Athletics: Impressive East surges to victory

For Mike East, it seems, there is simply no escaping the past. When he first made his mark as a middle-distance runner of shrewd racing distinction, snatching the 1500m bronze medal at the European Indoor Championships in Vienna two years ago, the young man from Portsmouth was labelled as the long-awaited British heir to the crown once held by Ovett, Coe and Cram.

For Mike East, it seems, there is simply no escaping the past. When he first made his mark as a middle-distance runner of shrewd racing distinction, snatching the 1500m bronze medal at the European Indoor Championships in Vienna two years ago, the young man from Portsmouth was labelled as the long-awaited British heir to the crown once held by Ovett, Coe and Cram.

And when he lined up for the men's mile in the Balmoral road races yesterday, he did so with the historical baggage of the Bannister mile anniversary pressing down upon him.

It is just as well that the Commonwealth 1500m champion happens to be such a laid-back, pragmatic soul. With a shrug of his broad shoulders, East dismissed the notion that, as Britain's leading middle-distance man of the 21st century, he ought to have been competing at Iffley Road on Thursday night in the race that marked the 50th anniversary of Sir Roger Bannister's ground-breaking sub-four-minute mile.

"You have to be selfish and decide what's right for you,'' he said, responding to criticism of himself and others for racing for financial reward at Balmoral rather than for the honour of Sir Roger at Oxford. "If I'd been there on Thursday night it wouldn't have been because of me but because people said that maybe I should be there.''

It was not simply a matter of crude economics. As a full-time athlete East does have his bills to pay, but he also has an Olympic season to prepare for. Chasing the opposition at Balmoral was always going to be of greater benefit to him in that respect, too, than chasing the clock at Iffley Road.

The presence in the field of Laban Rotich, his predecessor as Commonwealth champion, afforded East an opportunity to endorse the new credentials he gained at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest in March.

He might have ultimately lost the bronze medal there to the Kenyan, having been disqualified for veering into lane four in the home straight in the 1500m final, but finishing in the top three in a global event was still a significant step-up in status for the 26-year-old. It puts him among the world's élite and he was a class apart from his rivals on the paths of the Balmoral estate yesterday.

Brushing aside a brief challenge from Rotich at halfway, East pulled clear with a quarter of a mile to go and finished with a winning margin of two seconds over the emerging Chris Bolt of Aldershot. He didn't break four minutes but his time, 4min 8sec, was a record on the undulating course. Rotich faded to eighth, clocking 4.13.

It was an impressive display of strength from a man more renowned for the razor-sharp tactical racing that took him to third place in Budapest and to the Commonwealth title in Manchester two years ago, when Bannister presented him with the gold medal. "I truly appreciate what Sir Roger has done,'' East said, addressing the historical question. "It's a phenomenal thing and fair play to the man, and to the likes of Coe and Ovett. But I've really got to push on and sort out my own career. I need to focus on what I'm doing.''

The focal point of what East is doing right now is the Olympic 1500m - unlike the handful of athletes who raced at Oxford and at Balmoral. As 5,000m specialists they could all afford the extra workload. East's most immediate priority is to achieve the Olympic qualifying standard for 1500m, 3:36.20, which he intends to chase in the Dutch town of Hengelo on 31 May. The entry list includes Hicham El Guerrouj, the man who holds the world mile record, 3:43.13.

In preparation East leaves tomorrow for the British Olympic training camp in the Aphrodite Hills in Cyprus. He will be accompanied by his training partner Hayley Tullett, who made her big global breakthrough by taking the 1500m bronze medal at the World Championships in Paris last summer.

Such is the strength of British women's middle-distance running that she had to settle for second place in the women's mile yesterday, finishing four seconds behind Kelly Holmes in 4.33.

The most emphatic winner of the day was Craig Mottram, who followed his victory in the Bannister mile on Thursday with a tour de force in the men's five-kilometre race, surging clear before halfway and finishing eight seconds clear in 13.21. It was a home run of sorts for the 23-year-old Australian, who holds a British passport and is considering the possibility of running for Britain beyond the Athens Olympics.

The son of a former Wimbledon centre-half, Brian Mottram, he was running his first race in Scotland, up the road from his mother's home town, Dunkeld. "I was named after the big hill there,'' he said, referring to the equally dominant Craig a'Barns.

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