Athletics: Lambert's return threatens the established order

Harvard graduate looks to upstage Britain's top quartet in 200m at AAA Championships
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No question, the 200 metres is the big event at this weekend's AAA Championships and World Championship trials. And as a hugely talented field converges on Sunday to dispute the three places on offer for next month's competition in Paris, the grandstand aficionados of the sport will have their binoculars trained upon an athlete who, despite his huge talent, is still a relative unknown in British sprinting.

Admittedly, Chris Lambert's status as an outsider has been self-imposed - for the last four years he has studied and competed at Harvard University on a sports scholarship. But having graduated with a degree in government last month, this 22-year-old from Lewisham now stands ready to make the grade back on home ground.

Lambert travels to Birmingham as the leading Briton in this year's rankings following his outstanding performance in last weekend's European Under-23 Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, where he won the 200m in a personal best of 20.34sec - beating the home runner Marcin Jedrusinski by 0.05sec - and collected a second gold medal in the sprint relay.

The only downside to Lambert's Polish trip was his collision with team-mate Dwayne Grant while exchanging the baton during Saturday's relay preliminaries, an incident which left him with a grazed knee and a bruised heel. But he was confident enough yesterday that he was in shape to do himself justice at the Alexander Stadium.

"The knee wasn't a problem," he said. "The heel is a little bit bruised - but you don't run on your heel. Overall, I'm in great shape at the moment.

"I was super-nervous about the Under-23s. I always knew it was going to be tough to beat the Polish guy because he had a faster pb than I did and he was running on home soil.

"I haven't always performed at my best in finals before, but I went to Poland looking for something really quick and that's what I produced.

"It's always difficult to come off a major championship and perform again five or six days later, but this has given me great confidence.

"Winning two gold medals in Poland is something I have to push to the back of my mind for the rest of the week because I need to get myself prepared for the AAAs. But I will be able to celebrate after that. Hopefully, it will be a double celebration."

As Lambert surveys the fellow Britons who trail him in the rankings, however, he does not make the mistake of underestimating any of them. A wise move, given the presence of the Olympic silver medallist Darren Campbell, the former Commonwealth champion Julian Golding, the former European indoor and world junior champion Christian Malcolm, the world indoor champion Marlon Devonish and the European 100m champion Dwain Chambers, who is toying with the idea of doubling up at the World Championships.

"I may be top of the rankings right now, but in terms of personal bests I'm the slowest guy out of the top five," Lambert said. "These are guys who have all done well on big occasions and you can never rule any of them out. But I want to be able to go and show my face at the AAAs and compete as I know I can."

That may sound a conservative wish, but Lambert knows to his own chagrin what it is like to arrive at a major championship in less than peak condition. Having earned a place at last year's Commonwealth Games by finishing third in the trials - and beating the double European indoor champion Jason Gardener to third place in the 100m - Lambert promptly got injured, and he recovered just in time to catch a virus infection on the eve of competition.

"I had been set on running the Commonwealths in Manchester ever since watching the 1998 Games in Kuala Lumpur," he said. "The following year I really took off, and I knew I would have a chance of breaking into the England team."

He was right about that - but, with his form undermined by illness, he was unable to progress beyond the semi-finals, thus missing the opportunity to compete against the quadruple Olympic silver medallist Frankie Fredericks, the Namibian who has been Lambert's inspiration in the sport.

"I thought they might be the last championships where I would have the chance to race him," Lambert said. "But I couldn't reach the final. It was very frustrating."

Opportunities to race Fredericks had been particularly scarce, given that Lambert was not able to take part in the main run of commercial meetings for fear of compromising his college status. His progress was also hampered by his refusal to fall in with the training methods employed by his coaches at Harvard, a stand which condemned him to training alone for the first two years there, waiting until his team-mates had cleared the track before getting to work.

Lambert may be laid-back, but he is a very determined individual. And, after a recent visit to the British Olympic Association's medical centre, a very relieved one. Tests there showed that, although his lung capacity was above average, it became dramatically reduced after exercise, dropping by 37 per cent after six minutes of activity.

"They said I had the lungs of a 71-year-old," Lambert recalled, with a chuckle. "The medication they have given me has made a big difference."

He's fast. He's fit. He's a contender.