Mark Lewis-Francis: British golden boy on mission to leave world gasping in his wake

Suddenly, Mark Lewis-Francis has stopped talking. (Surely the question I have just asked our prospective Olympic sprinter about his current training here in Cyprus is routine enough? But it's not that.)

Suddenly, Mark Lewis-Francis has stopped talking. (Surely the question I have just asked our prospective Olympic sprinter about his current training here in Cyprus is routine enough? But it's not that.)

"Oh damn. Sorry," he says, staring fixedly over my shoulder at the little wall that separates our hotel terrace from the crowded swimming pool below, and the uncluttered Mediterranean beyond.

"What is it?" I ask.

"A lizard. Straight down there. That's massive, isn't it? If it doesn't come over here it'll be all right, won't it? Damn."

Our little friend, perhaps a foot long from the tip of his tail to the end of his pale green nose, pauses for a moment before disappearing behind a bank of geraniums.

"A bit different from Birmingham," I say.

"Yeah. Definitely. You don't get them in Birmingham, I'll tell you that now. Not at all."

I resume questioning, sketching a parallel between Lewis-Francis, who has found life in the senior ranks a more testing proposition in the years since his all-conquering days as a junior, and his new training partner, Christian Malcolm, who encountered a similar difficulty before him.

"It's massive," Lewis-Francis replies. "I ain't never seen one of them before. Is that a gecko?"

"Yeah, it might be."

Trying to pin down this bundle of nervous energy and world-class talent is never an easy thing to do. A few minutes earlier, wedged into a sofa and surrounded by questioning journalists, he had been palpably uneasy, jiggling his legs as if they were about to demand freedom. He seemed to be fighting the urge to burst out of his seat and sprint away from everything.

I suggest he is at the stage where action rather than words is what matters.

"That's definitely it," he says. "This year's a big year for me. My first Olympics - I've got to qualify, obviously, but I know I've got a good chance of doing that. But I'm pretty nervous at the same time. And I don't really want to overspeak, by saying I'm going to do this and I'm going to do that. I don't want to excite anybody yet. I want to compete first and see what happens. Because anything can happen."

Lewis-Francis is still only 21, but he has already discovered how dramatically fortunes can shift in an event that measures success by fractions of a second.

One of six children brought up in Darlaston, near Birmingham, he began training at the local track with Birchfield Harriers at the age of 12, under the direction of Steve Platt, a motor engineer, and it soon became clear that he was special. He won the World Youth Championships at 16 - excused lessons from the George Salter High School in West Bromwich to further his sporting ambition. A year later Platt advised him to concentrate on the World Junior Championships rather than seeking a place at the 2000 Olympics, and he vindicated the decision by winning two golds.

Six months after that he won his first senior international medal - a world indoor bronze - before breaking 10 seconds - the sprinters' four-minute mile - at the World Championships in Edmonton. But the bizarre circumstance of a faulty wind gauge invalidated his time of 9.97sec, and Lewis-Francis's shoulders, perhaps for the first time, slumped.

Worse was to come in 2002, at the Manchester Commonwealth Games, where the only question appeared to be whether he or his team-mate Dwain Chambers would win the 100m title. Just as he appeared to be making a decisive surge in the final, Lewis-Francis pulled a hamstring.

Chambers also stuttered to a virtual halt with a muscle problem - although for him there has since been the more serious issue of a two-year ban for taking the newly discovered steroid, tetrahydrogestrinone. The landscape of British sprinting has changed...

Other big things were happening in Lewis-Francis's life at the time of the Commonwealth Games, although of a happier nature. The addition of a new tattoo on his shoulder, the word "Romeo", led to speculation that the young sprinter - who had already earned a reputation for speed on the roads to match his pace on the track - might be contemplating buying an Alfa Romeo.

In fact, as he revealed soon afterwards, it was the name of his newly born son. And the subject of being a dad is one which engages his attention so securely that you feel he would not be distracted even if a six-foot salamander were to slope across the terrace.

"It's all right, man," he says with a big, happy smile. "Calmed me down a bit, you know. I think I've had my crazy days. I've got responsibilities now, so I've had to tone it down. Be a bit more mature with what I'm doing in general.

"I'm not just doing this for myself no more. I've got a little boy, so obviously what I do now is for him, for him to sit down and say "Look, my Dad did that." I want to set a little standard in my little family that I've got. He can sit down and say 'My Dad did that, so I can go out and do better.' And that's it. It's being a role model more than anything else."

The role model thing has taken a bit of work. As a 19-year-old, Lewis-Francis encountered some serious strife from the police for driving with a provisional licence, being jailed overnight on his return from winning silver at the European Indoor Championships.

He switched to two wheels for a while, enjoying rides through the country lanes on his 125cc motorbike in the company of friends - "there are no mobile phones ringing. You can just ride" - but he is now preparing for a more legitimate life as a car owner.

"I passed my theory test the other day, so when I get back I've got my driving test," he says. "I had a test the other day, but I failed it. I had no minor faults, but I had one major - I didn't check my blind spot."

It is a bit early to tell whether Romeo has inherited his father's ability - "Not yet, not yet. He's two in July. Still a baby" - but it is a good bet that he will enjoy the same kind of family support that Lewis-Francis has received in his sporting life.

The sprinter's mother, Hermine, is a keen follower of his career. "My mum watches all my races," he says. "She tells me: "Losing a race isn't a defeat. If you can learn from it, you're a champion."

"I always go home and I sit down and watch my races over and over again. Just to see what I did wrong. Even the ones I've failed in. I was watching the Commonwealth Games race with my dad - my dad came over from Jamaica. And it was like I was watching the race live. Even though I knew what was going to happen."

"Did you hope you might finish?"

"That's what I said. That's exactly what it was. Ten metres, 15 metres from the line. But it's a learning experience. I know I'm a lot stronger than I was in 2002. That will never happen again - touch wood." Which he does, leaning over to tap the side of the table.

Lewis-Francis's normally bright face had clouded over earlier as he had expressed upset at a recent story about him seeing a sports psychologist to help calm his nerves in the preparation for races, to which some sensitive sub-editor had added a headline involving the word "shrink".

Hermine had been straight on the phone, worried, presumably with visions of her lad being bundled into a straitjacket by men in white coats. But she need have no fears. Lewis-Francis appears to have a steady view of what he needs to do to realise his ultimate Olympic ambitions.

One thing he will not be doing, despite the relative disappointments of the last summer, when he failed to reach the World Championship final, is changing his coach.

"I'd never leave Steve," he says. "He's got me to the point I'm at today, and I know he can take me a lot further. Me and Steve have got a lot in common. He's like a second father more than anything else. If I've got anything, not strictly about training, I can talk to him on the level about it. He's done a lot for me in the last 10 years and it would be a bit disrespectful just to get up and go. I know Steve can see me through to the Olympic gold medal. He's like me - willing to learn."

As he works in the glaring heat of Paphos, where the British Olympic Association and Norwich Union have set up the training base for athletes preparing for the Athens Games, Lewis-Francis is striving to narrow down his focus to one athlete - himself.

The disappearance from the scene of Chambers, who was seen as Britain's leading 100m man at the time of his demise, has presented the young man who was always at his heels, and sometimes beating him, with a need to make adjustments.

"It's hard for me to talk about Dwain," Lewis-Francis says with a frown. "He's a cool guy, don't get me wrong. But him not being there - I wouldn't say it's less of a pressure. Because there's so many great athletes in the UK that could come from nowhere and take that spot.

"I can never say I can run easy now - it will never be easy. Dwain was pretty good for me, because I used to train and think "I'm going to beat Dwain this year, I'm going to beat Dwain this year." So he was more like my pulling force. Now he's gone I find it kind of hard. There's Darren [Campbell] obviously, there's a couple of guys, Christian and Marlon [Devonish], and..."

I point out that he hasn't mentioned the man who won the world indoor title a couple of months ago, Jason Gardener.

"And Jason Gardener, too, obviously," he adds with a grin.

But if Lewis-Francis is finding the going tough, he has chosen well with his training partner. Malcolm, with his easy amiability, is the ideal antidote to nervous anxiety.

"Christian definitely motivates me in training," he says. "If I think I ran rubbish I'll go to him 'How did that look?' and he'll tell me the truth. He won't hold anything back. And I'll do the same with him.

"He's always having a go at me about my stomach, I just take it all in, then I just fire stuff at him. Like I'll say he's running like a bit of a girl. It's always fun to have a bit of banter, but at the same time you're educating yourself, preparing for what the Americans are going to do."

Ah yes. The Americans. Lewis-Francis seems unsure about whether their defending Olympic champion, Maurice Greene, is still a danger. "No," he replies, definitively, before backtracking. "But he's already run a fast time this year. I don't think so. I hope not."

Then there's the world indoor champion to think about, Justin Gatlin. And the world champion from St Kitt's and Nevis, Kim Collins. And of course the Trinidadian who took silver behind Collins last year at the age of 18, Darrel Brown...

"I'm racing against the world now," he says. "I can go to the European Cup and win but I don't get the same respect as winning it when I was a junior. There's more pressure now, even running in grand prix meetings, because every grand prix is like an Olympic final."

And so he presses on towards Athens in a turmoil of hope, expectation, doubt, confidence - and only action can set it straight. One thing Lewis-Francis now knows well enough, though - in life, as in traffic, you've got to cover your blind spot.

Mark Lewis-Francis life and times

1982 Born 4 September Darlaston near Wolverhampton

1996 Wins first of three consecutive English Schools' titles and also takes world youth and junior gold medals.

1998 Aged 16, wins the AAA Under-17 title.

1999 Wins the AAA U-17 indoor 60m, the outdoor AAA U-20 100m and the World Youth title.

2000 Turns down the chance to go to the Sydney Olympics. Instead goes to the World Junior Championships in Santiago, Chile, where he is named Athlete of the Games after he wins gold in the 100m.

2001 Makes senior debut at World Indoor Championships, wins the European Cup and is also part of the relay team that wins gold at the European Juniors.

2002 Wins first senior AAA title. A hamstring injury ends any hopes of glory at the Commonwealth Games.

2003 A AAA indoor title, success at the European Cup and Golden League victory in Oslo are only highlights of a disappointing year.

2004 Looking to confirm himself on the world stage by winning gold at the Olympics in Greece.

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