Athletics: Mayock and Thomas walk fine line between hope and despair

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The Independent Online

For those 37 British athletes selected this week for the World Championships, the period between now and the start of competition in Paris on 23 August represents something of a phoney war.

Other than Friday's meeting at Crystal Palace, there is no obvious call upon their competitive services. They need to relax without losing concentration, to train without overdoing it.

But, for those on the fringes - recovering from injury, or still requiring qualifying performances - the calendar resembles a slippery slope down which their fondest hopes and aspirations are about to disappear.

The happiest man at the team announcement, by a metric country mile, was the 1500 metres runner Michael East, who had been told only minutes before that, rather than having to hack around Europe in desperate search of the World Championship A standard qualifying mark to go with last weekend's victory in the trials, he didn't have to bother.

The selectors had activated plan B - which allows them to enter a competitor at a lower standard with the proviso that only one is chosen for the event.

For Britain's leading 1500m runner of recent years, the former European indoor 3,000m champion John Mayock, the ill tidings were not unexpected.

As things turned out, I had the uneasy task of breaking the news to him. I felt like someone telling Eeyore the picnic was cancelled. I could almost picture the little raincloud above his head.

Mayock had not gone out of his way to check the team announcement because he had more important matters on his mind - his wife, Lindsey, was due to have their second child last Friday week, and the household was in a state of tense alert.

For a runner whose form has dipped in recent weeks, life has been confusing. Having risked running at the trials, despite his preoccupation, he produced a predictably tepid performance, finishing fourth.

Back home, he regretted going. But at least the news of East's elevation spared him further worry about whether he could afford to compete again, perhaps abroad, while his wife was so close to giving birth.

It also gave him a little leeway to continue looking for a job, something he has not had to contemplate for a while. With prize-money falling - "It's just a bit hard in athletics now. Five years ago you used to get decent money, but now it's peanuts" - and entry to the top races growing ever more competitive, the Rotherham athlete is having to put himself back into a different market. After all, he'll have another mouth to feed before long.

Admittedly, financial life is hardly that much easier for East, despite the fact that he is the reigning Commonwealth champion.

After his victory in Manchester last summer, he attempted to generate some commercial and sponsorship interest in his home city of Portsmouth. He had one response - an offer to open a Church fête. Which, being a nice, polite, middle-class boy, he honoured.

But at least East - fingers crossed - is off and running as far as Paris is concerned, with the prospect of raising his profile to a higher level.

Profile is not a concern of Iwan Thomas. Despite the fact that his big year - European, Commonwealth and World Cup 400 metres champion - was five injury-strewn years ago, Thomas's affable personality and haywire bleached hair have allowed him to remain more or less in the public consciousness. He was even voted Hunk of the Year in a recent women's magazine poll.

What Thomas yearns for, however, is the off and running bit. Despite registering a time narrowly outside the qualifying mark earlier this season, by the time he got to the trials in Birmingham he had yet another problem with his Achilles tendon. He ran. It hurt. And, on the same track where he set the current British record of 44.36sec, he finished last, in 47.13.

"I'd had injections in the foot, but I felt it after three strides," he said this week. "I was in agony. It was the most painful thing I've ever had."

By today, Thomas will have completed a three-day session of intensive physiotherapy. An MRI scan this week gave him a faint glimpse of clear sky - apparently it is not his tendon that is the problem, but only the sheath around it. Rest would repair it. But Thomas, who is desperate to maintain some kind of momentum ahead of next year's Olympics, cannot afford to rest.

Mayock, meanwhile, believes he may have an outside chance of selection for the 5,000 metres, given that he ran the A standard last season.

That old line of Michael Frayn's comes back to mind - it's not the despair, it's the hope. Speaking to Mayock and Thomas this week was enough to confirm that hope can be the most painful emotion of all.