Hylton ready to emerge from the darkness

Mike Rowbottom on Britain's bright prospect at 400m
There will no doubt come a time in British athletics when people bemoan the lack of decent 400 metres runners, just as they now pine for the Coes of yesteryear in the middle distance events. But with the likes of Mark Hylton bursting on to the track such a time may well be a long way off.

At the age of 18, Hylton's main stated aim for the season is to become the sixth successive Briton to win the European junior 400m title, replicating the achievements of - in order - Roger Black, Peter Crampton, Wayne McDonald, David Grindley and Guy Bullock.

However, such has been the precocious form displayed by this deceptively powerful young athlete in the last two months that he finds himself in Barcelona this weekend as Britain's main 400m hope for the World Indoor Championships.

Hylton lowered Black's 10-year-old British junior record to 46.56sec in winning the AAA indoor title at Birmingham's national indoor arena last month,and ran the same time at the KP Invitation three weeks later.

He sets off for his first major senior international championship in the hope that he can better the European junior mark of 46.37sec set by Thomas Schnlebe, or even the world junior record of 46.15 held by Deon Minor of the United States.

Last year's European Indoor Championships provided an opportunity for athletes such as Du'Aine Ladejo and David Strang, respective winners of the 400 and 1500m, to advance their careers significantly and with the controversy over the non-participation of some leading runners in Barcelona, Hylton is hoping to make his mark.

"He is an exceptional talent," says his coach, Martin Watkins. "His training partner, Mark Richardson, has pure speed. Mark Hylton has an immense strength."

That strength has been developed over the years in training circumstances that have been far from ideal. Hylton's club, Windsor, Slough and Eton AC, has arranged to move to a new multi-purpose site within the grounds of Eton College by next year. Their current track, close to Windsor Castle, has facilities which Watkins, describes as "character-building."

It would be unlikely to pass muster with Hylton and his fellow students of tourism and leisure at East Berkshire College, where one of the regular assignments is to evaluate the facilities at sports centres.

The track is not lit, which means that Hylton and the other members of his training group regularly find themselves charging round in a darkness mitigated only by a light over the finish line and the headlamps of passing cars on the road next to the back straight. Elbows fly; and Hylton, 5ft 8in, trains with several friends who are well over 6ft.

Little wonder, then, that when the jostling has got heavy on the tight, banked bends of Kelvin Hall and the National Indoor Arena, he has emerged unscathed.

"I believe that I will be able to handle myself in Barcelona," he said. "I have been doing it at my club for years. I am hoping to get into the final and to smash my record again. Every time I have finished a race this season I have felt that I had more left."

Hylton, who will not be 19 until September, has dominated youth and junior one-lap running since he turned to it three years ago after giving up the pentathlon - at 15 he was Southern champion, running 800 metres in 2min 14sec and high jumping 1.70m. Football - he was a goalscoring winger for Slough Town's youth team - also had to go.

He has since won a string of domestic titles and finished fourth in last year's World Junior Championships, the latter a performance which he says bitterly disappointed him.

His role model, Michael Johnson, will not be in Barcelona despite having won the US trials last weekend in a staggering world record of 44.63sec. The world 400m champion has returned to Dallas to train for this summer's outdoor championships, and Hylton does not even bother to disguise his relief. "I deeply admire Michael Johnson," he says with a nervous chuckle. "But I wouldn't want to race against him at this stage in my career."

Those he will face, however, include the Americans who were second and third behind Johnson in the trials; Derek Mills and Darnell Hall. Hylton's attitude to the task ahead expresses all the optimism of youth. "Once I've got into that final," he said, "then all I've got to do is beat three other guys and I've definitely got a medal."

Hylton was surprised to receive a phone call and letter of congratulation from Roger Black when he set the new British junior mark last month. The double European champion believes that this 18-year-old can make an impact at world level "if he stays healthy".

This week the athlete who three years ago had to receive a pair of spikes through a local council lottery will sign a two-year, contract with a leading shoe company. In the realpolitik of athletics, Hylton has arrived.