Athletics: Benjamin survives health scare to stun world field

Belgrave Harrier times big breakthrough to perfection
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The Independent Online

With one barnstorming circuit of lane seven at Crystal Palace the night before, the Cardiffian claimed the scalps of Jeremy Wariner, the Olympic champion known as "the new Michael Johnson", world No 2 Darold Williamson, former world indoor champion Tyree Washington, and the Commonwealth champion, Michael Blackwood. In doing so, Benjamin smashed through the 45sec barrier, clocking 44.75sec, and emerged from the Norwich Union London Grand Prix as a surprise new British medal hope for the World Championships, which open in Helsinki on Saturday week.

The Welsh Lazarus, now 23, has come a long way since March, when reports of his demise were not only premature but also exaggerated. Following a routine injection administered by a UK Athletics doctor to ease pain in his back, Benjamin was taken to hospital complaining of blinding headaches and dizziness. He was suffering not from a stroke but from a leak of spinal fluid. He was told to keep lying flat on his back, and that it could take months before he would be back on his feet.

"It actually took three weeks," Benjamin reflected. "I couldn't even lift my head off the pillow, in case the spinal fluid leaked. I wouldn't say it was scary, because I was told what was happening to me, but I thought my season had gone."

That season was very much alive on Friday night as the Belgrave Harrier held off Wariner in the home straight with his high-stepping, upright style and his knee-length compression socks, looking every inch a reincarnation of David Jenkins in his 1970s pomp. "I've never seen videos of him running," he said of the Scot who won the European 400m title as a teenager in 1971, was world No 1 in 1975, and who spent years in jail for masterminding a multi-million-dollar steroid-trafficking ring in the United States. "I've run faster than him now, though."

He has indeed. Jenkins' fastest time was 44.93 sec. In one quantum leap on Friday, Benjamin's went from 45.04sec to 44.75sec. "Running 44.7 usually gets you up there in the medals, or just outside," he said, considering his suddenly elevated prospects for a World Championships in which the Great Britain team are likely to have few genuine contenders for places on the rostrum. "I've still got to find another couple of tenths of a second maybe. I can't lay back and rest on my laurels at all. I've really got to keep pushing in training and keep trying to find that bit more extra rhythm during the race.

"But breaking 45sec and beating Wariner gives me all the confidence that I can beat anyone in the world when I put my mind to it. People have been telling me for a long time that I'm on the fringe of world class and some have told me I would never break 45sec, but I've done it now. I've known for a long time that I've had it in me. I've just always been injured."

As a multi-talented youth, Benjamin played roller hockey for Wales, football for one of Swansea City's junior sides and rugby for Cardiff Schools. As a sprinting prodigy, he won the world youth 200m title in 1999 and then the European junior 400m crown in 2001.

His progress in the senior ranks, however, has been held back by a succession of injuries and illnesses. Last year he was disappointed to be knocked out in the Olympic semi-finals, but was subsequently found to be suffering from a lung infection. Even this year, either side of his three-week spell in hospital, his winter preparation was interrupted by a knee injury and a calf problem - the latter causing him to wear the kind of circulatory-stimulating compression socks also sported by Paula Radcliffe, and not greatly dissimilar in look to the basketball socks favoured by Jenkins 30 years ago.

Having missed so much background work, it remains to be seen how Benjamin will withstand four rounds of the 400m in Helsinki. It also remains to be seen whether Wariner can regain the form that took him to a 44.20sec clocking at the US Championships last month and to the Olympic title in Athens last year, at the age of 20.

"I think he's got a lot more left in the tank," Benjamin said. "He's a 44.00sec runner [referring to Wariner's winning time in Athens]. He's also proved that he's a championship performer. Come the day in the World Championships, I'm sure he'll have a lot more there."

Wariner's coach, Clyde Hart, will no doubt be telling him as much. And so will Wariner's manager, Hart's ultimate 400m protégé, Michael Johnson. For his part, Benjamin has a strong coach in his corner: Tony Lester, a former staff sergeant in the Army medical corps. He also has the man who took the 400m silver medal in Johnson's wake at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

For the past 12 months, Roger Black has been assisting Benjamin in a mentoring role. "Roger's been a great help," the world No 7 said. "He's been telling me I'm better than I think I am. I'm glad I've proved him right."