Athletics: Home from home for the contender

Athens 2004: Chris Rawlinson
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The Independent Online

Chris Rawlinson has been a contender for some time now. Back in 1995, the 400m hurdler was a contestant on the Gladiators television show. "Myself and my training partner at the time applied to go on the show for a laugh and the fools actually picked me," the fun-loving South Yorkshireman reflected, grinning at the memory. "I spent five weeks down in Birmingham getting myself beaten up. I was two stone lighter than I am now, so you can imagine the kind of hits I took off Rhino, who weighed about 17 stone. It still gets rerun on UK Gold and my friends like to text me to embarrass me."

Out on the track, Rawlinson has taken a few hits as a contender for international hurdling honours. Last year he recovered from a bout of food poisoning (after eating a chicken meal he had left festering in the back of his car throughout the weekend of the AAA Championships) to win the Commonwealth title in the one-lap hurdles in Manchester. This year, however, his quest for a global medal came to grief after he pulled an adductor muscle three months before the World Championships in Paris. In the circumstances, he worked wonders to reach the final, and finish sixth.

Still, there were signs in 2003 that the Rotherham native would finally make a medal-winning mark at world level. At the European Cup final in Florence he finished comfortably ahead of Periklis Iakovakis, and in the GB-USA match in Glasgow he was well clear of Joey Woody, the athletes who took bronze and silver in Paris. He might even have ended the two-year winning streak of Felix Sanchez, the world champion from the Dominican Republic, had he not made a mess of the penultimate hurdle in a Grand Prix race at Trikala in Greece.

"Everything was going fine for me until that adductor tear," Rawlinson lamented. "It just destroyed everything. In effect, we're F1 racing machines, and they do break down. There's nothing you can do about it. I do feel that if it hadn't happened in the summer I would have got a medal in Paris. But hopefully it'll all come together for me next year, at the Olympics.

"I don't think Felix is untouchable. I take a lot out of my run against him in Trikala. I could have ended his unbeaten run there. If he produces a performance like he did in Paris then it's going to take a superhuman effort to beat him [Sanchez won the World Championship final in a stunning 47.25sec; Rawlinson's personal best, which dates back to 1999, is 48.14sec]. But you look around the rest and there's nothing to be scared of, including my training partner, Kemel Thompson."

Rawlinson trains at Loughborough University with the Jamaican Thompson, who won the London Grand Prix race at the beginning of August but then finished only fifth in Paris. "We've both just finished our masters [degrees] in marketing at Loughborough," Rawlinson said. "We've helped each other on and off the track, as friends and competitors. Kemel's a great athlete. Then there's Joey Woody, and Periklis - he's going to be in his home country."

Rawlinson will be on familiar territory too. For the past three years, he has been a member of the Greek track club Panellinios. "We're actually based right in the centre of Athens, so I'm sure I'll get a lot of support at the Olympics," he said. "The link came about through the late Kim McDonald, who was my agent. He was good friends with the team manager of Panellinios and they were looking for a 400m hurdler.

"I run for them twice a year: in the Greek clubs' championships and in the European clubs' championships. They're a great club and they've given me the chance to step into some pretty impressive shoes. Kevin Young and Samuel Matete were their last two 400m hurdlers."

Young is the fastest 400m hurdler of all time. The American broke Ed Moses's world record with a stunning 46.78sec on the way to to Olympic gold in Barcelona in 1992. Matete won the world title in 1991, and the Zambian is planning to make a comeback in Olympic year. So is Moses, though he is now 48. Matete is 35.

"Moses is making his comeback to raise money for charity," the 31-year-old Rawlinson said. "I just hope he doesn't injure himself or take away from the image we have of him. But Samuel Matete... to be honest, I'd still be quite scared about him. He has run 47.10."

It was not the majestic Moses but the plucky Peter Elliott who inspired Rawlinson to become an athlete. He started out as a 1500m runner at Elliott's club, Rotherham Harriers. "I remember back in 1994, when I ran in the 400m hurdles in the Commonwealth Games trials at the Don Valley Stadium, Peter said he would give me a pair of his shoes if I ran a personal best," Rawlinson recalled. "I beat my best time by 0.4sec and Peter gave me his Asics shoes."

In those days, Rawlinson was not yet a contender, gladiatorially or athletically. He was a lifeguard at Pond's Forge swimming pool in Sheffield. "No, I never saved anyone's life," the Commonwealth champion reflected. "I was always told it's a sign of a good lifeguard if you never have to go into the water to pull anyone out, because you spot potential problems before they actually happen. On that score, I must have been an A1 lifeguard."