Athletics: Walker's fight shows the other face of athletics

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ALL THINGS being equal - as they rarely seem to be - it has been a bad week for athletics. There is no good moment for a sport to be plagued with doping cases and allegations of race-fixing, but their emergence in the run-up to the season's centrepiece, the International Amateur Athletic Federation's World Championships in Seville, is particularly inopportune.

From a domestic point of view, the timing of some of the bad news has been exquisitely awful. The long awaited launch of UK Athletics coincided with the revelation that Doug Walker, Britain's European 200m champion, had produced an adverse test finding.

After attending an awkward PR damage-limitation exercise, media representatives were ushered into a larger neighbouring room to witness a light-hearted fashion show involving British athletes.

Aptly or not, the musical accompaniment was that catchy disco number, We All Have Good Times.

And efforts to promote last weekend's CGU British Grand Prix, the richest ever staged on these shores, struck the emerging news of Linford Christie's adverse doping test like the Titanic's bow encountering the iceberg.

At such times, it is not only those close to the sport who begin to wonder what athletics is all about. The day before the big meeting at Crystal Palace, a press conference involving the dominant middle distance runners Hicham El Guerrouj and Haile Gebrselassie was set into fascinating context. After both athletes had finished speaking, a man in a tracksuit moved forwards slowly, very slowly and deliberately, from the back of the room.

It was John Walker.

New Zealand's former world mile record holder and Olympic 1500m champion of 1976, who followed Roger Bannister into a new generation of sub-four minute milers, has been suffering from Parkinson's Disease, an affliction he is battling with characteristic fortitude.

Such a turn of events for a man who ran with the uninhibited spirit of a wild horse is enough to prompt that other, bigger question: what is life all about? Walker has had occasion to devote a lot of thought to the subject recently as he has attempted to evaluate his achievements. "Athletics is such a small thing in every life, but people perceive it as the most important thing in the world," he said. "You've got to live. Because life's too short. I found that out in a big way."

Yet his love for the sport, and his admiration for the men who have taken the events he once ruled to new levels, shone out of him. "I ran the mile in 3.49 seconds. I was probably capable of 3.47. As for 3.40 - I can't comprehend it. If El Guerrouj tries, though, he can do it. He looks the perfect athlete.

"Twice in my whole career I thought about breaking a world record - once at the mile, once at 2,000 metres. Otherwise I just raced to win. These guys are going out to break world records every time they run. If you condition your body to running quickly, you will get the results. It comes back to attitude. El Guerrouj will win the Olympics because of his attitude."

Unlike Carl Lewis, whose attitude to the sport since his retirement has been one of disdain, Walker still revels in the environment. His reception from the crowd at Crystal Palace, where he raced so often in his career, was moving, as was the clamour to gain his autograph. His shaky, painstaking autograph.

Walker cheerfully acknowledges that top milers nowadays can earn more from a single race than he earned in a season, where a big payday for him involved 500 bucks and three crates of beer. The money got spent. The beer got drunk. But he refuses to yearn for what he never had.

"You can't go back in time," he said. "I had a hell of a lot of fun, but I was in a different world to today. Maybe their fun's totally different to what we had. We came over from New Zealand and we had to run all the meets to get accommodation, to get food. I ran 19 races prior to my world mile record."

While the athletics landscape is changed utterly, however, with World Championships every two years and a tiered system of lucrative grands prix every season, Walker has an instinctive understanding of the essential motivation for ground-breaking athletes such as El Guerrouj.

"When I became the first man to run under 3.50 for the mile," Walker recalled, "the first thing I thought afterwards was that I could have run faster. You are on a high after something like that, so you always feel confident. But to physically go out and do it, that's another thing."

If the sport means anything at all, that sense of endless physical and mental striving has to be at the heart of it.

Athletics. It's all about people like John Walker.

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