Athletics: Olympic challenge fires Lewis-Francis

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The Independent Online

Watching last year's World Championship 100 metres final made uncomfortable viewing for Mark Lewis-Francis. The wunderkind who emerged to international prominence in 2000, when he steered clear of the Olympics in order to secure the world junior 100m title, had to watch a sprinter two years younger than him, Trinidad's 18-year-old Darrel Brown, come through for an unexpected silver medal behind the equally unexpected gold medallist, Kim Collins, of St Kitts and Nevis.

"Seeing an 18-year-old come home with the silver medal kind of made me think 'I need to wake up'," recalled Lewis-Francis, who could only finish last in his semi-final. "I could have been in that final, could have brought home a medal. So now it's all about being a bit more disciplined in what I'm doing."

Although the Birmingham-based sprinter only turned 21 in September, he realised it was time for him to grow up and realise the potential which has glittered with such tantalising brilliance in the last three seasons, when satisfying indoor achievements have been followed by anti-climactic summers.

This year of all years, there is no room for error as Lewis-Francis sets his sights on his first Olympics.

"Obviously it's time to wake up," he said. "It's Olympic year. Many people said I should go to the Olympics in 2000 because I might not be around in 2004, and I just want to prove a few of them wrong. All I need to do is be more disciplined."

That is a task he has been sharing with another hugely talented British sprinter whose performances have fallen short of expectations in recent summers, Christian Malcolm, an athlete whose attitude to training - and indeed life in general - has on occasions defined the term "laid-back."

Lewis-Francis and Malcolm worked together in South Africa earlier this year on a three-week programme jointly devised by their respective coaches, Steve Platt and Jock Anderson.

"Going to South Africa and working with another international athlete like Christian has been a great benefit to me," Lewis-Francis said.

"I'm not saying I wasn't disciplined a couple of years ago but I'm more focused on what I'm doing now. But it's been more of a confidence thing than anything - we've been putting good sessions together and getting our confidence back.

"Christian was a great athlete in 1998, and my year was 2000. I was going back and reminiscing about those times really. I know we've got the talent still. It's just about putting the work in - not turning up to training late, not playing about. I'm a lot fitter than I was a couple of years ago. I'm not suffering any form of injuries - I am totally fit. I'm just ready to go out there and see what happens."

Unlike the past three years, when he has picked up a world indoor bronze and a European silver over 60m, Lewis-Francis has decided to run sparingly indoors in order avoid picking up injuries. "My aim is to go out to Athens and be an Olympic champion," he said. "That's why I'm sacrificing the indoor season so I can focus more on the outdoor season."

But the lure of competition remains strong. As he spoke, he looked down from his vantage point in Birmingham's National Indoor Arena to the track where he will open his season this weekend in the Birmingham Games before taking part in the Norwich Union Grand Prix on the same track a week tomorrow. "I just can't wait to run and see what happens," he said.