athletic development are busy downplaying his achievements.

That task is getting harder as he rewrites the record books in his Under- 17 category. Last August he broke the 18-year-old British 100 metres record in winning the Amateur Athletic Association title, recording 10.49sec after running 10.36 with wind assistance in the semi-finals.

Earlier this month he reduced the 60m record to 6.77sec, a time he reproduced last Saturday in wnning the AAA indoor title.

Although Linford Christie still does not seem to have accepted the idea that he has retired from athletics, those who follow in the Olympic champion's wake have had years to feel the burden of being his potential successor. "Is this the next Linford Christie?" The question has been asked of Ian Mackie, Darren Campbell, Jason Gardener, Dwain Chambers, Christian Malcolm... the list is long, and Lewis-Francis is unlikely to escape the same ritual interrogation.

But his coach at Birchfield, Steve Platt, and the man who has overseen his development, Tony Hadley, are intensely aware of the need to avoid over-pressuring an outstanding natural talent.

"We've not seen anyone run so fast before at this age," said Hadley, whose previous charges include Derek Redmond and Du'Aine Ladejo. "But there have been a lot of fast teenagers in this sport - some come through, some don't."

The next five or so years are going to be the vital ones for Mark. "He's a lively character, and he's got a good head on his shoulders," Hadley added. "We want to see him realise his enormous potential."

Lewis-Francis, one of six children, is well aware of the challenges that lie ahead of him if he is to do that. "Once you start winning, you put pressure on yourself because you are the favourite," he said.

Away from the track, he relaxes by playing keyboards and guitar as part of his GCSE in music.

Although Lewis-Francis is already 6ft 1in, and still growing, his training regime is a deliberately conservative one. "I train twice a week, and although I do some conditioning work in the gym, I will not be doing any weight training for at least another year," he said.

Self-criticism is also in place. He was far from satisfied from last Saturday's effort at the National Indoor Arena, where his time was rounded up from 6.75 to 6.77 on photographic evidence.

"I didn't get a good start," he said. "I'm a very weak starter, and I was slow getting out of my blocks." The targets for Lewis-Francis this year are the European Junior Championships and the Youth Olympics. Beyond that, he has the 2000 Olympics in his sights.

His learning curve is a steep one, although he picked up some vital experience last summer at the World Junior Championships in Annecy, France, where he competed in the relay team.

Any medal ambitions were thwarted by a first-round disqualification after a colleague had run out of his lane. But Lewis-Francis picked up useful tips on how to prepare for major championships from Christian Malcolm, who won both the 100 and 200m titles.

"I watched all the things Christian did," Lewis-Francis said. "How he prepared, how he got warmed up. It will all help me." Malcolm has already been beaten by Lewis-Francis, in one of the 60m races in last year's Britain v France fixture. If his younger colleague continues to improve at his current rate, the world junior champion is unlikely to be so liberal with his advice.