Athletics: Veteran Weir targets his final ambition

Mike Rowbottom reports on a discus thrower aiming to erase bad memories at the World Athletics Championships
Robert Weir has a little sportsman's bet with Denise Lewis at the World Championships, which start in Athens this weekend.

For the past few years, Britain's No 1 in the discus has aimed to match the heptathlon points scored by his Birchfield club-mate with the distance of his throws. But despite lifting the official British record to 64.42 metres this month, Weir finds himself with a long way to go to match Lewis, who raised the British heptathlon record to 6,736 points earlier this year.

"She's not making it easy for me," he said with a chuckle. "But I don't want her to. She's good."

While Lewis goes to Athens with serious hopes of winning the title, Weir, who divides his time between his native Birmingham and his job as throws coach at Stanford University in California, has more conservative ambitions. He wants to make the final, and he wants to surpass the unratified British mark of 65.16m set by Mary Slaney's husband, Richard, 12 years ago.

However, if the 20 stone, 36-year-old with the Brumerican accent can access the competitiveness which earned him second place behind the world's No 1, Lars Riedel, in last month's European Cup, who knows what he might achieve?

Weir's unexpected performance in Munich was hailed in more than one quarter as a key factor in securing the Cup for Britain.

It helped to make up for the disappointment of the previous year's Olympics, where he went out in qualifying. Now he has another chance on the big stage, 14 years after appearing in the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki.

His longevity matches that of his contemporary Linford Christie, with whom he competed in junior internationals. But unlike Christie, Weir took eight years out in the middle - playing American football.

His career - indeed, his life - has been shaped by the man he acknowledges as his mentor, the late Howard Payne. Britain's former record holder at hammer and discus began coaching Weir at Birchfield in 1977, guiding him to the 1982 Commonwealth hammer title and appearances in the discus and hammer finals at the 1984 Olympics.

Payne had recommended that Weir move to the United States to take up a scholarship at Southern Methodist University. And after Weir had quit athletics to fashion a career in American football, it was Payne who eventually persuaded him back into the fold.

"He kept on at me," Weir said. "I recall a conversation we had in 1992. I said `Howard, are you trying to tell me something?' He said `Yes.' And I said `OK, Howard. You win. I'll come back to athletics'."

Within a few months, Payne was dead; and Weir, devastated, resolved to keep his word.

Thus, the international whose team-mates in the early Eighties were such as Daley Thompson, Steve Cram and David Moorcroft, found himself surrounded by unfamiliar young faces.

"The people I tend to mix with most nowadays are Steve Backley, Mick Hill, Jonathan Edwards, Sean Pickering, Judy Oakes, Tessa Sanderson and Linford - although he's gone now," he said, adding with a deep chuckle: "You get the feeling that they are all older people?" Weir's Canadian wife, Kim, and children Robert, aged six, and Gillian, four, stay at their home in the States while he is competing in Europe, although they will make a first trip over to Britain this year.

But home, for Weir, will always be Birmingham, and he has made a point of competing regularly for his home club, Birchfield Harriers.

The camaraderie he experiences there, as characterised by his mock rivalry with Lewis, is an echo of what he experienced in his time as a defensive lineman.

Weir, who had trials with the San Franciso 49ers, had the opportunity to play regularly in the National Football League for Indianapolis Colts. Unfortunately for him, their offer came just after he had signed to play in the Canadian Football League for Hamilton Tiger Cats.

"There was a huge difference in salary between the US and Canadian Leagues," Weir said. "It would be fair to say I was a bit frustrated."

Weir readily accepts that American football is a brutal business. "As a lineman, my job was to get to the quarterback and hurt him," he said. "There's no escaping the fact that it is a very aggressive game. You are guaranteed an injury."

His worst came when he had his lower leg broken as two players rolled deliberately into him as he closed in on what he describes as his target. Was it legal? "They didn't call it, so it had to be," he said with another chuckle.

The aggression he brought to football has been re-channelled these last five years. "There is a carry-over," he said. It would be nice to think that a man who has striven competitively for 20 years could be carried into contention for a world medal.