Athletics: Confident Campbell looks to lift Britain's fading track hopes

Back in his native Manchester for the Olympic trials, the big-race specialist remains optimistic.
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There's a fire in the Darren Campbell household - not really, it is just a hypothetical situation - and he can take out three things. What are they? Answer: His five-year-old son Aaryn, his partner Clair - no surprises so far - and, finally, the video of his part in the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

There's a fire in the Darren Campbell household - not really, it is just a hypothetical situation - and he can take out three things. What are they? Answer: His five-year-old son Aaryn, his partner Clair - no surprises so far - and, finally, the video of his part in the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

The last detail says much about the kind of person Campbell is. He might have mentioned one of his comprehensive collection of medals - his European 100 metres gold from 1998, perhaps, the prize which confirmed his return to top-flight athletics after a two-year footballing sojourn with the likes of Weymouth and Plymouth Argyle reserves.

He might have selected the Olympic 200m silver medal he won in Sydney four years ago. Or maybe the world 100m bronze medal he stole from under Dwain Chambers' nose in Paris last summer.

Instead he chose a reminder of what remains the most emotional experience of a career which began with two European junior sprint titles in 1991. The video shows him competing with honour on a track less than 10 miles from his childhood home on a Sale council estate.

There are two things you can rely on from Campbell. The first is the ability to rise to the big challenge. And the other, quite simply, is emotion.

Although he turned 30 in December, there remains something child-like in his face, and open about his manner, which helps explain why he has become one of the most popular figureheads in UK Athletics.

The wide-eyed youngster whom Linford Christie took under his wing during the years of his pomp in the early 90s has now taken over the ambassadorial role his mentor once played in the sport.

Like Christie, he is not afraid to express spiky opinions. This week it was Colin Jackson - whose own friendship and business partnership with Christie ended in tears several years ago - who felt the verbal lash after expressing the view, in his new incarnation as part of the BBC commentary team, that no British sprinter would earn an Olympic medal in Athens.

Campbell's response, that Jackson's comment risked eroding the most essential ingredient of any aspiring athlete, namely confidence, was a broadly protective one. He is at the point in his life now where he speaks for his colleagues. As Britain's team captain at the European Cup in Poland last month, it was Campbell who expressed the team's heartfelt distress and sympathy over the traumatic injury suffered there by triple-jumper Ashia Hansen.

Had you only read his quote about Hansen having to let go of her "Olympic dream", you might have thought it was an empty phrase. But with Campbell, both the words register fully. He knows what an Olympic dream is. He's pursued it already - and he's pursuing it once more, perhaps for the final time.

"I could run in four years' time at Beijing," he said. "But right now I've got to think that Athens is my last chance." To that end, Campbell competes this weekend in his native city at the Olympic trials, where he will seek to earn an Olympic place at both 100 and 200 m.

Although the City of Manchester stadium where he won a Commonwealth 100m bronze and a sprint relay gold during those heady, Land-Of-Hope-And-Glory nights of two summers ago, has now been given over to Manchester City - doubly hard for him to accept as a Manchester United fan - Campbell will be doing what he does best at the Sportcity Regional Arena, which has been developed around the Commonwealth Games warm-up track.

And although this crowd will be closer to 7,000 than 37,000, the occasion still reverberates as something special. "I thought the Commonwealth Games would be my last chance to compete in Manchester, and I treated it as if it was," he said. "But now I've got another opportunity and I want to make the best of that too.

"For me, 2002 was all about the Commonwealth Games, not because it was higher in status than the European Championships which came afterwards, but because it was in my home city. And being chosen by the other English athletes to carry the flag at the opening ceremony - that's what meant more than anything to me." Campbell recognises now that Manchester 2002 came at a crucial time in his life, an experience all the more precious for the fact that he nearly missed out on it.

Five weeks earlier, having pulled out of the Commonwealth trials 200m because of a chest infection, Campbell was as low as he has been. Coughing repeatedly, he spoke of his forlorn hopes that the selectors would give him the benefit of the doubt.

His life away from athletics was also in disarray. His relationship with his partner had broken down, partly - as he has subsequently admitted - because he had become difficult to live with after being forced to miss the previous season because of injury. Another admission involved the fact that he had been so down at one point that he had contemplated suicide.

In his darkest hours, he spoke often to his friend Nathan Blake, the Wolverhampton Wanderers forward who is now a near neighbour.

"Nathan and I come from a similar type of background, and it was nice to talk to someone that's experienced the pressures involved with top class sport," Campbell said. "He was extremely helpful to me at the time, and I owe him a lot." Having been offered the chance to take part in the Commonwealth Games, Campbell took full advantage.

"It was one of those turning points in life," said Campbell, who is now back with partner and child - disappointingly, Aaryn's sporting ambitions appear to be turning towards Formula 1 rather than track and field right now - and living near his training base in Cardiff.

"My career began to run smoother and my life became a lot better after it. Right now life is very stable, controlled, and free of stress. It's very different to the way it was a couple of years ago."

The only aspect of the Commonwealth Games which rankled with Campbell was the organisers' failure to ask him to take part in any associated sponsorship and promotion. In retrospect, however, he believes it was for the best.

"It worked out fine in the end, because I don't think I could have handled it properly. I had so much going on in my life it was a blessing in disguise. This time round, approaching the Olympics, I'm more in the spotlight but I can deal with it and still go out and perform at the highest levels."

Taking the liberty of looking beyond this weekend's trials to the Olympics beyond, Campbell surveys his potential rivals at 200m without undue concern, even though Greece's defending champion, Konstantinos Kederis, has been showing well this season and Jamaica's 17-year-old prospect Usain Bolt has already dipped under 20 seconds.

"It's open - that's the best part," Campbell said. "It's definitely not like other seasons when people have gone out there and done something to scare you. At this moment in time, nobody is doing anything that makes me nervous. And by the time we get to Athens, I will have raised my game to another level."

There are, of course, levels and levels within athletics. And given the current scandal emanating from the Balco lab in San Francisco, elements of which have caused questions to be asked about the preparation of some of the Greek athletes, doesn't Campbell feel a twinge of disquiet? "No, not at all," he responds. "I just know that if people are cheating the truth will come out eventually. I believe everyone has their moment in time. Whether you're cheating or not, the big Man upstairs has got his own plans.

"I don't go to church every Sunday, but I was brought up in a Christian household and I just believe in God. I couldn't have done what I have in my life without him. I'd still be on the council estate, probably doing things I shouldn't." In broad terms, Campbell is hugely encouraged by the fact that he has managed - touch wood - a long spell without injury.

"My medal last year was a bonus," he said. "All I wanted out of 2003 was to get through the season injury-free. If I could do that I knew I could be competitive at world-class level. I've never really gone into a major championship in the greatest of shape. This time is the first time I've been in pretty good shape going into the trials.

"This time last year I'd done 20.8sec for 200m. I've already run faster than that twice. But I want to keep things in perspective as much as possible. I don't want to get too excited." That is something which, for Campbell, is easier said than done. When you ask him if he has the same good feeling he had before the Sydney Games, his initial impulse to play a straight bat is swiftly overtaken by a desire to smash the question for six.

"I don't want to say - but yeah!" he responds, with a yelp of laughter. "If what I feel happens, it's probably amazing. It will be totally amazing. I probably won't know what to do with myself. But for now it's a case of trying to stay relaxed. That's the hardest thing, because I've got such high expectations for myself." The inner struggle goes on. Meanwhile, the weekend's business in Manchester is in need of careful attention.