No 1: James Shane, 1500m runner. At last an heir to the golden trinity becomes apparent - and he's a natural
Thanks to the lights from the five-a-side pitch in the distance, and from the steady stream of traffic whizzing along the A1235, it is just possible to pick out the ghostly group of young runners speeding around the edges of the darkened, muddy field next to the disused cricket pavilion at Gloucester Park on the outskirts of Basildon.
As they approach the shrubbery and the completion of a circuit, one boy stands out from the pack. James Shane is out in front and striding relentlessly clear, bare legs pumping piston-fashion and making light work of the heavy going, his warm breath puffing clouds into the close-to-freezing night air.
"Fifty-three," shouts Keith Evans, stationed at the turn with a stopwatch in hand. "Bit quick, James," adds Martin Brown, the jovial, bespectacled figure overseeing his 35-strong brood on Wednesday-night training at Basildon Athletics Club, "but keep it going if you can." And young James proceeds to keep it going, on all four of the night's four-minute repetition efforts. The question is: can he keep it going on the road to 2012 and the London Olympics?
At 16, Shane is already an "Olympic" champion. Representing Britain at the European Youth Olympics at Lignano in Italy last July, he won the 1500m. He was 15 at the time, running in a competition for Under-18s. Controlling the race from the front, he kicked to victory in the home straight, clocking 3min 52.68sec. It was a new record for a 15-year-old British 1500m runner. Sebastian Coe's best time at the same age was 4min 5.9sec; Steve Ovett's was 4:10.7; Steve Cram's 4:07.1.
"I've seen clips of them on TV and I've read about them," Shane says, sitting in the warmth of the clubhouse and reflecting on the British middle-distance trio who had their golden days before he was born, in December 1989. "People keep telling me about how they used to run and making comparisons to me. I'm very similar, apparently."
The similarities are not entirely coincidental. Coach Brown - who has been carefully nurturing Shane since the future European Youth Olympic champion turned up on a club night at the age of 10 - fell in love with athletics as a spectator at Crystal Palace in the early 1970s, marvelling at the exploits of the emerging Ovett ("the brash kid from Brighton who everyone was talking about"). Since he drifted into coaching - initially to guide his daughter, Louise (who, at 25, still trains with his thriving group and who, together with Keith Evans, helps him run it) - he has closely followed the methodology that was responsible for making Coe a double Olympic champion at 1500m.
"A lot of Peter Coe is in James, which I'm sure Seb will be pleased with," Brown says, referring to the father and coach who plotted Seb Coe's path to gold. "I've studied his book, but made a few additions of my own."
Like Coe Snr did with Coe Jnr, Brown has taken the far-sighted approach of holding back his protégé, limiting his training mileage and placing the emphasis on basic speed and quality - to leave room for increasing the load, and for making improvement, in the years to come.
"James does a very low mileage," Brown says. "Since he first came here it's been a case of gradual progression. What I've always tried to do is keep good natural rhythm to his running. He just floats around the track. And he can turn on speed just like that, because he's running to his natural rhythm.
"People have said to me, 'He runs like an African'. And that's what we've been after - that easy-flowing, natural rhythm. And, because of the training we're doing, he's not getting tired and losing his style. When we do 250m repetitions on the track, everyone runs to their rhythm. When they're tired, they stop. They're young. Build it up as they get older. That's what we've done with James. The key is to make it look effortless and easy. It's the same in every sport."
With his classic middle-distance runner's build and his classic, smooth-striding style, the 6ft Shane has made his progress look impressively assured and effortless thus far. He has not lost a track race since May 2004 and those in the know say he has no apparent weaknesses - blessed with a blistering change of pace to match his formidable speed endurance, and with a keen racing brain too.
"James is a phenomenal talent," says Eamonn Martin, the former Commonwealth 10,000m champion, London Marathon winner and three-times Oly-mpian, who is now a senior coach and club chairman at Basildon AC. "It would be great to think he could come through and do it, but he's got such a long way to go. I've seen an enormous amount of very talented youngsters who don't come through.
"The big test is when things go wrong. That's the real measure. That's when you need the doggedness. But James has got a really good, down-to-earth attitude. As you can see, he's got no airs or graces. That's very important. I think you've got to be a bit of a regular person, because at 16 you've got a lot of hard work ahead of you and a lot of problems still to overcome."
Shane, a fireman's son and a pupil at Mayflower High School in Billericay, is fortunate that he has Martin and Rob Denmark on hand to help steer him on the road to the senior ranks. Like him, they both won English Schools 1500m titles as teenage prodigies with the Basildon club. They both went on to become Olympic finalists and Commonwealth champions and now occupy roles of significance within the sport at national level - Martin as manager of the England cross-country team, Denmark as one of four talent-development officers appointed last week by UK Athletics.
Shane is also lucky that he happens to be a member of such a vibrant club - a hive of youthful activity on even a bitter, chilly January night - and that he is guided by such an affable, shrewd soul as Brown, the kind of coach worth his weight in Olympic gold as a conscientious, enthusiastic developer of track and field at its grass roots.
"I love coming down to the club," Shane says. "It's a social thing as much as anything else. It's not all serious. We have a good laugh. I used to play in goal in football. I had trials at Charlton, but once I started getting into athletics I wanted to concentrate on the running. I still do some judo. My granddad runs the Sakurakwai Judo Club in Basildon, and I help out with my nan, doing some teaching. I'm a junior black belt." Which could be another useful weapon in the James Shane middle-distance armoury, if there is a little jostling for position off the final bend in the 1500m final up the road in the London Olympic Stadium in six years' time.
"Of course I'm thinking about 2012," the European Youth Olympic champion of 2005 confides. "Who wouldn't? That's the big thing in the sport. Once you get to the Olympics, there's nothing higher. It is a big dream, yeah.
"I just hope I can keep it going. I'd rather be quicker than Coe, Ovett and Cram were when they were at their peak than they were when they were 15."
The Icon: A message from Sebastian Coe
The countdown to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games is well under way. For me and my team, preparations began almost immediately as the IOC President, Jacques Rogge, announced that we had won the right to stage the Games in Singapore last July.
Just as we at London 2012 have a clear vision of what we must achieve over the next six years, competing athletes must think in the same way.
When I was running competitively, I learnt that preparation was one of the keys to success. My father and I planned each year's race programme in minute detail, which ultimately led to victory in the 1500m at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 [as the above picture shows].
I am a huge supporter of the junior and English schools events in the UK, and, certainly, success in these events as a 17-year-old gave me belief that I could progress towards international competition. However, there is a world of difference between achieving at junior level and winning world titles. The most important advice that I can offer James Shane is to work with his coach to structure a programme to maintain focus and set challenging but realistic targets.
There will be good and difficult days for him over the next six years - there are very few athletes who don't suffer injuries or loss of form at some stage or another - but these are the challenges which all athletes confront and learn from. Nothing good in track and field happens overnight.
The London 2012 Games will be the greatest sporting occasion we have ever seen in this country. Every British athlete should not only be dreaming of success, but planning for it.Reuse content