The 25th Great North Run: Mottram leads challenge to African supremacy

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The Independent Online

"No, it's not the best of weeks to be an Australian in England," Craig Mottram, one-time leg-spinner in the Geelong Grammar School first XI, conceded. "I do have a British passport, though," he added, with a twinkle in his eye.

Mottram's Scottish mother, Dorothy, was pregnant with him when his parents emigrated to Australia from London in 1980. His father, Brian, is a Londoner who played centre-half for Wimbledon in their Southern League days. Mottram himself owns a house at Hampton Wick and spends seven months a year using London as his training base during the European track season. The major breakthrough he made at the World Championships in Helsinki last month was largely conceived in the parks and on the tracks of England's capital.

It will be as an Aussie sporting hero, though, that he will return home to Melbourne next month, as the big hope for glory in the Commonwealth Games at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in March.

In the stadium where Don Bradman stood up to the English bodyliners in 1932, "Buster" (to give Mottram the nickname he has inherited from the British tennis player of the early 1980s) will be hoping to maintain the ground-breaking progress he has made of late. By the banks of the Tyne yesterday, he could not match the speed endurance of Eliud Kipchoge, the Kenyan finishing just two seconds shy of the world-best time for 3km on the roads in 7min 50.9sec, with Boniface Kiprop of Uganda second in 7:53.1 and Mottram third in 7:54.3.

When it came to the race for the 5,000m medals in the home straight in Helsinki last month, though, Mottram beat Kipchoge to the bronze. It was the first World Championship medal won by a non-African runner in the men's 5,000m or 10,000m since 1987, the year England last gained the Ashes.

Dieter Baumann did win the Olympic 5,000m title in Barce-lona in 1992, but Mottram does not take kindly to being mentioned in the same breath as the German who tested positive for nandrolone in 1991, claiming his toothpaste had been spiked. "I don't like being compared to a cheat, because I don't cheat," he said.

"I work hard, extremely hard, and it's frustrating to me that people think you can't do it without cheating. It hurts, because if you came and spent a week with me and saw how hard we train you'd understand. It's just through being committed and training hard."

Mottram's dogged work ethic, allied to a burgeoning self-belief, has made him the fastest non-African 5,000m runner who has not infringed the doping rules. He has covered the distance in 12min 55.76sec and in the past two years has run Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie a close second in the London Grand Prix meeting at Crystal Palace. He has also relieved the great John Walker of his Oceania record for the mile, clocking 3min 48.98sec in Oslo in July.

At 25, the former Australian junior triathlon champion has time on his side, too, in his crusade against the perceived invincibility of African distance runners. "I can only lead by example," he said. "It's one thing talking about beating them, but if I can go out there and actually do it then maybe a few more of us - a few Europeans - can be in there fighting for medals."

Mottram has shown that the fight can be fought from London - and without the support the Ethiopians and Kenyans enjoy in their mass training groups of similarly talented individuals. He does much of his training, in Bushy Park, Richmond Park, and alongside the Thames at Hampton Court Palace, paced by a friend - the former Australian marathon runner Gary Henry - on a bicycle.

When he trains on the track at St Mary's College in Twickenham, he is usually accompanied by two women: Sonia O'Sullivan, the Irish Olympic 5,000m silver medallist, and Benita Johnson, the Australian who won the long-course world cross-country title last year. All three are astutely guided by O'Sullivan's partner, Nic Bideau, a former Australian junior international.

"London is just perfect for what we're after," Mottram said. "Everything we need is there."

In Melbourne, right there, virtually outside his front door, is the converted cricket ground in which he will be carrying Australian hopes in March. "Sure, there's going to be a lot of pressure on me," he said. "But I'll have a lot in my favour: big crowd, home town."

The prospect of gold in the 5,000m swung further in his favour when Kipchoge said he was likely to miss the Commonwealth Games to concentrate on the World Indoor Championships. "Good!" Mottram exclaimed, failing to suppress a grin.