Black mark hangs over the selectors

Mike Rowbottom on the rift between Britain's governing body and its best quarter-miler
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The British Athletic Federation has endured plentiful criticism in recent weeks, but when an athlete as loyal as Roger Black speaks out against it, warning bells should ring. It is like the Conservatives losing Basildon.

Peace may have been - officially - declared between the Federation and the Nuff Respect athletes following the prolonged pay dispute, but there has been a further price to pay.

The selectors' demand that 13 athletes prove "competitive fitness" within a week of the World Championships trials has alienated several of Britain's best known competitors, and none more so than Black.

Earlier this week he said that he was "insulted" by the implied lack of trust in the announcement. Black equalled his lifetime 400 metres best of 44.59sec earlier this month in Lausanne, but missed the trials in order to have intensive treatment on a knee injury.

Although he will run tomorrow at the Bupa International in Sheffield, thus satisfying the selectors' demand, he was deeply unhappy about being forced into such a race when his top priority, as he saw it, was to make sure he would be ready for next month's World Championships.

What compounded his anger was the perception that he and other athletes such as Steve Backley and Jonathan Edwards were being affected by a policy which was primarily directed at another athlete, Colin Jackson.

Jackson's action in competing successfully in Padua less than 24 hours after pulling out of the trials with an injury infuriated the BAF executive chairman, Peter Radford, who did not believe he should be named even provisionally in the team last Monday. Jackson did not get away entirely unscathed, however, as he was required to show further proof of fitness.

A point was being made, even if it was not as severe as Radford would have liked. And the suspicion among others similarly treated is that they were only named as well in order to make things look even-handed.

"A wash-out" was the way Black's coach, Mike Whittingham, described the selectors' position. "I find it rather disturbing that the selectors can't separate the Colin Jackson incident from him and the others. That is what pre-empted all of this."

In response, the BAF spokesman Tony Ward has cited what occurred at the 1991 World Championships, when 10 leading athletes travelled to Tokyo but proved unfit to compete, with a net waste of around pounds 30,000. The federation, making much use of the phrase "walking wounded", resolved never to let such a situation occur again.

The former double European champion and world silver medallist is, however, offended at the idea that he or any of the others similarly placed would re-create that scenario.

"I have sweated blood for the federation over the years," he said. "They know that I have an injury problem and I am doing my utmost to sort it out.

"It has always been the case that I would not go to the championships if I couldn't perform well. The likes of myself, Steve Backley and Jonathan Edwards are professional enough to know what we are doing."

What Black has been doing for the last week is receiving intensive treatment from a South African medical adviser at his own expense. The adviser, Ron Holder, has previously worked with the South African rugby union team. He is an "applied kinesiologist" who works on getting the whole balance of the body right to alleviate what is, in Black's case, an interrelated problem involving the hip upon which he had surgery three years ago.

"I'm improving," Black said. "And hopefully I will be fit in time for the World Championships." He adds with a sigh: "But my body is a nightmare. After Lausanne I was having a lot of pain. I ran at Crystal Palace two days later just to see if I could put races together, and I knew after that night that I can't. I'm not Superman."

Not Superman all the time, at any rate. Illness and injury over the last five years have seen him reduced frequently to the Clark Kent role - but the alter ego is still around. And his performance in Switzerland has established him as the leading British 400 metres runner once again.

Black intends to be looking for the British record and a medal in Gothenburg. Assuming Sheffield does not prove a premature test for him.