Olympic Games / Prospects for Gold - Athletics: Akabusi laps up applause: Adam Szreter on the Olympian credentials of the track fans' favourite performer

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The Independent Online
TONIGHT in Nice, Kriss Akabusi runs what will probably be his last competitive 400 metres hurdles before attempting to emulate David Hemery's achievement of 24 years ago by winning the Olympic gold medal for Britain.

Hemery's astonishingly comprehensive victory in the oppressive heat of Mexico City brought him instant recognition: he became one of the country's best-known sportsmen and, with the possible exception of Lynn Davies, the first athlete to capture the public's imagination since Roger Bannister. Akabusi need not worry about emulating that. Whatever happens in Barcelona, his popularity is assured.

At the London Grand Prix last Friday, the 33-year-old former Army sergeant finished second, behind Dave Patrick, one of three Americans who will be among his rivals in Spain.

Akabusi's time of 48.26sec was the fastest he has run in this country, but outside the British record of 47.86 with which he won the bronze medal at last year's World Championships in Tokyo. Furthermore, it was only good enough for fourth place in this year's rankings, behind Kevin Young of the United States, Zambia's Samuel Matete, the world champion, and Patrick. But as far as the hordes of athletics teeny-boppers at Crystal Palace were concerned, Akabusi would have been a winner if he had trailed in last.

Even Roger Black, his great friend and training partner who has been under the media spotlight since the demise of Thompson, Coe and Cram, was unable to arouse the mild Beatlemania which surrounded Akabusi shortly after the victory ceremony.

Akabusi's extraordinary popularity is in direct proportion to his extraordinary personality. His Nigerian background, his unhappily fragmented childhood and his religious rebirth have created a character of immense enthusiasm and will-power, one totally lacking in pretension or conceit despite the obvious opportunities for such indulgence. He attracted new admirers on television recently when, through his impregnable charm and speed of delivery, he became one of a select few to prevent Clive Anderson from talking back.

Akabusi's conversion to Christianity five years ago coincided with his conversion from a good international 400m runner to a world-class hurdler. As a flat quarter-miler he achieved great success in the British 4 x 400m relay squad - European and Commonwealth gold medals and an Olympic silver - but he was always in the shadow of Black and Derek Redmond, and fourth place at the Commonwealth Games in 1986 was the height of his individual achievement.

It was after the European Championships in Stuttgart later that year, approaching his 28th birthday, that Akabusi decided to change his event. 'I looked around and realised that unless I made a move these would be my last championships,' he says in his biography, Kriss Akabusi On Track. 'Never again would I run in front of a huge crowd and enjoy the atmosphere and glamour of a major championship. My rivals for the 400m were young, but watching the British guys in the hurdles I knew I could make the World Championship team.'

It was a shrewd move. Nationally there was indeed little competition, and internationally the long reign of Ed Moses was coming to an end. Akabusi made an almost instant impact, reaching the World Championship final the following year, where he also picked up another relay silver medal.

But it was in 1989 that Akabusi burst into the public consciousness, opening the British challenge with an inspired victory in the European Cup at Gateshead, and then an equally brave third place at the World Cup in Barcelona. His technique was imperfect, changing stride pattern between hurdles, and his style was not smooth, but his awesome commitment was there for all to see.

Akabusi's golden year was 1990, when he won at both the Commonwealth Games and the European Championships, the latter giving rise to one of the most famous sports pictures of recent times as he knelt in prayer after breaking Hemery's 20-year-old national record and becoming the first Briton to run under 48 seconds.

His part in Britain's World Championship 4 x 400m gold medal in Tokyo is still fresh in the memory, and he, Black, Redmond and John Regis should be challenging again in three weeks' time. But Akabusi's form and fitness this summer has been mixed - Friday's was only his second run under 49 seconds - and in a year when British gold medal hopes look a little thin on the ground, Akabusi knows he is expected to be a contender.

'It's easy when you race in domestic competition for people to get carried away about Olympic medals and stuff, but hopefully you've seen today that it's not going to be easy for anybody,' he said on Friday. 'But I'm looking forward to the challenge.

(Photograph omitted)