Britons who found pugnacity the key to prowess

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The Independent Online

Once again this summer there has been much anguished discussion in sporting circles of what it is to be British, or English, and how it is that being British or English does not seem to be conducive to... well, winning.

Now that Timbo has fallen once again in SW19 (Timberrrr!) and our Lions have had to exit Down Under with a whimper rather than a roar, and our regenerated Test side is teetering on the brink of a serious mullering by those nasty, brash Australians, the question has lost none of its point or urgency.

I think, in the circumstances, it is a good time to offer a couple of stories from a sport in which Britain can claim to be at its most successful – which is, pace modern pentathlon, athletics. Before Jonathan Edwards dominated the world of triple jumping, the main man was an exuberant, extravagant American, Willie Banks. With his flashing smile and his willingness to involve the crowd in whatever he was doing, he became a popular figure on the circuit. His 1985 world record of 17.97 metres stood for a decade before Edwards edged past it en route for 18m-plus territory. In short, during the Eighties, he was The Man.

But that counted for nothing on the day when Banks competed at Crystal Palace against an up-and-coming 20-year-old, John Herbert. The newcomer would go on to establish himself as one of the outstanding British performers in this event, winning a European Cup title, but at the time he was just a young man with attitude. Winning attitude.

Herbert, whose coaching group now includes the European under-23 long jump champion Jade Johnson, recalls that he went out to practice his run-up before the competition started at the same time as the flamboyant American. But a quiet word in his ear failed to have the desired effect of making him step aside.

"Don't you know who I am?" Banks said.

"I don't care who you are," Herbert replied. "I ain't moving for you. I don't know what you want to do." The visiting celebrity backed down, and went on to be beaten by an upstart who took pride in repeating the dose whenever Banks visited these shores.

As Britain's athletes travel over to Edmonton this weekend in preparation for the World Championships which begin on Friday, another tale of British fortitude – all right, bloody-mindedness – seems apposite.

At the 1993 version of these championships, in Stuttgart, the 100 metres sprint was about to be contested by a field that contained two Olympic champions, in Carl Lewis and Linford Christie, and one other American athlete whose form that year was so startlingly good that he seemed likely to beat both – Andre Cason.

Cason, a pugnacious little indoor specialist up until that point, had visited this country earlier in the year and established that his personality was pugnacious and little.

But his performances in the early rounds out in Stuttgart were enough to alarm Christie, who had won the Olympic title the summer before in Barcelona. Much was made of the fact that Lewis – Olympic champion in 1984 and 1988 – had not contested the individual event in Barcelona. But Christie was confident he had the measure of Lewis, whose star was already on the wane. Cason was a different matter.

"The way he was running was enough to scare the hell out of me," Christie said. "I was thinking that I could lose." That perception was about to be changed, however, as Christie now recalls. The crucial shift took place while the sprinters were warming up for the final.

"Andre was doing some test runs when I arrived," he said. "I walked into the same lane and began doing some runs of my own. I saw that he was afraid of me. And I knew then I was going to beat him.

"I try to teach that to the athletes I coach now. Everyone's afraid at times. But you've got to convince your opponents that they have got more reason to fear you." As another 100 metres final looms up in Edmonton next weekend, Britain's leading pair of Dwain Chambers and Mark Lewis-Francis have an almighty task to challenge the dominance of two Americans who are shining as Lewis and Cason did in 1993: Tim Montgomery, who has run the second-fastest time in history of 9.84sec this season, and Maurice Greene, the world and Olympic champion.

At the Crystal Palace meeting last Sunday, Chambers joshed good-naturedly with Greene after being beaten in the 100 metres. Chambers is basically a happy soul whose attempts earlier this season to mock Greene's loud-talking image never quite convinced.

The way forward for the 23-year-old Londoner now seems clear. Dwain – get in Greene's face. Get in his way. Get in his lane.

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