Christian's onward march in quest for Olympic glory

Brian Viner interviews Christian Malcolm
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The Independent Online

Nobody is likely to have watched the unfolding Konstadinos Kederis affair more closely than Britain's Christian Malcolm, a genuine contender in the Olympic 200 metres whose genuine contention has been boosted by the withdrawal of the Sydney gold medallist following his much-publicised failure to take a drugs test.

Nobody is likely to have watched the unfolding Konstadinos Kederis affair more closely than Britain's Christian Malcolm, a genuine contender in the Olympic 200 metres whose genuine contention has been boosted by the withdrawal of the Sydney gold medallist following his much-publicised failure to take a drugs test.

Malcolm finished fifth in Sydney four years ago, an experience that will help when the heats begin tomorrow week.

"If I make the final again, then this time I will have been there and done it," he says. His accent is a beguiling hybrid of South Wales, where he grew up, and Jamaica, where both parents come from. "Last time I remember walking back after the semi-final, hardly able to walk, both calves full of cramp, and all I could think was 'I'm in an Olympic final'. This time I'll be thinking 'the job ain't over yet'."

If he completes that job satisfactorily, then a rare smile might just play around the lips of his 67-year-old coach, Jock Anderson, a former sprinter himself, who is to chirpy insouciance what Bernard Manning, say, is to 200m running. They make a strange couple, the intense, curmudgeonly Scot and the affable, easy-going Welshman, yet they complement each other perfectly.

"Jock's the total opposite to me," says Malcolm, with a chuckle."I'm calm, he's fiery. I'm laid-back, he's uptight. I met him through my cousin, [the runner] Kevin Williams, when I was just a kid. I was a pain in the neck, hanging around. So eventually Jock made me run in an open meet, just to get me out of his way. But I won the 100m and 200m. That's when he realised I had talent. I was always the fastest runner in my street, the fastest in my school. My cousin was fast, my two sisters were fast. But running on a track is different."

During his early teens, it seemed as though Malcolm's future might be in professional football. He played for South Wales Schoolboys with a free-scoring kid called Craig Bellamy, and his electrifying speed up and down the right wing, from where he supplied not a few of Bellamy's goals, attracted the attention of Nottingham Forest. He played several games for the Forest Under-15s and later for Queen's Park Rangers Under-16s, and, not altogether surprisingly, was never, ever beaten for pace.

"I came across a few who were sharp over the first couple of metres, but none who were quicker than me," he says. Does he ever wish he'd become a footballer instead of an athlete? "No. The money would be nice, if I'd succeeded, but there are decent rewards in athletics, and an amazing adrenaline rush that I never got playing football."

In 1998, when Malcolm won both the 100m and 200m at the world junior championships in Annecy, followed by a silver medal in the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, the decision to concentrate on running was vindicated, to say the least. A golden career beckoned. British athletics correspondents waxed lyrical. But the following year he failed to reach expectations, his own above all, and was not selected to go to the fully-fledged world championships in Seville.

"I was really disappointed, but after a few days I started getting over it. Then the championships started, and I was seriously gutted. I thought 'what am I going to do with myself for two weeks?' And then I thought, 'this is not going to happen again.' And it hasn't. I worked hard that winter, and made the Olympic team for Sydney."

Never mind Sydney, we are currently in Croydon, in Malcolm's dishevelled hotel room, where he has been limbering up on his beloved Sony PlayStation for the final Olympics curtain-raiser, the Norwich Union Grand Prix at Crystal Palace. He has only recently turned 25, so he may have a couple more Olympics in him. London 2012, perhaps. After all, sprinters often flower later in their twenties, or even in their thirties. One of Malcolm's likely opponents in Athens is Frankie Fredericks, of Namibia, positively superannuated at 36. In the meantime, our man feels like he is coming into medal-winning form. "I've had a few injury niggles, but I've gone back to basics with my coach, and I'm feeling strong and fit again."

Back to basics with Anderson means just that. "My length of stride is good, but we've been working on my knee lift, getting it higher. He's just kept on and on and on at me, making me run over 60m bringing my knees up high, really overemphasising it, because obviously in a race you can't concentrate on that, so the idea is that the knees will drop down, but will drop down to the right height."

I am powerfully reminded here of Ian Holm's performance in Chariots of Fire as Sam Mussabini, legendary coach to another British sprinter, Harold Abrahams. There is a sequence in that fine film in which Mussabini hectors Abrahams into lengthening his stride, and another in which he gets him to prance like a pony, exaggerating his knee lift. I can picture similar scenes between Anderson and Malcolm. We will see whether Malcolm can emulate Abrahams, who became Olympic champion in Paris 80 years ago, but Anderson is clearly cut of the same cloth as Mussabini.

"He's not a textbook trainer," says his protégé, "in that he works round my needs. If I turn up at the track feeling confident, he'll arrange a suitable session. If I'm tired, the same. If it's raining he might change the session altogether. Most coaches like to do whatever's pre-prepared, whatever's written down.

"Technically, Jock has me down to a T. He wouldn't let me use blocks until I was 17 or 18. Most of the other kids got their parents to buy their blocks, but I wasn't allowed. He wanted to keep my feet on the ground."

And what better way than by denying a chap his blocks?

"Yeah. He didn't want me to think I was higher status than the others. He wanted the foundations in place before I had blocks. When you start sprinting without blocks, you're like a gun. You tend to recoil. As you push off, you give a little bit. With blocks you just push forward and go. So it helps to get the basics right before you start using blocks. It helped me, anyway. Jock was right, as usual."

Even without Kederis, the tarnished "Golden Greek", the competition will still be fierce just to reach the final, as Malcolm readily concedes.

"The three Americans will be tough to beat, and there's Darren [Campbell, who finished second behind Kederis in Sydney], and Chris Lambert's in great form this year, and Asasa Powell's in great shape, and the Russian [Oleg Sergeev] has been consistently running 20.2. And I can't honestly say that I've ever beaten Frankie Fredericks when he's been at his best."

Malcolm makes it sound, I venture, as though he's got next to no chance. A hoot of laughter. "No, they're all beatable. Anyone can win, it's getting to the final that's the main concern." Assuming he does, what does he have, when he's at his best, that the others lack? "I can change the pace of a race. In the last 30m, I honestly believe I'm stronger than anyone. If I'm in touching distance, then I can step up a gear."

It might have to be two gears; Malcolm will almost certainly have to run his personal best, which is currently 20.08 seconds, just to reach the podium in Athens. Moreover, in the past four years he has repeatedly failed to match the immense potential he showed as a junior, and did not make it beyond the semi-finals in last year's world championships. That he has the natural ability, however, nobody doubts. And he challenges the widely-held notion that his natural ability is held in check by his lack of single-mindedness.

"I'm always thinking about running," he says. "Always. The start, the middle part, the curve. I'm thinking about it all the time. I sit down to do something else, and the next thing an hour's gone by. But I don't visualise a race before I run it, like some do."

Anderson doubtless does, on his behalf. And unequivocally lets him know if the reality does not match the vision. "Jock can be very intimidating. But over the years I've started to smile. He's very straight to the point, there's no messing about. And that's good, really. It's true that sometimes I do need that wake-up call. My cousin Kevin, my mum and Jock are the only people I really listen to."

His mum, he adds, is his all-time idol. And when you listen to him talking, you can understand why. Yvonne Malcolm had to give up work when her husband, a Newport bus driver, suffered kidney failure and later had two kidney transplants. So neither parent worked and there was little money, yet Yvonne gave her only son limitless support and encouragement. "We didn't have a car, so she would walk with me to football training, an hour there and an hour back. She was always there to watch me, in every match. She's my inspiration."

Malcolm has reached the point in his career where he, too, is an inspiration. His training partner, Mark Lewis-Francis, said so just the other day. Clearly, there is some helpful camaraderie in the British track-and-field camp, yet there is also sorrow, in the absence of Malcolm's best friend Dwain Chambers, suspended for two years after testing positive for the designer steroid tetrahydrogestrinone.

"Obviously it's a big downer," says Malcolm, when I bring up the subject of Chambers. His broad smile fades, and for the first time he looks uneasy. "But I can't worry about that. I can't let my head get involved. This is my life. I love running fast."

Has he been speaking much to Chambers in the run-up to the Olympics? "Sure. Best friends speak."

Silence. The contrast with earlier, when he answered all my questions with cheerful enthusiasm, escapes neither of us. I ask whether he thinks Chambers has been harshly treated? "There's a lot of politics involved. Hopefully, something will be sorted out. And that's all I've got to say on the subject."

OK, then what of drug use generally? For example, there have been suspicions about Kederis (even before the current brouhaha) and his coach, Hristos Tzekos, for some time. Two years ago, Kederis was abruptly withdrawn from the Athens Grand Prix following the sudden arrival of a drug-testing team from the IAAF. What does Malcolm think about all that?

"I can't get involved in worrying about drugs," he says. "There have been guys I've beaten when they were on drugs, I know that. And maybe guys who beat me. But I can't dwell on it. If I do, I'm not giving myself a fair chance."

Fair enough. So let me ask just one more question, inspired by a sign I saw in the lobby of the Croydon Hilton on my way up to his room. It announced that a prayer meeting would be held in the hotel, for athletes competing at Crystal Palace, at 9.30 the following morning. Will he be there? He has, after all, the ideal first name.

He laughs. "No. I'm a believer but I'm not religious. I have attended a couple of those meetings with [fellow runner[ Julian Golding, who's really religious. But I like to say my own prayers, and to say them on my own."

What those prayers will be this week, I fancy I might have an inkling.

Track feats to treasure: Malcolm's five favourite Olympic moments

Linford Christie in Barcelona

Obviously Linford (winning the 100 metres) in 1992. I'll never forget being at home watching that on television. He'd been promising something special for so many years and then he won the biggest one of all in Barcelona and things just started to roll for him. He won the world championships the year after.

Steve Cram in Los Angeles

I only vaguely remember the 1984 Olympics but I was already a big Steve Cram fan. I knew he'd been injured going into it and came out with a silver medal (in the 1500m).

Florence Griffith-Joyner in Seoul

Her fluency and technique was awesome. You just couldn't fault her. She had so much elegance, she was great to watch.

Himself and Darren Campbell in Sydney

Me and Darren being in the final was something I'll never forget. He's one of my cousin's best friends, and someone I've always looked up to.

Michael Johnson in Atlanta

The way he came off that turn in the 200m final was something else. He had that rivalry with Frankie Fredericks and Frankie was always a strong finisher, but that day Johnson just ran away from him. To win in 19.32, with sub-20s second and third ... you would never have placed money on that happening in a million years.