Greene flies flag for rare bit of Welsh success

World 400m hurdling champion is not fazed by weight of expectation in the land of his laid-back father after Six Nations trailblazers.

When Sam Warburton led the Wales rugby union XV into the pressure cooker of the Millennium Stadium for the Six Nations finale against France last weekend, Dai Greene was far from the madding crowd of Cardiff. He was sitting in front of the television at his home on the outskirts of Bath.

"I've just been so caught up in training," the world champion 400m hurdler says, "and I got a new dog recently. He's killing me, taking up all my spare time."

No doubt Buzz, a Hungarian Vizsla puppy, got caught up in the excitement as Greene and his girlfriend Sian Davies celebrated a third Welsh Grand Slam in eight seasons. These are vintage times for the game in the Principality, the trio of slams matching those achieved by Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams and Co in the 1970s.

Might 2012 be a vintage year for Wales on the Olympic track and field front, though? You have to go back beyond the glory days of Gareth and JPR to find the last golden Olympic year for a Welsh athlete. Right back to 1964, in fact, when Lynn Davies leapt to a surprise long jump gold in Tokyo.

The pressure of national expectation might have been huge on Warburton and his team-mates last weekend but as the reigning world, European and Commonwealth champion in the 400m hurdles knows he can expect much the same as the London Olympics approach. Like the 10 hurdles he must overcome in his race, however, the Llanelli native does not consider it to be a barrier to success.

"I don't see it as a negative thing," Greene insists. "It doesn't bother me in the slightest. I'm not really fazed by people expecting me to win the gold medal.

"I understand why there is a lot of expectation on me to do well but as long as I've prepared as best I can I'm confident of doing well.

"I think that my own experiences have helped me. I had a lot of expectation on me going into the European Championships in Barcelona in 2010. I hadn't won anything at that point but I managed to deliver it. At the Commonwealth Games in Delhi I was pretty ill two weeks before my race and came through it and won. I get my confidence from that. I think that showed at the World Championships last year.

"I'm not going to get strung up on it. Of course it's the Olympic Games, and the Olympic Games is going to be fantastic, but with two weeks to go I'll see it as just another race. I'm pretty sure that it'll be 400m that we'll run and it'll still be 10 hurdles. I try not to complicate things too much."

Greene happens to be coached at the University of Bath campus on Claverton Down by Malcolm Arnold, the veteran hurdles guru who guided Uganda's John Akii-Bua to Olympic 400m hurdles gold in a world record time in Munich in 1972 and Colin Jackson to two World Championship gold medals in the 110m hurdles.

Jackson won Olympic silver as a 21-year-old in Seoul in 1988 but, with hopes high of a first Welsh gold since "Lynn the Leap", the Cardiff athlete could only finish seventh in the Olympic final in Barcelona four years later. Jackson had been hampered by injury in the Catalan capital but that did not stop one of his rivals, the American Tony Dees, labelling the Welshman as "a bottler" who choked under pressure when it came to the major championships.

That was in the run-up to the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart. BBC Wales ran a trailer for the event with two milk bottles balanced at either end of a hurdle. Jackson proceeded to deliver a gold-topped performance, winning in 12.91sec, a world record time.

"Malcolm has told me a few stories about things like that," Greene says. "I know that Colin is there if I want to speak to him. I have spoken to him about one or two things in the past but I don't feel as though I need any guidance about the situation I'm in at the moment.

He adds: "I'm not too worried about it. I'm quite laid-back anyway. My mentality, I think, bodes quite well for the scenario with which I've presented myself.

"Having Malcolm there on a day-to-day basis means that everything's pretty relaxed. He doesn't get you hyped up or anything like that. He keeps your feet on the floor."

Not that Greene would be inclined to take his feet off the ground, other than when hurdling. The early struggles he endured in his sporting life – not quite making the grade in his time as a left winger with Swansea City's youth team (despite scoring a penalty against Real Madrid), suffering from epilepsy and injury as a junior athlete, missing out on selection for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing – have left him a markedly grounded world champion at the age of 25.

"All of those life experiences have helped to mould me into the person I am now," he says. "When people meet my dad, they say how relaxed he is. He's a brickie and he's pretty laid-back. I guess I get that from him."

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Peaks and valleys

Only four Welsh athletes have won Olympic track and field gold medals. The first three all did so as relay runners: David Jacobs as a member of the British 4 x 100m team in Stockholm in 1912, and Cecil Griffiths and John Ainsworth-Davis in the 4 x 400m in Antwerp in 1920.

Lynn Davies became the first and to date only Welsh Olympic champion in an individual event when he emerged victorious from the long jump final in Tokyo in 1964, upsetting the joint favourites Ralph Boston of the United States and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan of the USSR.

Four Welsh athletes have won "minor" Olympic medals in the 48 years since then: Michelle Scutt a bronze in the 4 x 400m relay in Moscow in 1980, Colin Jackson a silver in the 110m hurdles in Seoul in 1988 and Jamie Baulch and Iwan Thomas silvers in the 4 x 400m relay in Atlanta in 1996.

Catherine Murphy stands to become a bronze medallist, although the retrospective promotion of the British 4 x 400m relay team from fourth to third at the Athens Games in 2004 has yet to be confirmed by the International Olympic Committee following the admission of drug-taking by a member of the winning US quartet, Crystal Cox.

Simon Turnbull

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