History drives Thomas

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The Independent Online
Twice in the past week, Iwan Thomas has, to borrow the words of Ron Pickering, opened his legs and shown his class. It was Alberto Juantorena who inspired that immortal observation and Thomas, in Sheffield last Sunday and in Lausanne on Wednesday, ran inspiringly within range of the time that won Cuba's human missile the Olympic 400m title in Montreal, 44.26sec. "Who?" Thomas responded when his proximity to Juantorena on the all-time list was mentioned.

Attempts to get the British and European record-breaker-in-waiting to grasp his new place in the grand scheme of one-lap running are doomed to failure, it seems. He has never seen Juantorena opening up his prodigious nine-foot stride, even on archive video. "I have seen his photo, though," he added apologetically. Thomas cannot even recall Harry Reynolds' world record 400m run. "I didn't see it," he said. "I never watched athletics as a kid." The "Butch" Reynolds Thomas knows is not the one who removed Lee Evans from the record books in Zurich nine years ago but the one he chased to the line himself in Lausanne on Wednesday night.

In doing so - and stopping the track-side clock at 44.46, 0.03sec quicker than his winning time in Sheffield - the 23-year-old Welshman pushed his horizons beyond the looming British World Championship trials in Birmingham at the weekend. Roger Black's British record, 44.37, and Thomas Schoenlebe's European record, 44.33, are now beckoning Thomas. He would probably have broken them already had he not raised his arms 10 metres before the line in Sheffield or had Lausanne's track not been so bepuddled. Thomas, it seems, has a lot left in his tank.

"To get Roger's record would be a dream come true," he said. "Beyond that, who knows ? This is only my second year as a full-time athlete so naturally I'm going to get stronger, and my coach keeps telling me 400m runners don't start peaking until they're 27. I'd certainly like to run sub-44. I don't see why not. I've run 44.4 twice this week and there's clearly more to come."

A week ago, before he lined up in Sheffield, Thomas could ill afford to look beyond the World Championship trials. He was just another contender for the trip to Athens, as part of the four-man equation into which the three British individual 100m places would not go. Now, he is not just the clear leader of the Brit pack - ahead of Mark Richardson, Jamie Baulch and the ailing Roger Black - but the leading contender for gold, too. Of the two men ahead of him in the world rankings, Reynolds (whose winning time in Lausanne was 44.08) failed to qualify for the United States team and Michael Johnson (who ran 43.73 in April) will only be in the Greek capital if the International Amateur Athletic Federation sanctions wild cards for reigning world champions, and if he regains fitness.

"I was quite shocked when I was shown the rankings in Lausanne," Thomas said. "I didn't realise I was No 1 among those in contention for Athens. It's weird. I'm not frightened of a bit of pressure, though. I'd rather have the pressure of being in this position than the pressure of not running well and having to prove myself in the trials. Even if Michael Johnson does run... It seems strange. I always thought he was unbeatable, but in his last race he ran 45.7..."

Thomas stopped himself short of actually saying it, but the young man with the golden hair would clearly fancy his chances against the Texan with the golden shoes and the Fort Knox of a medal collection. It was Thomas, remember, who went after Johnson and his golden scalp in the Olympic 400m final in Atlanta last August. He was a mere 0.08sec behind at half- way but his bold effort took its toll in the last few strides. As Black claimed the British silver lining, Thomas slipped out of the medal positions to fifth place.

Greater staying power was evident in Sheffield and in Lausanne. "It's all down to my coach," Thomas said. "I've moved down to Southampton to be near him and he's had me running up the dunes at Barnstaple until I've been on my hands and knees." Thomas's task-master happens to be Mike Smith, the man who guided Black through the ranks after the British team captain parted from his first sporting love. Black had an England Under-16 rugby trial and Thomas was a schoolboy star in another field too. He was ranked No 4 in Europe as a BMX rider.

"I didn't want to be a runner until I saw the 1991 World Championships on television," Thomas said. "I can remember lying in bed late at night watching Kriss Akabusi on the last leg of the 4 x 400m relay and thinking, "That must be great". Six years later, with an Olympic relay silver medal among his possessions, Thomas has the kind of glint in his eyes that drew Akabusi (another product of Smith's south coast stable) to shared gold. And the most likely rival to emerge on his golden horizon, in the absence of a fit Johnson, would just happen to be Antonio Pettigrew, the victim overhauled by the baton-wielding Akabusi in Tokyo.

Pettigrew, winner of the US trial last month, denied Roger Black the individual title at those 1991 World Championships. No British 400m runner, in fact, has struck solo World or Olympic gold since Eric Liddell's glorious circuit of the Stade Colombes in 1924. "Is that right?" the new model contender said. "Well, I'll certainly go for it." Chasing Liddell and his historical chariot of fire, Thomas the tank engine is getting ready to roll.