Athletics: Young British sprint hopes spared the fast track

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The Independent Online
By Peter Martin

SPRINTERS OFTEN talk about "tunnel vision" in their races when describing their absolute, single- minded concentration on running. Yet for many young British sprinters in the past decade, there was never any light at the end of the tunnel - indeed, after a brief flirtation with fame, halting ever so briefly to collect their European junior titles or World Junior Championship medals, they then ran off into the distance, never to be seen again.

The stunning emergence in the past week of Christian Malcolm as a double world junior sprint champion, however, offers the possibility of a far better progression through to success at senior level. The teenager from south Wales, who will receive a rapturous reception when he competes in tonight's Welsh Games at Cardiff, has arrived as a world force at a time when British sprinting is probably at its most competitive in more than a decade.

That this should correspond to Linford Christie's complete dominance of European sprinting cannot be merely coincidence. During Christie's 12-year reign as 100m champion of Europe - which will only end at this year's European Championships in Budapest later this month because he will not be defending the title - saw off all challengers with equal disdain. Like an old lion Christie's rule over the pride of Europe was absolute.

At a time when Britain can boast both the world 100m junior champion (Malcolm) and the world 100m junior record-holder in Dwain Chambers, it is equally significant that Christie has been involved in the development of both, as well as having helped coach the new AAA champion, Darren Campbell. Christie, as mentor, sometime financial sponsor and, above all, as inspiration, is harvesting sprint talents the likes of which this country has never witnessed.

The sprint relay bronze medal won in Athens last year was a harbinger. When three of the Athens quartet raced together at the European Cup in St Petersburg in June, they were slicker and quicker.

As well as Campbell, Malcolm and Chambers there is also Jason Gardner, Julian Golding, Ian Mackie, Doug Walker, Marlon Devonish and Doug Gardner. Such is the stock of British sprinting at present, multiple medals in all the sprints, not just the 400m, are expected at Budapest in two weeks' time.

Yet, for some, their present success has been hard won. When he was a teenager, Darren Campbell was picked out by Christie as the man to succeed him. Yet injuries, plus a lack of direction and cash saw Campbell drift into semi-professional football, where his European junior sprint double in 1991 counted for little when the centre-backs in the Dr Marten's League wanted to make their mark. Only now, at 24, and six years on from his greatest triumphs on the track, is Campbell beginning to realise his potential.

Campbell might have been lost to athletics simply because there was no support structure in place for him. "I had a bad injury, and I had no support, no back-up," Campbell says. "I wasn't racing, so I wasn't earning any money."

When Campbell graduated from the juniors, he tried to become a full-time athlete, but had to compete against the likes of Christie and the top Americans to earn any money. Max Jones, Britain's chief coach, thinks that throwing youngsters in at the deep end is counter-productive. "We saw it with Danny Joyce after he won the European junior title a few years ago," Jones said. "He came back and immediately was put in a race with Linford. He was crushed by that."

When Jones watched the British junior team in action last week and looked ahead to their next challenges, he was thinking not of the European Championships but of the under-23 competitions next year. "We have got to nurture them. It can be tough out there."

Jones now oversees a scheme, funded by Lottery cash and immune from the financial travails which have afflicted the British Athletic Federation, that finds the right races for up-and-coming youngsters, helps to pay their physiotherapy costs and medical insurance, and even pays grants to the best among them. It will all help the young lions to roar.