'Sparks' expected in London Marathon

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The Independent Online

Dave Bedford is sitting in the bar of the Tower hotel, sinking a bottle of London Pride. The Portland stone of London's landmark bridge is gleaming in the sunshine behind him and the old showman of the track has a glint in his eye. The clock is ticking down to the Flora London Marathon, Bedford's pride and joy, and this year the race director is expecting "some sparks" at the sharp end of the 36,000 field will wend its way on the 26.2 mile route from Blackheath to The Mall on Sunday.

The elite men's line up includes Sammy Wanjiru, the 22-year-old Kenyan who struck Olympic marathon gold in stunning style in Beijing last August, making light of the oppressive conditions with a Games record time, 2hrs 6mins 32sec. The silver and bronze medallists, Moroccan Jaouad Gharib, 36, and Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopian, another young gun of a 22-year-old, are also in town. Then there is Martin Lel, the Kenyan who has three London wins on his CV - and Zersenay Tadese, the Eritrean who deprived Kenenisa Bekele of his world cross country crown in 2007 and of whom big things are expected on his marathon debut. The world record figures set by Haile Gebrselassie in Berlin last September, 2hr 3 min 59 sec, could be in danger.

"Yeah, we're expecting some real sparks here," Bedford says. "We've got a cracking field and if the weather's kind to us I think we'll see some amazing performances. We had a similar situation in 2002, when Khalid Khannouchi broke the world record here [the Moroccan-born US citizen ran 2:05:38]. The person who really created that, when he was third on his marathon debut, was Haile Gebrselassie because the other runners were scared stiff of him and therefore ran fast. This time we've got Tadese in his first marathon and I believe he's going to have the same effect on Lel and Wanjiru – they'll want to make sure it doesn't come down to a sprint finish with him.

"So I think, we've got the right people, and if the weather's right it could be a stunner. The first London Marathon I had any involvement with was in 1989, when Douglas Wakiihuri won in 2:09:03. Sub 2:10 was considered a good time then but now we're daring to think, 'Can we get anyone under 2:04 here?' What a statement that is for the move of a sport."

And what a statement it is for the backward direction of men's marathon running in Britain that while the African speed merchants churn out their 4min 42sec miles on their clock-chasing mission there will not be a single home runner daring to think, 'Can I get under 2:10 here?' Not one Briton broke 2hr 13min for the 26.2 mile distance of the marathon in 2008 and the best so far this year stands at 2:22:22. There has been no British winner in the men's race since Eamonn Martin in 1993 and none in the top three since Paul Evans finished third in 1996.

"Yeah it's shocking," Bedford says, addressing the domestic decline. "The reason why we're in that situation is because this generation of runners are not prepared to do enough work. They'll argue; they'll say it's not the case. But it is only that,

"I saw people in my generation who had minimal talent win Commonwealth and European medals because they worked and worked. They were running two or three times a day and doing 160, 170, 180 mile a week. And this generation's not prepared to do that.

"They're not prepared to make the sacrifices. They want success at any easier price. And they won't get it. It just doesn't work like that. When you listen to the Kenyans, the Eritreans and the Ethiopians talking about their training, it's the same as we were doing in the 1970s. It's massive. And it works."

Not that hard work alone was responsible for Bedford becoming such a massive figure in British sport three decades ago. With his long curly mop, his drooping moustache and his red socks, he had an image that stood out from the crowd – rather similar to those chaps in the 118 118 adverts, many would say (among them Bedford, who threatened legal action against the telephone directory company a few years back).Off the track, he shot from the hip at officialdom and had a playboy reputation that made him front-page, as well as back page news. On the track, having endured the disappointment of being run out of the medals in the 10,000m final at the Munich Olympics in 1972, he proceeded to reduce Lasse Viren's world record to smithereens in the AAA Championships at Crystal Palace the following year, stopping the trackside clock at 27min 30.80sec.

"Yes, it was bloody serious, training three times a day," he says now, aged 59, looking back on his life in the fast line, "but that didn't mean to say you couldn't have some fun as well. There's not much I would change."

In his day Bedford was bigger box office than even the showboating human speed barrier-breaking Usain Bolt is today. Not that he would pay to see any of the present generation of track and field stars. "I've lost my love for track and field," he confesses. "It does nothing for me. I wouldn't switch on for it and I wouldn't go to see it. They've got to get on top of those people who are cheating because no-one knows what they're looking at. And if no-one knows what they're looking at no-one's going to watch it because you can't believe in it."

"Marathon running has been relatively unscathed by it. The fact that we test heavily – not only within the rules of the sport but also our own testing regime - shows how intent we are that we must not allow marathon running to get in that same situation."

It is a stance in which the London Marathon, and its race director, can take considerable pride.