Athletics: Golden Gardener sprints away from a career change

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When the World Championship 100m final was decided in the Stade de France last August Jason Gardener was conspicuously absent from the high speed equation. He was sitting in the British Eurosport television studios in west London, proferring his expert opinion, and wondering whether his future might lie in the commentary boxes rather than in the fast lanes of major championship sprinting.

Having failed to qualify for the British team after a fourth summer of vainly struggling to make an impact on the outdoor circuit, Gardener booked himself on to a BBC training course for the autumn of 2004 with a view to a possible career change should his sprinting ambitions continue to stall in Olympic year. "I had to be realistic," Gardener reflected yesterday. "I'd turned 28 and I'd had a lot of problems over the years. I looked on it as a good insurance policy." Having banked $40,000 plus a gold medal on Friday night, however, the policy and the new career can wait.

Gardener, a graduate in media and communications studies from Bath Spa University, left the track after the World Indoor Championship 60m final in the Budapest Sport-Arena not to join Colin Jackson as a colleague in the BBC gantry but to be interviewed by his close friend as a world sprint champion and a genuine contender for the Olympic 100m blue riband in Athens.

The highly articulate, highly affable Gardener has been an international indoor achiever before - twice a winner of the European 60m crown and twice a bronze medallist in the world championships on the boards - but in smacking the global bullseye so resoundingly here in the Hungarian capital the man known as The Bath Bullet has shot into new territory. As he dipped across the finish line in 6.49sec, 0.03sec clear of the American Shawn Crawford, the pride of Bath and Wessex Athletics Club became the first Briton to claim the title - Linford Christie's best showing was second to Andre Cason in Seville in 1991. He also maintained a level of high-speed excellence only seen once before by an indoor 60m runner. His fifth sub-6.50sec clocking of the season matched Maurice Greene's feat of 1998, back in the days when the Kansas Cannonball reigned supreme as the world's No 1 sprinter.

It was also Gardener's 14th victory in 15 races this year (his one defeat having been self-inflicted, when he got caught napping in his starting blocks at the Norwich Union Grand Prix in Birmingham) - a level of consistency that has given him an aura of international invincibility to take into the Olympic outdoor season. On the form he has produced in the last two months, he has to be considered as a potential challenger for a medal in Athens and for Greene's prized 100m crown.

"To be running exceptionally well on a consistent basis can only bode well for running the 100m and for fulfilling my true potential at that distance," Gardener asserted. "Coming here as number one and leaving as world champion will do me a world of good too, because I've shown that I can handle the pressure. I also believe I now have the training programme to allow me to perform consistently well in the summer without breaking down, as I have done in the past."

That programme has been steadily strengthening Gardener and honing his rich natural speed for 18 months now. It has been implemented by Malcolm Arnold, the coach who guided Jackson to sprint hurdle world records indoors and out and whose next task, he said yesterday, is to instill the steely mental belief that Jackson took with him into major championship competition. "There's no great secret to it," Gardener said. "It's just been a lot of hard work, hard conditioning.

"I'm a different athlete than I was two years ago. To be honest, I wasn't going anywhere under my old regime. I needed to move to the next level and linking up with Malcolm has helped me to do that."

It has also helped Gardener - as he discussed expansively in these pages three weeks ago - that the global clampdown on drugs in the wake of the tetrahydrogestrinone designer steroid scandal has effected a levelling of the playing field on the world sprinting stage. "It's allowing people like myself to win within the rules," he reiterated yesterday before collecting his gold medal and preparing to return home to his partner, Nancy, who is expecting their first child next month.

Just seven months ago Dwain Chambers was the big British hope to become the world sprint champion outdoors in Paris. On Friday night, he was contemplating the need for a new career in the wake of his drugs ban while the graceful Gardener was making his big breakthrough, and a clean break for the frowned-upon speed merchants of track and field.