Morgan leaps to top of the class

Simon Turnbull attends the nurturing school of Britain's finest athletic talents
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It Was wing and a prayer time for British athletics yesterday. Jonathan Edwards flew out for Tallahassee, Florida, en route to Atlanta, and Britain's hopes of Olympic track and field success went with him. Results at Crystal Palace on Friday night raised the spectre of a gold- less Games haunting the sport in Britain, as it did after Montreal and Seoul, in the event of our treasured triple jumper failing to hit the jackpot in Georgia. Thus, the youthful gathering in Sheffield yesterday assumed perhaps greater significance than the grand prix meeting the night before.

The TSB English Schools' Track and Field Championships has, in its 66 years, unearthed an Olympic gold mine for Britain. As a Sheffield schoolboy, Sebastian Coe was knocked out in the heats of the junior boys' 1500m in 1971 but showed his first golden glimpse in the 1973 championships, appropriately enough at Bebington Oval, the track where David Puttnam filmed Chariots of Fire. It was around that time that Sheffield's Saturday night Green Un newspaper featured a report about a teenage prodigy called "Sir Bastion Coe".

With its 2,000 hopefuls and Olympic-style procession of heats and finals, the pressure-cooker of "the English Schools'" produced the teenage champions in Steve Ovett, Steve Cram, Daley Thompson, Sally Gunnell and Steve Backley. It is where championship athletics life also started for Jonathan Edwards. He was ninth in the senior triple jump for Devon in 1983 but broke through the 15m barrier, albeit by one centimetre, as the winner at Thurrock the following year. "It was just an overwhelming experience," he recalled as he packed his bags yesterday morning, "a bit like having done what I have in the last year or so. I can remember going to Thurrock thinking I didn't stand a chance. I was astonished when I ended up winning. When you're that age, the English Schools is everything. The organisation is almost like the Olympic Games. It gives you a taste of the big time. It had a positive effect on me and I'm sure it has on a lot of people."

Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare would probably agree: he was a member of Somerset's victorious 4 x 100m relay team in 1957. So, for that matter, would Joe Bugner, winner of the junior discus in 1964, and Gareth Edwards, the senior 200m champion of 1966. Time will no doubt show that the class of 1996, at the Don Valley Stadium on Friday and yesterday, produced its share of graduates to the fame school, whether within or beyond the boundaries of track and field.

Paul Sampson, winner of the senior boys' 100m final in 10.48sec yesterday, has already been on the nine o'clock news. He is the Bradford schoolboy who was called up to train with England's Five Nations' rugby union squad last winter. David Parker has also mixed with the big boys. And training with Steve Backley has clearly been beneficial to the 16-year-old from Scarborough. The 70.52m throw which won him the intermediate javelin title was only two metres shy of the senior record Backley set as an 18-year- old. It seemed appropriate, though, that the star of the show should be a school jumper, as it were.

Nathan Morgan was assisted by a following wind of 3.8m per second when he took his second-round effort in the senior long jump, but his 7.97m leap was nevertheless Edwardsesque: the best by a British athlete this year and inside the Olympic "B" qualifying standard. "I never thought I could jump that far," he confessed. The secret, he said, had been watching Carl Lewis on television in the US trials. "I studied his technique and copied his action today."

Just turned 18, the Leicester lad might have been competing against his hero in Atlanta if he had made his leap before the Olympic selection deadline of two weeks ago. Still, Sydney is only four years away. And British athletics has another good reason to be jumping for joy.