Athletics: World's fastest man holds no fear for schoolboy sprinter Aikines-Ayreetey

'Flash Harry' plays it for laughs as he relishes showdown with Asafa Powell. By Mike Rowbottom
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The Independent Online

The sounds of a damp English summer reverberated around Battersea Park yesterday afternoon - dogs barking, half-term children shrieking and yelling, an ice-cream van announcing itself (more shrieking and yelling). And if you were anywhere near the running track that nestles in the north-eastern corner of the park, there was the sound of hearty laughter.

At 17, Harry Aikines-Ayreetey - for it was he - has all the carefree ebullience of youth. And as he joked around on the starting blocks in the south London park with fellow athletes Abi Oyepitan and Tim Benjamin - all on media show to announce UK Athletics' new sponsorship with the internet phone company Vonage - the BBC's Young Sports Personality of the Year appeared absolutely in his element.

It is just as well this Carshalton schoolboy enjoys being at the centre of things. Since he emerged to public attention last year by becoming the first athlete to win both the 100 metres and 200m at the World Youth Championships, Aikines-Ayreetey has been gratefully seconded to the cause of London's Olympic bid as a possible medal contender in 2012. Last month he undertook another high-profile assignment, spending three weeks training in South Carolina with the Olympic and world 100m champion Justin Gatlin. On Sunday week he will take part in a 100m at Gateshead which, even though it no longer contains Gatlin, who pulled out in controversial circumstances soon after equalling the world record last month, will still contain the other man who has run the distance in 9.77sec, Asafa Powell.

There are two schools of thought about putting young British talents in against élite world performers. Craig Pickering, Britain's 19-year-old European junior 100m champion, was dissuaded from taking up a place in Gateshead by his hugely experienced and respected coach, Malcolm Arnold, on the grounds that a heavy public defeat might set him back rather than encourage him.

But Aikines-Ayreetey responded to the suggestion of taking part with immediate enthusiasm, and it was a position with which his coach, Matt Favier, felt comfortable. Aikines-Ayreetey has happy memories of the track, where he won his first English Schools 100m title in 2004. "We see things in the same way," said Aikines-Ayreetey. "It's just a case of getting experience so that when the moment does come, when I have the potential to do well, I'll be able to do it because I will be calm, cool and collected, and I'll be able to perform to [my] best because I have learnt from the best."

After Aikines-Ayreetey received another award last year at the Monaco headquarters of the International Association of Athletics Federations, Gatlin's coach Trevor Graham invited him to train with his group, and he tested himself against the likes of Gatlin and Olympic 200m champion Shawn Crawford.

"They were great to me,' Aikines-Ayreetey said. "They took the mickey out of me, saying I had to go and have my tea and scones, things like that, but I loved working with them. For 30m I would actually be able to stay with Justin, but between 30 and 40 he'd decimate me. He would do it in just a couple of strides - it was amazing to see what the human body can do."

Aikines-Ayreetey, whose father, William, was an international sprinter for Ghana before the family moved to Britain, has been inspired rather than crushed by comparing himself to the best in the business. He acknowledges the similarity between himself and the contemporary whom he beat to the BBC award last year, Theo Walcott, who became the youngest England football international on Tuesday. "He's doing it for the young guns and hopefully I'm doing the same," Aikines-Ayreetey said.

While Walcott has his eyes on the World Cup, Aikines-Ayreetey's main target is the World Junior Championships, which take place in Beijing. That, and the A-levels in PE and Sociology with which he is struggling to keep up. "I should be revising when I get back home," he said, before another big laugh. "But I'll probably just go on my PlayStation..."