Jackson faces final hurdle

Mike Rowbottom talks to a former world champion about his decision to go it alone as he chases his Olympic grail
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The Independent Online
Colin Jackson got his season off to a winning start at the weekend as Britain staged its first international match of the year in Birmingham. Jackson, however, was half a world away. Geographically. Spiritually.

Britain's 110 metres hurdles world record holder has planned a route to the Olympic summit this summer which conspicuously avoids any British Athletic Federation event - save for the Olympic trials themselves - and his races in Adelaide and Perth on Friday and yesterday represented a venture out of base camp. Victories in, respectively, 13.39sec and 13.14 served to confirm that he is physically recovering from the multiple operation he underwent in September when he was relieved of a cartilage from each knee and his troublesome tonsils for good measure.

But Jackson bears other scars, as his absence from this season's domestic events will testify. "I definitely won't be there," he said, with a little laugh - part defensive, part defiant. "In no shape or form."

The self-imposed exile of one of this country's finest-ever athletes derives from his bitter experiences of last year. Along with his fellow athletes from the Nuff Respect management group, Linford Christie and John Regis, Jackson was involved in a lengthy pay dispute with the BAF which did neither party any good. But he sustained particular damage in a bust-up over his conduct during the weekend of the world championship trials. Having dropped out of the 100m event at Birmingham after the heats because of a troublesome adductor muscle, Jackson travelled to Padova, where he won a high hurdles event the next day.

Peter Radford, the BAF executive chairman, publicly rebuked the then world champion - "My understanding was that one of our great athletes was too injured to continue in these championships," he said. "I clearly was labouring under an illusion." Jackson was summoned to head office, and told to give proof of his fitness for a series of races within a set period. That he did not, and that he failed to defend his title, is now history.

Radford was under enormous pressure to do something; Jackson resented being taken to task. It was a mutual misunderstanding which illuminated the awkward co-habitation within British athletics of the old ethos and the new professional attitude.

While Christie and Regis have agreed to appear in BAF indoor meetings within the next month, there has been no such rapprochement with Jackson. It was said after his run in Padova that he was putting two fingers up at the federation. He wasn't; but he is now.

"If people in France upset me, I wouldn't run in their meetings," Jackson said. "If people in Germany upset me, I wouldn't run in their meetings. There's no difference to me between Britain, France, Germany or Spain. There are always meetings in Europe around the same time as the British ones. I can just pick and choose. I consider myself to be one of the easiest people to work with. I was going to Padova to test myself. It was a case of running, coming home and then fixing anything that needed fixing before I tried to defend my world title.

"When I got back the federation were accusing me - not even to my face, but in the papers - of only wanting to earn money. Well, if that's what they believe that's what they believe..."

At his lowest points last year, Jackson drew strength from the close relationship he has with his family. The youngest of three children - his sister, Suzanne, is an actress and dancer, his brother, Gerry, is a painter living in Los Angeles - he shares his house in Cardiff with his parents, Ossie and Angela. "When my athletics career is over, my family will still be there," he said. "They suffer the things I suffer, and they enjoy the things I enjoy."

Despite that support, however, last summer's controversy deeply perturbed him. "People would never believe how much it upset me," he said. "For people who don't know me to accuse me - and not even to my face, but publicly - of lying..." He laughed briefly and uneasily. "I was not much impressed with that at all.

"It affected me for weeks. I think the fact that I was not running very well at the time made it worse. It only needed one person to say to me 'don't run', and that would have been it. Definitely. The only thing which gave me a glimmer of hope was the number of people who told me I must carry on.

"I've seen now that I've got to look after myself. I was the loser, but at the end of the day the federation and the public are going to be the losers."

For all his bubbliness and affability, Jackson has always been a more distant character than his friend Christie, and last year's travails have only added to that detachment.

As he prepares now in Australia, accompanied by regular training partners Samantha Farquharson and Paul Gray, linking up occasionally with Christie and his training group, he has a kind of freedom which some might find alarming. But he relishes the lifestyle of the nomadic international athlete. "I travel the world, I play," he said. "Some people don't like me saying it, but I always think of what we do as being like a travelling circus."

As in the circus, the public spectacle is dependent on private effort - although Jackson is extraordinarily blessed with natural ability.

Two years ago, in a series of exercises set up by Esquire magazine to find "Britain's fittest man", he finished top, ahead of sportsmen such as the judo player Ray Stevens, gymnast Neil Thomas, footballer Les Ferdinand, cyclist Chris Boardman and swimmer Nick Gillingham.

That innate athleticism, combined with an intensive training programme, give him faith in his capacity to beat the leading Americans at the Olympics this August, including the man who succeeded him as world champion last summer, Allen Johnson. "I'm confident you will see the old Colin Jackson in Atlanta. I have run 12.91, and I still think there is more to come."

But if Jackson has learned any lesson from his disappointment at the 1992 Olympics - an overwhelming favourite, he finished seventh having damaged his back hitting a hurdle in an earlier round - he will not be worrying about records in Atlanta.

"I had wanted to win the Olympics in a world record," he recalled, "and after running 13.10 in the first round, I knew I was in shape. But when I picked up that stupid injury in the second round, it shattered me. I knew I couldn't do the world record, and I was down."

The extreme sportsmanship he displayed after the 110m hurdles final in Barcelona - smiling and bounding over to congratulate the winner, his friend and training partner Mark McKoy - was widely criticised at the time. Many observers felt he had failed to display the requisite pain and frustration. 'Does he care enough to win the big titles?' they asked.

The answer - as he demonstrated at the following year's world championships - was yes; but it was not something he wanted to put on public display. "Every time I shut my eyes I could see myself losing the Olympic title," he said. "It was hard enough for me without letting everyone else see how I was feeling. That has always been my way."

Thus, with an infectious giggle - and iron in his soul - Jackson proceeds towards what he describes as "the most important goal for all athletes". He's doing it his way.