Athletics: Restless Hair Syndrome preoccupies Britain's male athletes

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He's everywhere you look at the moment. Long, black, cocker spaniel locks, D'Artagnan moustache - it's Dave Bedford, circa 1972, advertising the merits of British Telecom's new directory enquiry number. (Quicker, easier, more efficient, and - oh yes - farmoreexpensive) This effective homage to Britain's former middle-distance maverick, still affectionately known as "Bootsie" by those who knew him in his world record-breaking prime - is a wonderful thing, to be sure.

But I fancy what swung it for the man who gloriously ran his first marathon on a whim after a night out clubbing was not his achievements, but his image. It was a cocker spaniel, D'Artagnan thing.

Bedford is one of the first athletes I can recall who was immediately recognisable because of his hair. Among his conservatively tonsured contemporaries, he stood out. Admittedly, within five minutes of the start of most races he stood out as well because he was half a lap ahead of everyone else, although that happy state of affairs didn't always persist by the last lap, when the drones were back on his shoulder and itching for the final straight...

But I digress. The only modification to the Bedford look in recent years has been down to the greying exigencies of time. For all his flamboyance, Bedford is firmly in the Fixed Hair category of British athletes.

Since his retirement, Bedford's image-conscious successors have become far more flexible in their approach, giving rise to what might be termed Restless Hair Syndrome.

Perhaps the prime example of RHS in the last decade has been Jamie Baulch, the pocket-sized Welsh 400 metres runner whose dazzling smile has taken place under a succession of attention-grabbing tonsorial efforts.

Bleach blond came into the reckoning very early on, and then - five years or more before Mr Beckham discovered it - the vertical braids which render the scalp into non-slip safety matting.

Bearing in mind a succession of good-hair days for Baulch, it was depressing last month to see him run so disappointingly at the World Championship trials in Birmingham. As he wandered from the track, his mood was reflected in a more sombre, gingery look. It was as if he had already toned himself down.

Baulch's Welsh colleague Iwan Thomas, who is naturally ginger, has been a tousle-headed bleach blond these last five years. But although the colour may be fixed, the shape is constantly in flux.

The same can be said of another Welshman who often joins these two in the 400 metres relay, Matt Elias. Working on the basis that less is more, the 400 metres hurdler habitually turns up to meetings with most of his head shaven. But working on the basis that more is more, he has his remaining hair styled in a variety of outlandish patterns and stripes before having it luridly coloured.

There is sometimes a clear theme to this operation. At last year's Commonwealth Games, for instance, his sconce resembled a Welsh dragon. At other times, Elias appears the victim of a spray-paint graffiti artist.

While many male athletes have already adopted a preoccupation with hair more traditionally ascribed to women, none of them have yet adopted the unhealthy preoccupation with nails that had afflicted a number of high-profile female athletes.

Prime suspect here naturally, is the late Florence Griffiths-Joyner, who with claw-like nails, painted in gaudy designs, may or may not have been a ploy to distract attention from a physique that, at the time of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, appeared far less obviously feminine than it had four years earlier.

Flo-Jo's fashion statement was mimicked by her US compatriot Gail Devers. The 1996 Olympic 100 metres champion grew her nails to such length that it was hard to imagine how she could leave the blocks without depositing 10 curved talons on the track.

It was also hard to imagine how she ever... No. Best left. But I'll say this. It wouldn't have done for Fanny Blankers-Koen.

Thankfully, Britain's female athletes have not gone down the talon trail, preferred to make their statements with their outfits or, in classic Bedford-style, bare barnets.

Not that such efforts always meet with success. I recall Denise Lewis turning up to her first meeting after winning the Olympic heptathlon title with hair that had been drastically cut and dyed in a colour that was presumably meant to be a reminder of the medal she had earned in Sydney.

When the subject of her new look was raised in the press conference, she came on a bit like Prince Edward after his "It's a Royal Knockout'' fiasco.

"Well," she asked testily. "What do you think of it? Do you like it?'' We could all have been a lot nicer in our response. But the truth was - she looked better before. Sometimes the natural image is enough.

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