Ladejo takes high ground

Norman Fox talks to an athlete determined to win at the top level
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The Independent Online
WHEN the 24-year-old Du'aine Ladejo beat the old favourite Roger Black to 400 metres gold in the European Championships in Gothenburg last summer, he became the most likely Briton to follow Linford Christie, Colin Jackson and Sally Gunnell to success at the highest level. Now he is ready to enjoy his best ever season but, like all of Britain's leading athletes, Ladejo is worried about Diane Modahl's appeal against her drugs sus- pension, just before the world championships early in August.

As he trained in the United States during the winter, Ladejo knew that he was not only toughening his physique but also preparing mentally to defend his sport against the possibility of more accusations that it is riddled with drugs cheats.

"British athletics is a victim of its own honesty," Ladejo said last week. "Other sports have just as many problems, probably more, but they don't look into every nook and cranny to find them." He confessed that all this winter he had the Modahl affair in the back of his mind. "It's not something you can ignore, but you can't let it dominate you. You can't let it distract you. I hope justice is done at the appeal.

"Only a few people know exactly what happened - Diane Modahl and perhaps a couple of others. She knows whether she took drugs. If she did she should pay, if not she shouldn't. But we must not allow the negative side of our sport to dominate us. I'm glad we are looking hard at our sport. I wish we had the sophisticated technology to allow us to define 100 per cent what's going on, but it's not an ideal world."

Ladejo, educated in the United States, where he could have taken up a career in American football, is never one to underestimate his own ability. But he has returned from his training in California even more confident than usual. "Once my coach, Tony Hadley, came over, I had my most successful training ever. We knew it would take a couple of years to get used to each other. Before I hadn't been doing proper 400m training. We have a four-year plan and whatever we pick up along the way is a bonus. This winter I've been able to do more weight conditioning so I'm a lot stronger from head to toe, and a lot faster.

"Obviously none of us wants to do our fine tuning too early. I wasn't fired up in my first couple of races - I treated them like training sessions. It takes three or four races of harsh competition before you get fired up. I want to be ready for the European Cup in Lille later this month but the real target is the world championships. From the end of June, that's when I'm beginning to look good."

Bearing in mind that Britain will have himself, Black and Dave Grindley all in action this summer, Ladejo is justified in saying: "I think my event is going to be the hottest of any in Britain this season, provided we all stay clear of injuries. That's the one thing about 400m and middle- distance runners, the promising athletes, like Tom McKean and Curtis Robb, always seem to get injured. I've been lucky. I need other people to run well against me. I love pressure and hype.

"I think that this season will also emphasise the fact that we have become a sprinters' country. Apart from Linford, Darren Braithwaite has looked good indoors and there are plenty of young sprinters coming through, including Owuso Dako, the new inter-counties champion." Ladejo expects that when, presumably, Christie, Sally Gunnell and Colin Jackson retire after the 1996 Olympic Games it will still be sprinters who provide the next generation of crowd-pullers.

"You only need one person to come out and shine and others follow." He anticipates good seasons for another 400m man, Mark Hylton, and Julian Golding over 200m. "Rob Denmark looks happier than he has before. Of the women, I think Kelly Holmes [1500m] and Jacqui Agyepong [hurdles] will do well."

The American challenge this season puts Britain's golden trio, Christie, Gunnell and Jackson under threat. Dennis Mitchell and Jon Drummond are going to press the 35-year-old Christie, whose fifth place in Paris on Thursday ought not to be taken as consequential. Jackson lost his 44-race unbeaten run in hurdles to Allen Johnson indoors in Madrid in February and Gunnell faces a possible three-pronged 400m hurdles attack from the Americans Sandra Farmer-Patrick and Kim Batten and the French Olympic and world 400m champion, Marie-Jose Perec, although she has little hurdles experience.

Ladejo maintains that in the past British runners tended to look at the Americans and feel inferior but, more than anyone, Christie has changed that attitude. "The Americans always go into events thinking they're going to dominate, but we can't let them do that. They have the talent but we have it as well. I've seen them and raced against them. I've even seen Michael Johnson get beaten." This season will prove whether Ladejo can become British athletics' latest pied piper.