Athletics: Walker's run increases the pressure

European Athletics Championships: The continent's leading 200 metres runner could join a rare breed of Scottish winners
DOUG WALKER steps out today into what he quaintly refers to as the amateur scene. The professional scene, according to the 25-year-old Scot with an outstanding chance of winning the 200 metres at these European Championships, takes place on grass rather than track. And usually somewhere in the Scottish border country.

Before he established himself as Europe's leading 200m runner, Walker had established himself as a prolific winner of handicap sprints - many of them raced on grass tracks with the additional hazards of thistles and cowpats. In 1994, he won six British professional titles. The traditional New Year sprint, at Meadowbank Stadium, yielded him pounds 4,000. His richest prize on grass was the princely sum of pounds 350.

This season, however, as an unbeaten run of nine 200 metres - including the European Cup title - has established him at a new level of achievement, he has been forced to acknowledge that his success has a price.

His plans to compete on grass at the Langholm meeting soon after the Bupa Games at Gateshead, where he beat the best of Britain's 400m runners over 300m, had to be cancelled.

"I couldn't take the risk," he said, with just a tinge of regret, yesterday. He has had to come to terms with other adjustments in his lifestyle too.

Media interest in this stocky former rugby player - he played winger for the Scottish schools team which included current internationals Gregor Townsend and Craig Joiner, and appeared briefly for Heriot's FP - has increased dramatically this year.

The pugnacious way in which he performed in St Petersburg to earn his European Cup success, and subsequently at Gateshead, where he pulverised a field which included Iwan Thomas and Mark Richardson, has established him as a Scottish Prospect. Although that, as runners such as Tom McKean have discovered in previous years, is something of a mixed blessing. The pressure of expectation can be intense.

"But if you are a full time athlete, you can hardly complain," he said with a grin. "You do bugger all for five to six hours of the day. But there has been a lot of talk about these championships in the last two weeks. Probably too much talk." Now Walker is ready to substitute action for words, although his immediate preparations this week have been slightly vexed. A blocked road, following an accident, prevented him getting his scheduled flight out here by a day.

And he has arrived with what he describes as `stiffness' in his knee, which he is protecting for the moment with strapping.

However, Walker has been assured by Britain's medical staff that he will be able to run without pain. His obvious rivals include the Dutchman, Patrick Van Balkum, who ran 20.37sec three weeks before Walker produced his own season's best of 20.35sec in winning the AAA trials at Birmingham.

There is also a Dutch connection with another potential threat, Troy Douglas, the former Bermudan athlete who has switched nationality after getting married in Holland. Douglas has a best of 20.30, although he has only run 20.6 so far this year.

Walker will also be expecting a serious challenge from his own team mates, Doug Turner and Julian Golding.

The 23-year-old has had what he describes as a "roller coaster" season, performing very well in the indoor season before making disappointing showing in the European indoor championships. His outdoor form has improved gradually, but a good performance in Sheffield on 8 August has sent him into these championships in good heart. And, as he showed last season in anchoring the British sprint relay team to a bronze in the world championships, he is a championship performer.

Golding, who has a personal best of 20.38sec from last year, believes that all three Britons can reach the final, after which the medals will be up for grabs.

"It's a psychological war game out there," he said. "Assuming you are in reasonable shape, this sport is 80 per cent mental, 20 per cent physical. As long as you are in shape here, and confident, you can achieve." And if your opponents fear you, Golding added, it is even better. He recalled that, soon after he had arrived, an opponent had come up to him and asked if Walker was still running, and he had confirmed that he was.

"The others are scared of Doug, which is a big advantage," Golding said. "I am not scared of him. I respect him."

Whether feared or respected, Walker has the opportunity this week to establish himself alongside the likes of Alan Paterson, David Jenkins, Tom McKean and Yvonne Murray in a sparse list of previous Scottish champions at these Championships.