Britain losing by a distance

Norman Fox reports on the lack of direction afflicting endurance athletes
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WHEN the Ethiopian Haile Gebresilasie demolished the world 10,000 metres record in Hengelo last Monday night with a time of 26min 43.53sec, and then Moses Kiptanui, of Kenya, improved the 5,000m record in Rome on Thursday, they destroyed any faint hope that Europeans, and especially Britons, would release Africa's hold on distance running in this century. Top coaches and athletes say Britain has only itself to blame.

A Briton last held the 10,000m world record in 1973 when David Bedford set a time of 27min 30.8sec. The present British record is held by Eamonn Martin in 27:23.06 which he set as long ago as 1988. Martin admits that someone should have broken it by now, and his coach, the former outstanding cross- country runner Mel Batty, says that Britain could have stayed in contention at world level if it had not been for the wilful neglect of distance running.

Such is the concentration on sprinters in Britain that the best are offered thousands to compete in major events while distance runners are lucky to get a few hundreds. Britain is finding it so hard to get anyone to run in the European Cup 10,000m in Lille later this month that even the 36-year-old Martin has been unofficially shortlisted.

Batty believes that, apart from the advantage of coming from altitude, the present African distance runners are "hungrier" than Europeans. "Running gives them a step up. We're now faced with a runner who is about two seconds a lap faster than the British record, but if you've got runners like Eamonn who have a God-given talent you've got to direct them early on. The biggest problem in this country and on the grand prix circuit is that we've neglected the 5,000 and 10,000m. It's going to be years before we get back - only Paul Evans and Rob Denmark can get anywhere near Eamonn's record. There's no director of distance running and the national coaches are concentrating on sprinting and technical events.

"The British Federation has something to answer for because they haven't put on the races. We are way behind Portugal and Spain even in cross-country but I know there are easier ways of making money than running 120 miles in a week."

If he were an 18-year-old looking at the latest world record, would Martin be tempted to throw in the towel before raising a sweat internationally? "I can see why people might think like that. We've seen the record broken four times in two years. But when it first went under 27 minutes it wasn't a barrier like the four-minute mile. It was always a case of getting the right people together on the right track. The 10,000 is not run enough throughout the year. Races in the past used to be fantastic with people like Kuts, Zatopek and Pirie, but the big ones now have just become pace- making exercises.

"I don't believe Gebresilasie is out on his own internationally, but he is as far as British and European runners are concerned. When it comes to the world championships someone like Paul Evans, who has done well, hasn't a hope. There isn't anyone in Britain who has. The world record is beyond this generation of runners. To be honest the British record I set is beyond most of them and that looks fairly insignificant these days. We've got to look for people who are good at endurance events but capable of getting near 13 minutes for 5,000 as well."

Martin does not go along with conventional wisdom about seeking occasional altitude training. "When I ran my record I knew I could have run faster even though I did nothing but sea- level training. On other occasions I was fitter but didn't run in races of that quality. Someone with a little bit more ability than me can run under 27 minutes. With the Africans you're looking at genetics - apart from the fact that for generations they've lived at altitude, they run naturally from childhood. That's far more significant. Our problem is that we are a 'driven to school' society.

"We've had a lot of negatives in the past but perhaps we are beginning to start something. At least we seem to be including a few more distance events." Placing Martin in charge nationally would be a great help.