Winter Olympics: Runner turns rider to end his 14-year itch

The ground-breaker: Phil Harries
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The Independent Online

Phil Harries will be in exalted company when he makes his Winter Olympic debut as a member of the GBII four-man bobsleigh team. Competing in the GBI sled will be Marcus Adam, the former 200m runner who beat Michael Johnson a record five times during an injury-ravaged sprinting career. Then, in the Monaco team, there will be Albert Grimaldi, as Prince Albert is listed on the Games website. He will be competing in his fifth Olympics, a record for a bobber.

Phil Harries is probably breaking new ground too, or new ice. The trouble is none of the Olympic record books list the longest gap between appearances at Winter or Summer Games. According to Stan Greenberg, the author of Whitaker's Olympic Almanak and a founder member of the International Society of Olympic Historians, however, the likelihood is that Harries will be bridging a record stretch for a British Olympian. It is 14 years since he competed as a 400m hurdler at the Summer Games in Seoul in 1988.

"There are people who have competed in the Games for 40 years, but without a break," Greenberg said. "There's also Ralph Craig, the American sprinter who won the 100m in 1912 and made a comeback as a yachtsman 36 years later. But he was a reserve in 1948. He didn't actually compete.

"I'm pretty sure it must be a British record. The actual gap is quite remarkable. People made a big thing about Dorothy Tyler when she competed in the high jump in 1948, 12 years after jumping in the Berlin Games. To go for 14 years between Olympic appearances is an incredible achievement." It is indeed. Yet the magnitude of it is only now dawning upon the modest Harries, a graphics teacher from Derby and stalwart member of Derby and County Athletics Club. "To be honest," he said, "it didn't really strike me until the other day. When I first got selected I was just thinking that it was nice to make a Summer and a Winter Games, because not many British athletes have done that. But then I thought, 'Wow, you've done this 14 years apart.' It is a pretty big gap. I was 22 when I went to Seoul. I'm 35 now."

It places Harries' achievement into further perspective that his first Olympic appearance dates back to the Ben Johnson drugs scandal – when Linford Christie, Steve Cram, Tessa Sanderson and Fatima Whitbread were in the British team. It dates back to the time of Moses too, of course.

The great Ed Moses took the bronze in the 400m hurdles final in Seoul. Harries was knocked out in the first round.

"I did run against Ed Moses once," Harries reflected. "It was in an invitation meeting at Crystal Palace. I'd just won the AAA junior title. I can remember my confidence was that high I was thinking, 'Right, you're Ed Moses but I'm still going to beat you.' I didn't beat him, no. He was on one of those long unbeaten runs at the time.

"But those Games still seem like yesterday to me. I can remember them vividly. I tried to make the teams for the Summer Games in 1992 and 1996 but didn't succeed. And ever since I took up bobsleigh, in 1998, it was always my aim to get to the 2002 Winter Games – and to do well there.

"When I went to Seoul I was a little bit disappointed with my performance. I was injured and didn't really do myself justice. Looking back, I was possibly a little overawed. Perhaps I was just satisfied to get there. But this time I really want to go and actually do something.

"We're improving all the time as a team and we really hope that we can at least get into the top 10. It's a one-off. If we get a good draw on the day then I see no reason why we shouldn't do that, or even better. We're aiming high – put it that way."

That Harries is taking aim at all in Salt Lake City bears testimony to his strength of character. He suffered a broken collarbone in a bobsleigh crash last winter and at the start of this season missed the cut for the British World Cup teams. He kept plugging away in the third-string crew, though, and steadily pushed himself – literally – into the frame for Olympic selection.

So now he can prepare to take his place on the Winter Olympic stage, alongside the man who beat Michael Johnson (five times out of eight) and the bobsleigh man who happens to be a Prince.

"He's a pleasant bloke," Harries said of Monaco's regal driver. "He's just treated as one of the lads. That's probably why he likes it. Nobody treats him any differently from any of the other blokes. He has to find a space in the changing room like anyone else."

At least they already have a space in the record books for Albert Grimaldi. They are having to create a new one for Phil Harries.