There are 37 miles between the home towns of Dai Greene and Rhys Williams. At the finish line in the Montjuic Olympic Stadium last night 0.84 of a second separated Greene, a native of Llanelli who runs for Swansea Harriers, and Williams, a Bridgend boy and a member of Cardiff Athletics Club. In the 400 metres hurdles final on the penultimate day of the European Championships, Greene took gold and Williams took the silver.
It was a British one-two to match that of Mo Farah and Chris Thompson in the first final on Tuesday night, the 10,000m. It was also a one-two for South Wales and for Malcolm Arnold. The hurdles guru moulded Colin Jackson into a world record-breaking 110m hurdler and guided John Akii-Bua to Olympic gold in the 400m hurdles in 1972. He coaches Greene and Williams at Bath University. Arnold also coached the winner of the 110m hurdles when the Olympics were held in Barcelona in 1992. That was Mark McKoy, the Canadian who trained in Cardiff. It was one of the shocks of the Games. Jackson had travelled as favourite but he picked up a niggle in the heats and finished seventh in the final.
This time there was to be no upset here as the favourite, Greene, led all the way and reached the line a clear winner in 48.12 sec. Williams finished second in 48.96. The son of JJ Williams, the great Wales and British Lions wing of the 1970s, had been determined to take gold. His silver lining came with his first sub-49sec time.
Greene had clocked the five fastest times by a European this summer. "I've run good times this year but I know they're not going to give me the gold medal just for turning up," he said. "I can't really rest on my laurels."
Especially as his training partner has been making up for time lost to injury since his bronze medal at the last Europeans, in Gothenburg four years ago. Williams was out between 2006 and 2009. "I had some serious injuries, to the extent that I didn't think I would run again," he said. "I had four stress fractures and a toe operation. I had a tough time but I'm trying to turn it to my advantage now. I'm trying to turn it to grit and determination, to show character."
The 26-year-old has done so. A European youth, junior and Under-23 champion, he struggled to find his feet last summer, failing to get beyond the first round at the World Championships in Berlin. In Barcelona, though, he was the fastest qualifier from the first round, in 49.35sec, and the second fastest in the semi-finals, winning his race in 49.48. Greene won the other in the same time.
A one-time member of Swansea City's youth set-up, Greene had injuries of his own after winning the European U-23 title in 2007. Last summer the 24-year-old broke through as a senior, reaching the final in Berlin and finishing seventh. He was a relatively late starter in athletics. Football was his first love, even though he is from Llanelli, perhaps the hottest of all the hotbeds of Welsh rugby union.
"I did play a little bit of sevens on the wing at school but that was pretty much as far as it went," he said. "Coming from a rugby town like Llanelli, it was a bit strange playing football, but I used to love Ryan Giggs because I played on the left wing. I was with Swansea for about four years but I kept getting injured and when I came back and wasn't playing well the coach would shout at me all the time. I wasn't enjoying it so I walked away. I wasn'tas strong mentally as I am today. To be honest, I like a coach who gives me a hard time. It's good to have someone who pushes you."
Through the hard times that Williams has endured he has been encouraged by his father, who competed as an international athlete himself. He sprinted for Wales at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1970, reaching the quarter-finals of the 200m, finishing seventh in a race won by Don Quarrie, the Jamaican who went on to be Olympic champion in Montreal in 1976.
JJ was cheering from the stands last night. "The whole Williams family is here," he said. "Rhys had massive support here. Everyone's so pleased to see him back, because they know how much he had to fight to get back. It's not been easy for him."
Now 62, JJ runs a commercial painting business based near Bridgend and is head of the Welsh Former Players' Association and the Welsh Former Players' Charity. "To be honest, if it hadn't been for my dad I wouldn't be running now," his son said. "He's been there and done it in sport and he understands how hard it is and how much support you need. It's not just the help with the cost of it all. It's the support as a whole.
"I want to do well for myself but also for my dad – and for my mum, Jane, and for the other people who have helped me. I want to pay them all back."
The silver from last night will go a long way towards repaying the debt.Reuse content