Athletics: The familiar sorry ending for Nerurkar

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The Independent Online
IT'S A LONG way to run to finish eighth, but Richard Nerurkar, Britain's top marathon runner of the past five years, yesterday again entered a stadium at the end of a 26-mile championship race knowing that the chance of standing on the podium had gone half-an-hour before.

Times change, and so do traditions. While Britain's sprinters appear unbeatable in Europe now, the distance runners always seem to encounter athletes from Mediterranean nations who are too strong in the final miles. Yesterday, it was three Italians who enjoyed a clean sweep of the medals, led by Stefano Baldini, who finished in 2hr 12min 01sec, and was so fresh from his stroll along the Danube that he was chatting and smiling as he signed autographs five minutes later.

Spaniards filled places four, five and six, then another Italian, Giovanni Rugiero, was seventh, cruelly passing Nerurkar on the final lap of the track, as the Briton completed the course in 2:14:02. Britain's other runners, Dave Buzza (28th, 2:19:58) and Mark Hudspith (30th, 2:19:58), had an even harder time of things.

The frustration for Nerurkar was evident afterwards, when he tried to put a brave face on what is, for him, by now a familiar story. In Helsinki, at the last European Championships four years ago, he finished fourth behind a trio of Spaniards; a year later, at the World Championships, he was seventh; at the Atlanta Olympics, fifth.

"I'm just very disappointed that I was wasn't good enough to be European champion," Nerurkar said. To appreciate his disappointment, one needs to grasp the commitment Nerurkar has shown to this race. He turned his back on the the big-money marathons of the spring - and anything upwards of $100,000 in prize and appearance money.

Yesterday dawned damp and cool in the Hungarian capital, with heavy rain falling during the race. Some runners, Hudspith among them, complained that by splashing through the cold puddles of water that lay on the cobbled roads, their legs were prone to cramping.

Until 17 miles, there was little urgency among the racers, Nerurkar prominent in a lead group of more than a dozen. Then, at a tight, right-hand corner, Nerurkar took the lead and injected a little surge. "My race plan was to make a long run for home, rather than leave it," he said, obviously conscious that hidden in the lead pack were the likes of Baldini, the world champion at the half-marathon who has run inside 28min for 10,000m on the track this summer, and Alejandro Gomez of Spain, a 27min 39.38sec 10,000m man.

"Winning races is about taking gambles," said Nerurkar. "You don't find out if you've got what it takes if you don't get to the front and take some risks." Nerurkar's injection of pace saw him and four others - Baldini, Danilo Goffi and Vincenzo Modica of Italy, and Gomez - cover the 18th kilometre in less than three minutes. When Baldini led through another kilometre at similar pace, Nerurkar was dropped. "I found it very tough from 19 miles onwards," he said. "I've been at that stage in marathons before. It's not a case of giving up - you're just doing all you can."

The last five miles came down to a battle between the three Italians and two Spaniards, Jose Rey having latched on to the leaders. When Baldini and Goffi in tandem produced a couple of sub-five minute miles in the latter stages, the race was theirs.

The Italians have now won seven out of 12 men's marathon medals at the last four European Championships. There was a time when Britain dominated, winning the title four times out of five championships up to 1974. Since then, not even a consolation bronze.