Athletics: The Daley dread that weighs on Macey

Time is running out for a hamstrung hero - just as it did for his great predecessor
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The Independent Online

The last time a great British decathlete emerged from hamstrung hibernation to chase a last-ditch Olympic qualifying score, it all ended in painful defeat, if not tears.

The last time a great British decathlete emerged from hamstrung hibernation to chase a last-ditch Olympic qualifying score, it all ended in painful defeat, if not tears. So when Dean Macey settles into his starting blocks for the first event of the senior men's decathlon in the Hexham International Combined Events meeting next Saturday morning, the forgotten man of British athletics will be hoping and praying he does not go the same way as Britain's greatest athletic all-rounder.

Back in July 1992, Daley Thompson needed a qualifying score of 7,850 points to secure selection for what would have been his fourth Olympic Games. He had tried in Trondheim, but dropped out after four of the 10 events. A decathlon specially organised by the British Athletic Federation at Crystal Palace was his final chance. Watched by 30 paying fans and a group of schoolchildren, Thompson made it only halfway up the home straight in the opening event, the 100m, before a tendon tore in his right thigh. At 33, the two-times Olympic champion and four-times world record-breaker hung up his spikes for good. He had not completed a decathlon since finishing fourth in the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

At 26, Macey still has time to fulfil the potential he showed as a surprise silver medallist at the 1999 World Championships in Seville, an unlucky fourth-placer at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and a bronze medal-winner at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton. For three years, though, his career has been in a state of limbo. The Canvey Islander has not competed in an event of any description - combined or individual - since he crossed the finish line in the 1500m in Edmonton in August 2001. He has been held back by a hamstring problem that required surgery in 2002 and that continues to trouble him.

Since January, though, Macey has been nursing himself through training with the intention of mounting an Olympic challenge. Having cancelled a proposed comeback in Austria in May, he has left it until the last possible date before putting himself through the rigours of a two- day, 10-event competition in an attempt to gain the qualifying score for Athens. Hence his scheduled appearance in the unlikely setting of Hadrian's Wall country next Saturday and Sunday. The men's decathlon in the Hexham International Combined Events meeting is Macey's final opportunity to get the necessary qualifying points.

Fortunately for him, no other British decathlete happens to be in contention for selection, so he can ignore the Olympic A standard score of 8,000 points and settle his sights on the B standard of 7,700 points - 897 points lower than the personal best he achieved in Edmonton.

"That is all Dean has to do," Charles van Commenee, the technical director of combined events for UK Athletics, said. "His hamstring is still not 100 per cent but he's in good enough shape to get through the 10 events and get the qualifying score. You have to remember that Dean is a tremendous competitor."

Macey has been finalising his training preparation in Birmingham, so he can have first-hand access to the medical facilities and staff of UK Athletics. The one concern his coach harbours is that his natural competitiveness might push his vulnerable body a little too far. "Dean doesn't need to run flat out to qualify," Greg Richards said. "I'm confident he could fall over and still make the B standard. I just hope he doesn't have a rush of blood to the head and run too hard." Which was what Thompson did in that fateful 100m at Crystal Palace 12 years ago.

At least Macey will have the competition he needs to push him past the 7,700-point mark, albeit as gently as possible. Organiser Richard Hunter has attracted a field which includes Sergiy Blonskiy of Ukraine, who already has the Olympic B standard, and William Frullani of Italy, who won the European Cup Combined Events Super League decathlon with 7,927 points in Tallinn last weekend, but who needs an Olympic A standard score to gain a place in the track-and-field Azzurri for Athens.

Hunter, a former decathlete and high hurdler, has been organising the Hexham meeting for seven years, and has the rare good fortune to be staging a competition featuring one of Britain's great multi-events athletes on home soil.

It is a sad fact that Denise Lewis has not competed in a heptathlon in Britain since 1993 and that Thompson, England's greatest-ever all-round athlete, never actually completed a decathlon in England.

Next weekend's competition will be Macey's first decathlon in Britain as a senior athlete. His last on home ground was as a 17-year-old in the AAA Junior Championship at Stoke in June 1995. He finished third.

Nine years on, the big picture for Macey is that failure at Hexham could leave his decathlon career at the crossroads. His three barren years have cost him a six-figure sportswear sponsorship deal, and he needs a world-class score in 2004 to secure Lottery funding for next year. Otherwise, life as a full-time athlete might have to give way to the need to find paid employment. It is not a scenario the former lifeguard cares to contemplate just yet.

"I have not thought that far ahead," Macey said. "These last three years have been heart-breaking. The situation was a bit grim six months ago, but now that I am more into my training I'm more positive."

The ebullient Essex man has always been one to look on the bright side. Back in 2000, he missed an Olympic medal in Sydney when the Estonian Erki Nool was controversially reinstated after apparently registering three fouls in the discus. Macey simply swallowed his disappointment and vowed to win gold in Athens. After three years on the treatment table, just making it to the Greek capital would be a positive step forward for the pride of Canvey Island.