Athletics: Old hand winding the clock forward

Veteran coach Malcolm Arnold is the force keeping Britain's rising sprint hopefuls on their marks. By Mike Rowbottom

Winter sunlight slants through the long gallery window of Bath University's indoor 100 metres track, illuminating a grey-haired figure in comfortable tracksuit trousers and trainers. Malcolm Arnold may be seated on the periphery of the action as the three sprinters whose careers he currently guides go through their paces, but he is the central figure.

Having helped Colin Jackson become the outstanding high hurdler in the world in the 1990s and steered Uganda's John Akii-Bua to the Olympic 400 metres hurdles title at the 1972 Munich Games, Arnold has nothing left to prove. But here he is, helping form the aspirations of another generation of athletes.

The sprinter who has benefited primarily from Arnold's experience in the past four years, the European and former world indoor champion Jason Gardener, is preparing for a session involving three scheduled starts. Alongside him is Craig Pickering, the 20-year-old European junior champion who tops this year's fledgling world 60 metres rankings with a time of 6.56sec in last Saturday's meeting at Lee Valley. Awaiting his turn on track is 19-year-old Ryan Scott, a relay bronze medallist at last year's World Junior Championships.

It is a measure of how effective Arnold's training sessions are, and also of how effectively the internal competition operates, that all three men look as nervous as if they were about to race for real. Pickering shifts from one foot to the other, occasionally blowing out hard. Gardener, back for what may be his final season after a year ruined by a back problem, claps his hands hard, twice.

"On your marks," intones Arnold, before activating the bleep which sets the pair off through cameras set at 10 and 30 metres. Afterwards, both wheel around and make straight for the machine which has already printed out the incontrovertible proof of their performances. In the old days, winter training for sprinters used to be about getting through outdoor sessions without pulling any muscles. Lottery funding, new technology and a sense of Olympic anticipation mean that is no longer the case.

"Craig, that was a much better series for you," says Gardener as he inspects what looks like a till receipt. Arnold is close at hand. "That's pb [personal best] territory for you, Craig," he adds.

Gardener and his young training partner are due to compete tomorrow at the Norwich Union International in Glasgow, the first major race of a domestic indoor season that will culminate in Birmingham's hosting of the European Indoor Championships between 2 and 4 March. Gardener is expected to win at his specialist distance, despite a recent cold. But Pickering will be waiting.

Balancing the claims of close rivals is something Arnold has managed in the past. Despite his initial opposition, he was persuaded by Jackson to take on fellow hurdler Mark McKoy in the run-up to the 1992 Olympics because the Canadian was such an accomplished starter. The newcomer went on to win the Olympic title and the world indoor title the following year.

Arnold accepts that such upsets will always happen where competitive athletes are involved. "I'm a professional coach in a hard sport where objective results matter," he says. "So if Craig kicks Jason's backside, or young Ryan Scott kicks Craig's, that's fine by me. There is a pecking order, but it sorts itself out.

"When Craig came back after the Lee Valley run, Jason was the first to congratulate him and shake his hand. Both of them have got a brain between their ears. It's only when you've got dumbos that you get the aggravation.

"They are a friendly lot here. It was the same with Colin and Mark - they would always have a laugh and take the mickey out of each other. But it all finishes when you get to the line."

Gardener announces after his second effort that he has done enough. Pickering undergoes one final tourney against Scott

"Craig's greatest strength has always been how he finishes his races, so in a way we are working on improving his weakness," Arnold says. "Jason is very strong at the start. But as you've just heard, that bugger's working within himself."

Arnold has never been one to suffer fools gladly, however, and it always does to listen carefully to what he says, given his predilection for lobbing verbal grenades.

"Malcolm is a great coach to be around," Pickering says. "He's seen it all before. You could run a world record, and he would just say, 'Well done.' To be working under someone with such experience gives you lots of confidence. Fortunately, he has not needed to have a cross word with me yet. But you can't mess around because he won't take it."

Both Arnold and Gardener acknowledge the professionalism with which Pickering, whose afternoon schedule involves a psychology exam as part of his degree in sport and exercise science, is setting about his sport.

"Craig is a real talent," says Gardener, who is eager to win a third European indoor title this season. "When he ran 6.56 I wasn't surprised, because I knew how well he was training. When I came back to work in October after my back operation, these guys were beating me hands down. It was a huge wake-up call. My times now in training are just as good as, and maybe even better than, ever before. Craig is young, and he can think about the Beijing Olympics and the London Olympics. I'm down the line, and I've got to focus on now."

Pickering, too, is cautious in his predictions: "Sprinters for the most part talk a lot about what they are going to do," he says with a smile. "If you don't back it up, you look stupid."

But if and when the junior outstrips the senior, he does not believe that Gardener will be anything other than sporting. "I think he'll be pleased for me, particularly as he has helped me so much," he says. "I don't think he'll be bitter."

Time will tell - but Pickering is probably right.