Athletics: Montgomery must heal broken soul at Palace

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The Independent Online

Twelve months ago, even before he became the fastest man in history, Tim Montgomery was always talking the talk. He spoke of blending the first half of Maurice Greene's race with the second half of Carl Lewis's - of "mixing it all together, like baking a cake." It was a recipe that broke Greene's 100 metres world record in Paris last September but now, it seems, the ingredients have disappeared down the kitchen sink.

Instead of sprinting the sprint in Stockholm on Tuesday, Montgomery was reduced to something closer to a walk. The man who ran 9.78sec in last year's Grand Prix Final clocked 10.37. He was back among the ranks of the also-rans, finishing in sixth position. Nothing short of a transformation in the Norwich Union London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace this evening will restore his broken confidence, let alone his reputation, before the World Championships, which open in the Stade de France a fortnight tomorrow.

At the pre-meeting press conference at the Croydon Hilton yesterday, the American laid bare his fragile soul. It must have sounded musical to the ears of Dwain Chambers and Mark Lewis-Francis, the British contenders for victory in the main event on the programme at the Palace tonight and, more importantly, for the 100m gold medal in Paris. Never has a holder of the 100m world record betrayed such self-doubt and vulnerability in the public spotlight.

"That was crazy, The Tim Montgomery Show," Chambers remarked after sharing the platform with the man from Gaffney, South Carolina. Chambers' coach, Remi Korchemny, was equally stunned. "I talk to Dwain about how to control himself in his running but also his emotions and his brain," the Ukrainian said. "Nobody has ever taught him [Montgomery] that."

It was certainly a bizarre performance, though it was not without reason. Montgomery returned to the European circuit in Sweden after five weeks on paternity leave back in the United States following the birth of Tim Jnr to himself and his high-speed partner, Marion Jones, on 28 June. He is also in the throes of working with a new coach, Dan Pfaff, after his and Jones' ill-judged dalliance with Charlie Francis, Ben Johnson's old mentor. If Montgomery's mind is off the ball, it is understandable.

"My mind has been at home," he admitted. "On Tuesday the child went to the doctor for his first-month check-up, so on Monday night I was thinking, 'Is his heart right? Is this right? Is that right?' It's so important for us.

"And then I ran 10.37sec in Stockholm. I can't even describe what I felt. It had to be one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. And I vowed not to be embarrassed again. I told my coach, 'If I'm not ready Friday please do not put me out there, because I cannot mentally handle another defeat like that.'

"Running 10.37sec has made me humble," he added. "Before, I was like, 'You cannot hurt me. I'm the best.' But there isn't a year when an athlete has not had a flop race.

"I was excited with everything... I was just up there in the air and the plane crashed in Stockholm. Now I'll take it back on the runway. Pray to God it'll be ready for Paris."

It is conviction rather than prayer that is likely to prove decisive in Paris. As Chambers put it: "If you believe you can go out and win the World Championship, that's the frame of mind to be in. If you've got doubts thinking about it then it's not going to happen."

Perhaps Montgomery's spirit will be galvanised when his other half joins him in Europe. Jones, it was revealed yesterday, will run the 100m at the Golden League meeting in Brussels on 5 September - just 70 days after giving birth. According to Wilfred Meert, the meeting promoter, she is already capable of running "between 11.05sec and 11.10sec."