Even back when he was a fledgling first-year pupil at John Fisher School in Purley, Martyn Rooney was blessed with the ability to outrun some seriously fast speed merchants. Mind you, he had to be quick on his feet to escape the clutches of the sixth form flyer: one Paul Sackey, the future Wasps, England and now-Toulon rugby union wing. "I remember being a mouthy first year, shouting abuse at him and running away from him," Rooney recalled.
It is difficult to imagine the amiable Croydon Harrier provoking anyone's ire. With his trademark shades, his designer stubble, his mellow manner and his 6ft 6in frame, he is Britain's answer to Usain Bolt in the cool dude track and field stakes. There was never any danger of Rooney wilting in the Catalan heat on the opening morning of the European Championships at Montjuic Stadium yesterday.
The temperature was pushing 85F when the 23-year-old South Londoner lined up for heat one in the first round of the men's 400m but he proceeded to breeze into tonight's semi-finals. Stretching out the field so that he was effectively assured of a qualifying spot by the 300m mark, he eased off the gas in the home straight, allowing Kevin Borlée to sneak first place, the Belgian clocking 45.71sec to the Briton's 45.72sec.
Not that Rooney was entirely untroubled. He was not sure which of the Borlée brothers he was lining up against three lanes inside him. "I can't tell the difference between them," he confessed. "I had to check their names when they were announced to know who I was up against. I knew then that I was against the slow one. Sorry, the slower one. They're both very fast."
They are that. Kevin held the Belgian record at 44.88sec before his identical twin brother, Jonathan, improved it to 44.78sec last year and then 44.77sec two weeks ago. Jonathan leads the European rankings this summer and he was an untroubled qualifier yesterday, winning heat two in 45.91sec. The fastest heat winner was Rooney's British team-mate, Michael Bingham, who clocked 45.49sec to win the fifth and last race. Conrad Williams also progressed, finishing third in heat four in 46.35sec.
The race for the gold in Friday night's final promises to be a close contest and Rooney and the US-born, raised and based Bingham, who qualifies for Britain because of his English father, should be in the mix for the medals. "I'm here to win," Rooney said. "I should go in with high hopes."
The opening track race of the six day meeting might have been won by a member of the British team but after banging a knee against a barrier early in her first round 400m hurdles heat, Perri Shakes-Drayton finished second behind Angela Morosanu of Romania in 55.35sec. Also through to the semi-finals is Eilidh Child, the Scot who took silver behind Shakes-Drayton at the European Under-23 championships last summer. Running in heat three, the Perth schoolteacher was runner-up to Bulgarian Vania Stambolova in 55.82sec.
The clear favourite is Natalya Antyukh, the Russian Olympic bronze medallist in the flat 400m at Athens in 2004. She was the fastest qualifier, winning the fourth heat in 54.29sec.
The first gold of the championships was claimed by a Russian. Stanislav Emelyanov. The 19-year-old finished 28 seconds clear of Italian Alex Schwazer to win the 20km walk in 1hr 20min 10sec. Ireland's Robert Heffernan missed out on the bronze medal by 11 seconds, finishing fourth behind Joao Vieira of Portugal.