Athletics: The golden girl left running on empty

Simon Turnbull talks to the athlete who chose a bad time to launch her career

ALLISON CURBISHLEY had other hurdles in mind when she made the decision to start her working life as a full-time athlete. Having this summer emerged as the new golden girl of British athletics, striking 400m gold at the European Under-23 Championships and at the World Student Games, the Birmingham University graduate chose as her vocation to follow in the retired Sally Gunnell's spikemarks as the next Great British hope of 400m hurdling. In addition to the physical barriers of the event, though, Gunnell's apparent heiress has found herself with a financial hurdle to surmount. The bankrupting of the British Athletic Federation a month ago has left Curbishley to invest her future, and her rich talent, in a sport which has no money.

"It's not made me think again," she said last week. "The sport is my life and I want to give it my best shot. I'm coming into my prime now. I've got maybe six or seven years at the top. If I don't go full-time now I'll never know what I could have done. People don't go into athletics for the money anyway. It's for the love of the sport itself. It's just a shame what's happened. It's made it much harder to go full-time."

Not so long ago, even someone on the fringe of world class, Tom McKean for instance, could command pounds 10,000 for appearing in domestic races. Curbishley received much less for her entire season's efforts. "It wasn't an enormous amount," she said. Not that she has seen the colour of the money. "The cheque bounced," Curbishley confided. The brightest young thing in British athletics has been obliged to start her chosen career in the queue of the BAF's creditors, behind, amongst others, Michael Johnson and Donovan Bailey. It is not the most opportune time to be the new golden girl, not when the golden egg has been scrambled.

Curbishley made it sparklingly clear in the summer months that she has a potentially golden future. As well as winning her two titles, she shattered the Scottish 400m record set on the eve of the 1980 Olympics by Linsey Macdonald; though from Stockton-on-Tees, Curbishley's national allegiance as an athlete has always been to the land of her father, Bill. She also reached the 400m semi-finals at the World Championships in Athens, improving her personal best to 50.78 secs - faster than four of the five quickest- ever female 400m hurdlers, Gunnell included, have run the flat one-lap event.

Curbishley was a 400m hurdler in her days as a teenage prodigy. Having honed such impressive flat speed, great things are expected when she returns to her specialist event next summer as a seemingly ready-made replacement for Gunnell. Colin Jackson has spoken of her as a gold medal prospect for the Sydney Olympics and Malcolm Arnold, who coaches her and Jackson has ventured to suggest: "Allison can be as good as, if not better than, Sally."

Arnold guided John Akii-Bua to the Olympic 400m hurdles title in 1972 and has prompted Jackson to world-record- breaking hurdling deeds. As national performance director, he presided over the British men's team's Europa Cup success in Munich in June but, in the wake of the BAF's financial collapse, he has accepted the job of overseeing the ambitious new track and field development programme, based loosely on the US collegiate system, at Bath University. Curbishley, and other members of his squad, plan to join him there as full-time athletes.

"We won't be getting any financial gain," Curbishley said. "We'll just be an elite group based there to train and use all of the back-up facilities. I won't be living on the campus. I'll have to find somewhere to rent."

With no summer earnings to draw upon, it is just as well that Curbishley has collected two bonus rewards from her breakthrough season. She has collected pounds 5,000 as winner of the Green Flag-sponsored under-23 athlete of the year and a further pounds 2,000 as the Bupa Under-25 Athlete of the Year. "It's not a brilliant amount," she said, "but it will certainly help me make a start. My National Lottery training grant is being increased from pounds 1,500 to pounds 4,000, so that will help too. Other than that, I'll just have to try and get sponsorship money, without being too cheeky.

"The era of the big pay days has gone. You just have to accept that and get on with it. I've been more concerned about what might happen to the sport than how it might affect me financially. It's deeply concerning when your sport is falling in pieces around you. It doesn't have the profile it had seven or eight years ago. That's the big problem. Hopefully, I can be one of the people who can help change that." The hurdles are all set out for Britain's breadline golden girl.

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