Commonwealth Games: Thomas applies supreme will

Showdown on the track: Welshman defies back injury to add 400 metres gold to European and World Cup titles
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The Independent Online
IF ANYONE even faintly doubted it, they know it now: Iwan Thomas is a championship racer par excellence. The 24-year-old Welshman yesterday added a Commonwealth 400 metres gold medal to the European and World Cup titles he has won in the space of a month, having overcome a back injury, which, he revealed, had left him unable to walk after his second-round heat on Wednesday.

His victory was a blow for his domestic rival Mark Richardson, who had been desperate to make up for his defeat by the Welshman at the European Championships late in July.

Just three days after making the 6,000 miles flight from Johannesburg, the World Cup venue, Thomas completed his trial by ordeal with a time of 44.52 sec as Richardson, teeth clenched with effort, followed him home to take silver in 44.60. It was a demonstration of strength and endurance that was hard to credit. But even the rugged Welshman is human - as it became clear following his win. After his second-round heat a disc in his back began to give him such pain that he was unable to walk properly.

"I was in tears, because I wasn't going to be able to run," he said. Then he heard that Torbern Hersborg, a Danish osteopath he knew, was in town and he sent out an SOS. "Torbern arrived at the athletes' village at 11 that night, and he was still working on me at four the following morning," Thomas said. "I felt something go click - and then it was all right."

Twelve hours later he was chatting his way down the final straight with Welsh team-mate Jamie Baulch to qualify from his semi-final in 44.61. Perhaps, he isn't human after all.

Richardson could have been forgiven for lying on the floor, kicking his heels and screaming. Instead, he responded with customary dignity. "Obviously, I'm not pleased that I lost," he said. "But I feel I did myself justice in the final. Iwan is a great racer. I don't know how he had the strength to do what he did."

With his shirt hanging out of his shorts, and his haywire hair sticking up, Thomas looked even more like Just William than ever as he stood contemplating his achievement. "It's not only about who has got the most ability, it's about believing in yourself."

While Richardson had to settle for silver, two of his England team-mates, Judy Oakes and Larry Achike, produced gold in the shot and triple jump respectively.

Oakes, now 40, won her first Commonwealth medal in 1978, and this was her third gold in a career which has seen her make 87 international appearances. Oakes came close to expunging Gael Martin's drug-tainted Commonwealth Games record of 19.00m, reaching 18.83. All six of her throws went further than those of Myrtle Augee, who took the silver for England.

"This is special for me because these are definitely my last Commonwealths," said Oakes, who admitted that she was feeling her age. The innocent comment of a Malaysian reporter probably didn't help her in that respect: "Judy," he asked, "How many grandchildren have you got?" Oakes had visited a hairdresser here to have her fringe died red, white and blue. But something went wrong and the fringe came out gold. Ideal, as it turned out.

Achike, 23, set a new personal best and Commonwealth Games record of 17.10m as he made the most of an event lacking the injured world record- holder, Johnathan Edwards.

The 23-year-old has just enjoyed his first winter of training free from injury since winning the World Junior title four years ago. He paid tribute to the coach with whom he worked in Australia this year, Keith Connor, who won the Commonwealth triple jump title in the same year Oakes landed her first gold medal, 1982.

Oakes was not the only senior athletic citizen to earn a trip to the podium. At 38, and with her 11-year-old son watching proudly, Gowry Retchakan won the first international medal of her career in what was her last race, taking the 400m hurdles silver behind Australia's Andrea Blackett in 55.25 sec, her best time for five years. A fine farewell, indeed.

There was silver, too, for England's hammer-thrower Mike Jones, who does his weight training during lunchtime breaks from his 50-hours-a-week as a warehouseman. The 35-year-old from Crawley practises on a seven by 10- foot concrete slab, which he persuaded a local farmer to let him lay in his field. "I told him he could use it to get his tractor in, and I could use it for throwing. The field is about 75m long, with strawberries and leeks at the top end."

Jones raised his personal best to 74.02m behind Stuart Rendell of Australia. If he carries on like this, the produce is set for a pounding.

In the women's 400m, Scotland's Allison Kurbishley lowered her personal best to 50.71 sec to take silver ahead of England's Donna Fraser, who recorded 51.01.

Canada's Michael Smith failed in his attempt to equal the English great Daley Thompson's feat of three consecutive Commonwealth Games gold medals in the decathlon.

Smith finished the 10 events with 8,143 points, behind two younger Australians, Jagan Hames, who won with 8,490pts and Scott Ferrier, who took the silver with 8,307pts. He had aggravated a tendon injury when his pole broke during the warm-up for the pole vault.

However, Smith, who turned 31 two days ago, was gracious in defeat. "The two young Aussies competed brilliantly. I'll take my bronze medal with a smile on my face," he said.