Athletics: Whiteman targets European summit after mountain of disappointment

Controversially left out of last year's World Championships, Anthony Whiteman plans to get his own back this year and help put British middle distance running back on the map. Mike Rowbottom reports.

It was absolutely typical of Anthony Whiteman's luck. His achievement in becoming the first British middle distance runner for seven years to win a global title coincided with another event which guaranteed him the minimum of attention.

On the day the 26-year-old from Isleworth won the 1500 metres gold medal at the World Student Games in Sicily, news of the death of Princess Diana was announced.

For a few hours, the British team were unsure whether they would compete or not, but they eventually went ahead. After striding away to an easy win, Whiteman, who is studying sports science at Brunel University, halted his lap of honour to bow to the Union Jack as a mark of respect. What more could he do?

Although the timing turned out to be unfortunate, the experience in Sicily was one which Whiteman, whose international career only began in earnest two years ago, hopes to turn to good advantage this year.

"I was very satisfied with the way I performed there," he said. "It was not so much the guys I raced against, who were maybe a level below those I had been meeting regularly on the European circuit.

"It was the fact that I dominated the whole thing from the beginning of the competition. It was always obvious that I had the chance to win comfortably, but I still had to deliver the victory. I regard it as a dress rehearsal for something bigger."

That something is likely to be the European Championships in Budapest towards the end of August. "In the European Championships you need to stamp your authority early on," he said. "It becomes a real war of psychology. If I can go into a championship and click into the kind of feeling I had at the World Student Games again it will give me a big advantage."

That assumes that Whiteman will be picked for the European Championships. But although he and his rival, John Mayock, are pre-eminent in the event domestically, his experience of last year has taught him to take nothing for granted.

Whiteman's problems began at the Stockholm Grand Prix five days before Britain's world championship trials, when he was bitten on the ankle by a mosquito and suffered an unusually severe reaction after starting a course of antibiotics.

Two days before the trials began he developed a flu-type virus and sought the advice of Britain's team doctor, Malcolm Brown, who told him not to run.

On the Monday after the trials, at which Mayock and Kevin McKay claimed two of the three 1500 metres places automatically, he rang the national coach, Malcolm Arnold.

"I asked him how much I needed to do to protect my place," Whiteman said. "I said if my position was in jeopardy I would run. He replied: `It's not up to me to make a decision'."

"So there I was, an athlete not knowing what to do, and I was receiving no guidance from the national coach."

Whiteman returned to training and, a few days later, Matthew Yates, who finished third in the trials, was given the third place for Athens after achieving the qualification time with 3min 36.36sec. For Whiteman, who had already been under the qualifying mark four times by that point in the season, it was a shattering blow.

A week after the World Championships had ended, though, he gave Britain's selectors an indication of what they had missed when he became the fourth fastest Briton over 1500 metres behind Steve Cram, Seb Coe and Steve Ovett, running 3min 32.34sec in Monte Carlo behind the all-conquering Kenyan, Daniel Komen.

When he realised what he had done he broke down in tears. "After all that had happened, I just lost it," he said. "It was 10 minutes before I could speak. It was a surreal experience for me. With 120 metres to go I went past Noureddine Morceli and it was if everything was in slow motion." It was his highest point of achievement in a sport where the first marked family success was his mother Ann. She started running with him to make sure he did his training properly and has gone on to become one of Britain's leading veteran distance runners, finishing second in her age category at the New York Marathon.

Less than a week later, after he had made the pace for Haile Gebrselassie's unsuccessful attempt on the world 3,000 metres record in Brussels, Whiteman's roller-coaster career took another dip as he watched Mayock move ahead of him in the all-time domestic rankings with a time of 3:31.87. The Yorkshireman will clearly be one of his main rivals in Budapest, along with a strong Spanish contingent led by the 1992 Olympic champion, Fermin Cacho.

Whiteman, who won a European indoor silver medal in 1996 and reached the Olympic semi-final the same year, seems destined to struggle against the odds in his career. He is currently seeking a new shoe sponsor after being dropped by Nike, who, to put salt in the wound, have just taken on Mayock.

"It's nothing against John personally," Whiteman said. "But it acts as one more motivation for me."

The omens for Whiteman in Budapest look promising - selection permitting.