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Athletics: East's change of direction points to the new world

Britain's brightest middle-distance hope has moved from nowhere man to contender. Simon Turnbull talks to him

While the Morpeth Harrier Nick McCormick was continuing his impressive progress, clocking the fastest time this year by a European, in ninth place, East was at the Norwich Union Great Britain Holding Camp in Turku, getting ready for the 1500m heats on the opening day of the World Championships in Helsinki. It will be the same tomorrow. On the 25th anniversary of the epic 1500m showdown between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett at the Moscow Olympics, East will have his head down, hammering away on the training track. Ever since he emerged as an international racer of rare natural ability, snatching the 1500m bronze medal at the European Indoor Championships in Vienna in the spring of 2002, the 27-year-old has been regarded as the heir apparent to the British middle-distance kings of old. In reality, he is no Ovett, Coe or Cram, but he is a singular athlete.

East, to borrow a popular title, is East - a modern British middle-distance marvel in his own right. That much has been underlined by the position he has managed to manoeuvre himself into before the World Championships: from no form before the trials in Manchester just three weeks ago to that of a potential contender.

Last summer East continued his ascent towards the peak of the global pile, improving his 1500m personal best to 3min 32.37sec at the Golden Gala meeting in Rome and taking sixth place in the Olympic 1500m final, as the only male British finalist in an individual event on the track in Athens. His hopes of making further significant progress in 2005, however, were seriously undermined by iliotibial band friction syndrome, a knee problem caused by the thick band of tissue that stretches down from the thigh. It kept him off the track from October to March and, even when he returned to training, he was hampered by a compensatory hip injury.

It was not until the trials on 9 July that East tackled his first race of the year, finishing third in his 1500m heat at the Manchester Regional Arena, behind Chris Mulvaney and McCormick. The following day he was third in the final, behind McCormick and Andy Baddeley, clocking an encouraging 3:37.23 but - unsurprisingly - finding himself short of finishing speed in the home straight.

It was different at Crystal Palace nine days ago. In the 1500m at the Norwich Union London Grand Prix. McCormick and Baddeley both smashed their personal bests, the former securing the qualifying time for Helsinki, but East was two-and-a-half seconds ahead of them, back in world-class territory. A close third behind Bernard Lagat, the silver medallist in Athens, and Alan Webb, the US champion, he conjured the second-quickest time of his career, 3:33.32.

It left East himself on the stunned side of surprised. "I was listening to the commentary from the trials," he reflected, "and everyone was saying, 'Great run, coming back from injury'. I had an epidural in March. That's not a pissy injury. It's a major medical action. It hit me hard. I'm an athlete who needs his winter background, because aerobically I'm not very strong. It was always going to take its toll.

"Racing in Manchester kickstarted my system and the training sessions I did after that pretty much replicated what I was doing in Cyprus, in the British holding camp, before the Olympics last year. It's races that move you on, though, and Crystal Palace has done that for me. There's nothing like being competitive and I was competitive there."

It remains to be seen how competitive East can be through the rigours of three rounds in Helsinki. His event, however, happens to be wide open this year, with Hicham El Guerrouj, the Olympic champion and four-times world champion, absent because of a virus, and Lagat ineligible to compete following a winter switch of national allegiance from Kenya to the United States. The world rankings are headed by Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain with a time of 3min 30.00sec, although the emerging 20-year-old Kenyan Daniel Kipchirchir Komen (not to be confused with 29-year-old Daniel Kipngetich Komen, the 3,000m world record holder), the muscular Ukrainian Ivan Heschko and the adopted Qatari Dahame Bashir, formerly David Nyaga of Kenya, are all equally likely contenders.

Bashir emerged victorious from the Dream Mile in 3:47.97, ahead of Lagat and Komen, with McCormick ninth in 3:52.02, taking a whopping 15.43sec off his personal best as well as the scalp of Portugal's Rui Silva, the Olympic bronze medallist tipped by El Guerrouj to take his world crown.

Not that East is talking up his own medal prospects. "I'm looking at it the same way I did at the AAA Champion-ships," he said. "I've got to get through to the final. If I do that, then I can make a reassessment."

East's coach, Mark Rowland, has travelled with him to Finland in a similarly pragmatic frame of mind. "Before Crystal Palace, my major thought was, 'Can he get into shape just to make it worth going to Helsinki?' " he reflected. "After everything that's happened, there's no real pressure on him. Whatever he does will be a bonus."

It will indeed - for East and for his coach, who knows all about the golden days of Ovett, Coe and Cram. Winner of the UK 1500m title and the Emsley Carr Mile in 1985, Rowland was obliged to move from the middle distances to the 3,000m steeplechase to make his name as an international athlete. That name still stands alongside the British record he set as a brilliant Olympic bronze medallist over the barriers in Seoul in 1988.