Baulch joins one-lap race for Atlanta

Mike Rowbottom meets the Welsh 400m runner behind the peroxide blond dreadlocks
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It is not easy to miss Jamie Baulch. Peroxide dreadlocks give him a unique image in British athletics, and his eccentric tonsorial taste is about to be highlighted in a promotional campaign by Vidal Sassoon.

Having decided upon an Olympic theme, the company used Baulch and his Welsh team-mate, Paul Gray, as models for posters which will soon be on display throughout the country.

But Baulch, who will start his international season on home ground this Saturday in the Welsh Games at Cardiff, is rapidly establishing himself as an athlete outstanding for performance as much as appearance. And he, too, has decided upon an Olympic theme this summer as he strives for a 400 metres place in Atlanta.

British competition in this event has never been stronger, with established figures such as Roger Black, Du'Aine Ladejo, Mark Richardson and the United Kingdom record holder David Grindley, who is training well after long term injury, facing a challenge from younger talents such as Mark Hylton, Guy Bullock and the Welsh pair of Baulch and Iwan Thomas.

But Baulch, who won a world junior sprint relay gold medal with Britain in 1992 and was named in yesterday's 400m relay squad for the European Cup on 1-2 June, is confident that he can be a serious contender. So is his coach, Britain's world 110m hurdles record holder Colin Jackson.

Since joining Jackson's training group in the autumn of 1994, this likeable 23-year-old has reduced his 400m best to 45.14sec. And after three months of uninterrupted winter work in Australia, he and his coach are convinced that the Welsh record of 44.66, which Thomas set at altitude last month, is within range.

Performing to that kind of level at next month's Olympic trials would set up a fascinating conflict and Jackson has clearly been working hard to get his protege into the right frame of mind for the challenge.

After last Saturday's meeting at Bedford, where Baulch broke 21 seconds for 200m despite wet and windy conditions, he was jocularly but insistently reminded by Jackson of the need to concentrate on every round of racing in Birmingham next month. "Jamie is going to surprise a few people there," Jackson said.

A year and a half ago it was Baulch who was registering surprise - at least - as he took up Jackson's invitation at the 1994 Commonwealth Games to train abroad with himself, Gray and the high hurdler Samantha Farquharson - Team Wales.

"It did shock me at first," Baulch said. "I went from training twice a week to six days a week, and I started doing weights as well. I was really dying at first, but this winter I didn't miss a day.

"Three months in Australia. Who else in Britain could have offered me the opportunity to do that? Colin likes being a slavedriver, but it has been absolutely brilliant for my career and one day I hope to repay him."

Baulch gave a firm indication of his potential at Gateshead last summer when, in only his second 400m of the season, he beat Black, recording 45.15. "I consider Roger the best 400m runner in the country, because of his consistency," Baulch said. "I remember thinking afterwards, 'If I can beat Roger, I can beat anyone'."

The confidence he feels comes partly from the higher expectations among those he now trains with. "The attitude rubs off," he said. It is also grounded in the support of his adoptive parents, Marilyn and Alan, who have looked after him since he was five months old.

After being tripped in the 400m final of the 1994 European indoor championships, he recalls walking away with knees and elbows bloodied, and feeling tears well up when he heard condolences being offered. "One day," he thought, "I'm going to show them." That day could be close.