Athletics: Soos takes burden of middle-distance heritage in stride

Faces to follow for 2004: Coe's former coach says Loughborough University athlete reminds him of former double Olympic champion
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The Independent Online

It is hardly surprising that British male middle-distance runners have struggled to make an international impact over the past decade because they take to the track with so much baggage, given the heady achievements of Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott in the 1980s.

The appetite for a successor remains keen among both the cognoscenti and the wider audience of those for whom the mile, or near offer, has always been one of the most compelling athletics events. Yet the way in which the event has been moved on by African runners in the past 10 years has made that task ever more daunting.

Now, however, there is another contender for bridging the gap: Ricky Soos. And no less a judge than George Gandy, who worked closely with Coe during his time at Loughborough University and who also coached the 1986 European 5000 metres champion, Jack Buckner, believes this leggy 20-year-old from Kirky-in-Ashfield, near Mansfield, has a real chance of breaking through.

Gandy, who has worked with Soos at Loughborough for the past couple of years and recently became his joint-coach, along with the man who has nurtured him at Mansfield Harriers, John Cooper, believes his charge is, "the best combined 800 and 1500 metres talent to emerge since the Coe-Ovett-Cram-Elliott era".

The sport had a good view of what Gandy meant last season, when Soos, having suffered a disappointing failure in the European Under-23 Championships, swiftly refocused his energies to win the World Championship trials and AAA Championships at 800m.

It was not so much the victory as the elegant manner in which it was achieved that captured the attention. Learning from his error in the semi-final, where he became boxed in, Soos took the lead after 200 metres and simply extended it.

His next race, at Crystal Palace, saw him reduce his personal best to 1min 46.06sec. Had he not had to hurdle the fallen figure of Hezekiel Sepeng, Soos would surely have achieved the World Championship 800m A qualifying standard of 1min 46.00sec.

As it was, the selectors indicated their faith in him by exercising their option to send one competitor in the event with a B standard, ignoring the claim of others including James McIllroy, who had the A standard.

Soos was aware of unhappiness in the McIllroy camp but as he points out, it is not his job to select, merely to run. And although he was disappointed at only managing third place in his heat at the World Championships, he believes the experience will stand him in good stead when he next encounters a major championship.

This season's target is, of course, the Athens Olympics, and Soos has his sights on reaching the 800m final there.

That would represent a huge step up for the undergraduate in Sports Science who is becoming an increasingly big fish in his university environment - he and his girlfriend, Lisa Dobriskey, the European Under-23 1500m silver medallist, are playfully known as the Posh and Becks of the Loughborough campus.

But Gandy, one of Britain's most experienced top-level coaches, is clearly comfortable for such an ambition to be voiced. In Soos, he sees someone who reminds him in some ways of Coe, albeit that the 20-year-old, at 6ft 1in, is four inches taller than the double Olympic champion.

"There is that coltish sort of appearance that Seb had," Gandy said. "And there's something about the way he holds himself, the way he moves on an athletics track which gives me a feeling. It's hard to define. I suppose it's a sense that there is probably a lot more to come.

"Ricky has also got a very laid-back attitude. I see it as something special which will allow him to go to the big arenas in the world and operate rationally without letting the excitement of the occasion have an adverse effect."

Gandy's first recollection of Soos was when he turned up as an 18-year-old for Midland Counties in a match at Loughborough and won the 800m, beating his own runner, Chris Moss, a world junior finalist two years previously, with a sustained burst over the final 300 metres.

"Ricky had already run low 1.48s for 800 metres," Gandy recalled. "I think only Ovett had done better at that age.

"I particularly pride myself on trying to develop quality in athletes in the final lap of a race, and suddenly here was this raw young beginner turning over Chris Moss in the final 300 metres," he added. "I was impressed with the way he did that."

Although Soos sensibly remains cautious about making any grand predictions for himself, he acknowledges that the 800m event offers encouragement for newcomers now that the career of the world record-holder, Wilson Kipketer, Denmark's naturalised Kenyan, seems to be winding down.

While the glorious British quartet had effectively finished before Soos was old enough to appreciate them, he does recall watching Kipketer on television as he made his breakthrough in 1997.

"He was pretty much unbeatable then," Soos said. "But no one is really dominating the event now. It's quite open, with a few guys just behind the top standard. I think those sort of times will be within my grasp in the next few years."

It's a tall order; but Soos is a tall runner.