Athletics: Athens zooms into view for Smith, the newest kid on the blocks

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The track will be different, but the location only partially removed. In the shadow of the City of Manchester Stadium, top-class athletics returns to the scene of the 2002 Commonwealth Games next Saturday and Sunday with the staging of the Norwich Union Olympic Trials and AAA Championships at the Manchester Regional Arena.

The showpiece men's 100m was won by a dark horse two years ago, and what price lightning striking again on Saturday in the revamped warm-up track used for the Games? Back in 2002, amid the hyped-up anticipation of a battle between Mark Lewis-Francis and Dwain Chambers, nobody considered Kim Collins, but as the home favourites limped out of contention the supposed outsider from St Kitts duly delivered the promise he had shown as a World Championships 200m bronze medallist in 2001. Two years on, in domestic terms, Nick Smith has been quietly acquiring the pedigree that could upset the established British speedsters when team places for Athens are on the line on Saturday night.

The 21-year-old Scot has been the emerging kid on the block all year. In February he finished runner-up to Gardener in the 60m at the AAA Indoor Championships but declined a place in the British team for the World Indoor Championships because it clashed with a long-arranged warm-weather training trip to South Africa. In May he won the Inter Counties 100m title ahead of Marlon Devonish, the world indoor 200m champion of 2003. And at Gateshead a week ago he beat Gardener, who took the world indoor 60m crown in Budapest, and Darren Campbell, winner of the 100m bronze medal at last year's World Championships, in the 100m at the Norwich Union British Grand Prix. Finishing fifth in a race won by Collins, the reigning 100m world champion, the flying young Scotsman was also within 0.02sec of Lewis-Francis's prized scalp.

To force himself into the selection frame for Athens, however, Smith needs to claim one of the first two places in Manchester and improve his personal best from 10.28sec to the Olympic qualifying standard of 10.21. Although he happens to be the third-fastest Briton this summer (behind Lewis-Francis, who clocked 10.17 at Bedford last month, and Campbell, who recorded 10.21 in Rome on Friday night), he can ill-afford to finish third in Saturday's final, thus leaving his case for the final team spot at the mercy of the selectors.

Gardener has the qualifying time from last summer and, having undergone a double hernia operation since his world indoor win in Budapest, the "Bath Bullet" is likely to be treated sympathetically if he is outside the first two. "I know it's going to be very tough for me," Smith acknowledged. "I gained a lot of positives, and a lot of experience, from Gateshead. I'm hoping to carry that forward to the trials, but I expect Jason and Darren will be fired up to beat me. And I'm sure Mark will be fired up too, because he's not been running that well by his standards. You've got to remember that these guys are world-class. They've been in the sport a lot longer than I have. They have the experience to handle the big races. I've still got a lot to learn."

Smith, three months younger than Lewis-Francis, is a native of Edinburgh, the so-called "Athens of the North". He moved to Dunfermline at 17 to be coached by Jimmy Bryce, the man who guided the 16-year-old Lynsey Macdonald to Olympic 4 x 400m relay bronze in 1980, and the fruits of their partnership included a win in the Edinburgh New Year Sprint - the old Powderhall crown of professional handicap sprinting - in 2001. Since last year, though, Smith has been refining his raw, loose-limbed sprinting style under the joint tutelage of Stuart Hogg - a former fitness coach to the football clubs of Aberdeen and Dundee United, who helped Yvonne Murray to Olympic 3,000m bronze in 1988 - and Aileen McGillivary, a former European Under-23 champion at 100m.

"I also get great support from the Scottish Institute of Sport," Smith stressed, "and from my training partners: Ian Kennedy, Lynsey Harley and Brett Rund. They've all helped me a great deal." Helped all the way to the Athens of the South, quite possibly.