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.

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
news
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
Brendan Rodgers looks on from the touchline
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick