Champion of the brotherhood

The Dalton Grant Interview: Athlete held in high esteem leaps to the cause of others as he prepares to scale Sydney
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The boys of the Flegg High School in Norfolk were just starting to get bumptious. "So how high do you jump then, Dalton?" one asked. Only one thing for it then. With due solemn-ity and a proper concern for accuracy, the tape was summoned from the gym cupboard, a volunteer climbed on the radiator to hold one end and the height of two metres and 37 centimetres, which would most likely win Dalton Grant Olympic gold, was duly digested. The boys craned their necks; the respect could be measured in the silence. "It looks a long way," mused Grant, almost to himself.

On a good day when the juices are flowing, Dalton Grant is a live contender for an Olympic medal. He knows that and his rivals know it too. The only problem in a long and distinguished career is that, as his coach Tudor Bidder puts it, no one, least of all Dalton himself, knows exactly which day will be his. The timing was spectacularly awry in Atlanta four years ago. Primed to jump for his life, Grant failed to qualify. To make matters worse, his parents, who rarely came to watch, had flown to Atlanta. He sat with them in the stands watching the final. "It was the most embarrassing and horrible day of my life," he says. "I wanted to retire, give up." A week later, he jumped his season's best.

Grant spent a morning last week in Flegg High School as part of the Fyffe Superschools programme which will celebrate its 20th anni-versary this year. A stream of boys and girls flow through the compact school gym performing the set exercises with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Grant patrols the ranks, talking, laughing, encouraging and cajoling. He is a good celebrity, approachable and magnetic.

Wherever he settles, a group forms around him. This is rural Norfolk, on the breadline of school sports, where the woodwork teacher has been pressganged into restoring the sightscreens for anotherseason, where once a cup semi-final was surrendered by the opposing headmaster due to hypothermia and where masters and pupils alike are grateful for any little tributary of inspiration. "Hey, Dalton, must shake you by the hand; I'm a great athletics fan," says one master, hurrying across the concrete playground. "Good luck for the Olympics, by the way."

High jumpers pride themselves on being a breed apart, unclonable. But it is a decent debating point which comes first. Does devoting your life to the defiance of the laws of gravity promote a streak of, let's call it, eccentricity or are men like Dwight Stones, Patrik Sjöberg and Javier Sotomayor genetically programmed to hurl their elasticated bodies and tortured minds into this peculiarly dessicating discipline? But there are high jumpers and there is Dalton Grant, the "Peter Pan of high jumping" as Bidder once called him, a reference not to Grant's current belief that the landing on the moon was an elaborate hoax but to his startlingly casualattitude to the laws of nature.

Grant's own background is not much help in the search for a solution. He wanted to be a footballer in his youth, and began his athletics career as the shotput champion of Hackney Downs School before discovering via flirtation with the triple jump that high jumping was his real talent. He was national schools champion at 15, broke the two-metre barrier shortly after and then began a career which dived and thrived on the simple athletic principle of "get fit and jump". Not until he hooked up with Bidder in 1998 did he start to wonder whether a free spirit and boundless self-belief were such exclusive qualities.

"You're known as a bit of a character, aren't you?" asks a boy at Flegg High School. Grant chuckles at a description he nurtures and cherishes. In the car on the way up, he had talked animatedly about the psychology of the high jump. In Paris, when only he and a Frenchman were left in the competition and the crowd was going mad except for one still, small voice who called out, "Come on, Dalton", and provided the motivation for victory. Or Budapest, at the 1998 European Championships, when he had been struggling with illness and had to hit his final jump, his 11th of the competition, merely to qualify. "I heard one competitor writing me off and that was the turning point," he laughs. "I smoked the jump." And would have won gold, instead of silver, had he not gambled once too often in the very last jump. Grant holds the world record for brinkmanship: calmly entering the world championships in Athens at a height of 2.32m, well above his best forthe year. It nearly worked too. Hefinished fourth.

"I had half the field beaten before I'd made a jump because they didn't know what the hell I was doing," he says. "It's war out there, you know. The 100 metres is all tough and macho, but then it's over. We're out there for four hours and it's a case of 'OK, I've done it, now what have you got?' " One of Grant's favourite tricks is to ask a fellow competitor to check on the position of his feet on take-off. "But not before my jump, as I'm jumping, so they think, 'Jeez, Dalton's on today, if he can be that confident'." But a gift for theatre will not be enough in Sydney.

At the age of 34, Grant's belief that his best is ahead not behind him contains an essence of logic. Under Bidder's guidance, he is starting to work on his technique, to blend his instinct with a sense of purpose and order, and for the first time to work on a consistent training programme 12 months a year. "Dalton's talent is like a running tap," says Bidder. "You've got to direct the water into the right channels."

A year as non-playing captain of the British team helped the process of irrigation. For once, as he recovered from surgery to his take-off knee, he had to think about others and, for the first time in a decade, to feel the emptiness of life without competition and to combat a sense of mortality. He was, by all accounts, an inspirational captain, conscientious and thoughtful. His speech to his team on the eve of the world championships was, witnesses said, positively Churchillian.

Whether, in such a critical year, he would want to take on the responsibility of captaincy again is a question left unanswered. "It's an honour to captain your country," he says simply. It also gives him a platform to air his views on the subjects affecting a sport he desperately wants to promote. He phoned every one of the athletes found positive for nandrolone to lend his support, rapped Paula Ratcliffe verbally over the knuckles for appearing to presume their guilt and was outspoken in his condemnation of the knife attack on Chris Cotter, the white boyfriend of the triple jumper Ashia Hansen, which has forced black athletes reluctantly back on to the front line of the battle against racism.

"I was shocked about what happened and my heart goes out to Ashia," Grant says. "There are a lot of athletes now who are scared, but personally I don't care. If there are some sad, ignorant people out there who still think that way, there's not a lot you can do to stop them except get on with it and show everyone what you can do." Grant is actively working to establish an athletes' union, a representative organisation to help with every aspect of an athlete's protection, both practical and emotional. Athletes have been left to fend for themselves too long, he says. All he needs for lift-off is a sponsor. "I want to put something back into the sport, something over and above what we're doing here today."

As ever, the trick with Grant is to find the right balance, to allow his mind to stray but not too far. Bidder's initial wariness at taking on such a mercurial character has blossomed into mutual respect. Grant talks, Bidder listens, but occasionally the roles are reversed now and Grant listens. "I work with him as opposed to coaching him," says Bidder. "There's an urgency now that wasn't apparent a couple of years ago. Dalton wants and needs to make things happen." At Sydney, above all.

"If I had my mortgage in my hand," he adds, "I wouldn't put it on Dalton winning gold, but then I wouldn't put it on him not winning gold either. He can take over a competition." Grant says that he will be last out of the Olympic stadium even if he has to be stretchered out. But not even the pupils of Flegg High School can measure theseriousness of that intent.