OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Athletics: McKean's recovery mission: Mike Rowbottom reports on an under-achiever's quest for self-affirmation in Barcelona

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The Independent Online
THERE was plenty of cruel sport to be had at Tom McKean's expense when they cancelled the first round of the 800 metres here. Having failed at the same stage in last year's world championships, when he led virtually all the way before slowing down and letting two men beat him on the line, he was vulnerable to half-joking suggestions that he must be pleased to reach the second round safely.

McKean took it all in good heart. 'The race is 801 metres, not 796,' he said. 'That lesson sank in pretty quick. But I've got to try and treat it as history. You can't live on it otherwise you'd go daft in this game.'

The Bellshill runner has had to learn a large number of uncomfortable lessons in the course of a seven-year international career which has been punctuated by headlines of the McFlop variety. At the Rome world championship final of 1987, he finished last after clipping Peter Elliott's heels with 280 metres to go. At the Seoul Olympics, he was disqualified in the quarter-finals for bumping the Dutch runner, Rob Druppers, in a wild effort to get out of a boxed position. His state of mind, admittedly, was hardly helped by lurid stories about his private life which came out on the day he ran.

'I was absolutely wasted,' he said at the time. 'I was just going through the motions.' In 1990 he finished a leaden seventh in the Commonwealth Games. And last year there was Tokyo.

Are there any other mistakes he can make? 'I can't think of any more,' he says. 'I've tried them all and they didn't work.'

Interspersed with the notorious, of course, has been the glorious - European silver and gold medals, victories in four European Cups and the 1989 World Cup here - and as McKean, now 28, sets out today in what is likely to be his last Olympic 800m competition, there are signs that he may come away from these Games with more satisfaction than he did from the last.

Having made a delayed start to the season because of a calf injury, he has improved steadily after his opening defeat in Edinburgh by the new kid on the block, Curtis Robb. The Liverpudlian has been flavour of the month, but McKean's performance in Oslo, where he ran 1min 44.75sec, the fastest time by a European this season, entitled him to feel that he was clearly back on top of the domestic pecking order.

His build-up for the Games has been encouraging. After a period training at altitude in the United States, he returned to Scotland and broke a number of personal bests in runs over 400m, 500m and 600m. On that evidence, the basic speed seems still to be there, although McKean has yet to show signs of the kick which has taken him away from the pack on so many occasions.

The motivation for him here is considerable, however. The US runners, Johnny Gray, Mark Everett and Jose Parilla appear to have fallen away from the frighteningly high level of performance they demonstrated at the US trials, won by Gray in 1min 42.80sec. The Kenyans, Nixon Kiprotich and William Tanui, will also be a formidable proposition, but McKean has raced them many times. He feels the event is wide open.

'People have been running very well at the start of the year but the Olympics put pressure on the favourites,' he said. No one knows that better than McKean after 1988; but this year he is freed from the burden of being a favourite.

'The pressure from back home is on the likes of Liz (McColgan) and Yvonne (Murray) to do really well. I'm an underdog, and it's a nice feeling.'

The arrival of a daughter, Rachel, now 10 weeks old, has given McKean further reason for contentment. Daddy would dearly love to bring her home a shiny plaything.

(Photograph omitted)