Lewis-Francis' stature grows

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The Independent Online

AT THE CONCLUSION of the European Cup, before Poland and Russia received their trophies, one athlete stood on the track, surrounded by photographers as he spoke to a television reporter – Mark Lewis-Francis, writes Mike Rowbottom.

In a competition dotted with Olympic champions, the 18-year-old sprinter, a late replacement for the injured Dwain Chambers, made one of the biggest impacts of all in what was his senior outdoor international appearance.

The occasion was huge, and Britain's world junior champion rose to it by winning the 100 metres in 10.13sec, just 0.02sec clear of Greece's Olympic 200m champion, Kostas Kenderis. Job done. And there was still enough energy left in his legs to anchor a weakened sprint relay team into second place.

Steve Platt, Lewis-Francis's coach, was asked if he could recall when his charge last had an off day in a serious competition. He struggled – eventually coming up with the 1999 European Junior Championships, where, racing against competitors two years older, Lewis-Francis won the 100m silver medal. Such is failure, Lewis-Francis-style.

The Birchfield Harrier will be back in the limelight next Sunday, when he is due to race at the Norwich Union Challenge in Glasgow against a field that is likely to include the Olympic and world 100m champion, Maurice Greene, who is currently negotiating with the event organisers.

"I am not thinking about racing Maurice at all," Lewis-Francis said with a wide grin after his event. "Maurice is Maurice. He is only human."

Lewis-Francis can afford to be relaxed about his upcoming challenge – as with his appearance at last year's London grand prix meeting, where he set a world age 17 best of 10.10sec, he has nothing to lose.

But that was not the case here, where he was required to steady Britain's distinctly wobbly start by contributing what turned out to be the only win for the men's team on the first day.

Asked afterwards how he would have felt about being a close second, given that it was his first big international, his response was unequivocal. "Disappointed," he said. "Definitely."

As it was, he took pride in the fact that he had not just won, but produced a time that was only 0.01sec off that he set in California earlier this year. "Some people were asking whether I could do that kind of time again over here," he said. "I am glad that I have been able to do it."

Although he will seek a place at the World Championships, his two main targets for the year are to collect the only junior title to have eluded him, the European one, and to break the world junior record of 10.06, currently held by the man whom he replaced here, Chambers.

The decision not to go to the Olympics in order to concentrate on winning the world junior title has paid off perfectly for Lewis-Francis, who is charging onwards with confidence terrifying intact.

For Britain's other winner on the first day, Kathy Butler, life on the track is also looking good after missing out on Sydney. Butler, who earned maximum points in the 3000m, was in the process of applying for British citizenship during the Olympics, having emigrated to Canada when she was 11 years old.

A tattoo of a Maple Leaf still adorns her right ankle – graphic evidence of her old allegiance. When this Edinburgh-born athlete returns to Canada in August for the Edmonton World Championships, nevertheless, she is hopeful that she will be well received. "All the Canadians I have spoken to have said they will still be cheering for me," she said. Given her bold victory here, there could be plenty to cheer about.