Athletics / The Barcelona Olympics: Robb a drop of right medicine: Mike Rowbottom on the bold figure who has injected some much needed life into decaying British middle-distance running

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The Independent Online
IF Curtis Robb did not exist, the great British public would have to invent him. Steve Ovett and Seb Coe are now no more than folk memories, but the expectations raised by their dominance over 800 and 1500 metres remain, however illogically.

This season, many of the Britons on whom those expectations have rested for the last few years have presented a sorry sight: Steve Cram, the golden-haired victor over Said Aouita, obliged to forget the Olympics after an ignominious groin strain and equally ignominious mile run in over four minutes; Tom McKean, the unpredictable Scot, hampered by his hamstring; Peter Elliott, whole-hearted and talented as ever, injured as usual. Change and decay in all around we see . . . but who is this bold figure striding powerfully round the final bend like Ovett in his prime?

At 20, Robb is a big strong boy - 6ft 1in, 11st - and thus far in 1992 he has been throwing his weight around at every opportunity. He secured the first senior title of his career, over 800 metres, at the UK Championships in Sheffield, where he has been studying medicine at the university.

There followed a prestigious win over McKean on home ground in Edinburgh; although the Scot was still making his recovery from injury, the two top Kenyans who also finished behind Robb were quite fit.

But Robb's moment really arrived at the Olympic trials in Birmingham last month when, still needing a qualifying time of 1min 46.20sec to have a chance of making his first Olympics, he came from seventh to first in the last 300 metres, despite having to step virtually in the fourth lane as he overtook the field coming into the final straight. His time of 1:45.16 took nearly a second and a half off his previous best.

There was no tortured analysis. 'I gave it some stick in the back straight,' he said, in lilting Liverpudlian accent. 'I had to go, really. I didn't want to watch the Olympics on TV.'

It was the best moment of the championships, as much for the relief over the time as the victory itself. Robb, who had used up another race to no effect a week earlier in a vain attempt to reach the standard, had done what all the selectors hoped in seizing the right time and the right place.

Andy Norman, the British promotions officer who has proved to be an astute judge of athletes' abilities over the years, has gone on record as saying that Robb is 'quite exceptional'. He recalls a phone call two years ago 'from an old boy who said 'I've got a great kid - can you fix him up with a good race?' ' The caller was Robb's coach, Ernie Gallagher; the race turned out to be a 1,000m in Sheffield where the 18-year-old finished second behind one of Kenya's best runners, William Tanui.

That potential - evident from the start with 1500m victories in the English Schools, has been steadily realised. Last season, Robb won the European junior championships and took silver at the World Student Games. But it is a measure of his talent that he now finds himself at the Olympic Games on the back of less than 10 senior races, and with an outside chance of matching the achievement of Cram, who was just a few months younger than Robb is when he reached an Olympic final at Moscow in 1980.

Robb has surprised many people with his progress, but not himself. In his first season of proper training, he won his first English Schools Championship at 1500m, after which his dad, Alex, an electrician, put down pounds 200 at 500-1 on him to win the Olympic 1500m title in Atlanta in 1996.

It's still a very long shot, of course. And the achievements of a runner such as Jose Parilla, of the United States, who, at 19, beat 1min 44sec at this year's US Olympic trials, put the fond hopes of Robb senior into perspective.

Robb junior is the last person to sit and agonise over his chances, even though his failure to pass a neuro-science exam during his second year has left him kicking his heels waiting to retake in January next year. He has enjoyed combining medical studies and athletics, even though that mix has become increasingly impractical since the days of Roger Bannister. 'It's best not to rely too much on one thing,' he said. 'You can end up being obsessed with athletics and coming back from training saying, 'Why wasn't I point-two seconds faster than last time?' '

Whatever happens, he says, he intends to retake his exam and take to the hospital wards next Easter. And if it ever comes to a choice between his two lives, he maintains it will be the running which goes.

His choice of vocation has been strongly influenced by the fact that he has come close to death on three occasions. As a three-year- old suffering from meningitis, his heart stopped beating temporarily. And twice his commitment to the fortunes of Liverpool FC has involved him in trauma. He and his family witnessed at close quarters the deaths of crushed Italian supporters before the 1985 European Cup final and, three years ago, he was pinned against one of the barriers on the Leppings Lane terrace as 95 fellow Liverpool fans were crushed to death at the FA Cup semi-final. 'If I'd been nearer the front, that probably would have been it,' he said. 'I'd always had an inkling to do medicine. But after Hillsborough I thought, this is the thing for me to do.'

Such experiences encourage a balanced view of sporting life. Robb's reaction after winning Olympic selection was to take it easy, but his recovery has been so swift that he hopes to run in tomorrow's grand prix meeting at Crystal Palace. Is he sure there is no danger of doing too much, too young? 'It's not as if I'm even training twice a day,' he said. 'There's plenty, plenty more to come.'

(Photograph omitted)