Profile: From hell to Helsinki: Norman Fox charts the return to the fast lane of an athlete cursed by injury and misfortune: Roger Black

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The Independent Online
HE HAS been sewn up, screwed up and all but washed up. Apart from racing motorcyclists, there are not many sportsmen who have spent more time being patched up than Roger Black, the twice European 400 metres champion who next week in Helsinki again defies medical logic and defends his title.

The extended sprint of the 400m is painful punishment in itself. It demands pace and endurance, neither of which Black could ever see himself regaining this time last year when he was suffering from the Epstein-Barr virus which attacks the glands and seems to cloak the sufferer in total physical and mental debilitation. He remembers only too clearly that 'there were often times when I could have given up any thought of a comeback, but then I thought that I still had a lifetime ahead of me to do other things. I was still young enough to add to the memories that kept me going when I couldn't think of running any distance at all, let alone 400'.

Now 28, his memories are of his astonishing initial impact on the sport, winning six major championship gold medals in his first year as a British international; of records, Union Jack-waving fans in faraway places, hero-worshipping youngsters, swooning girls, and between the highs, the depressions, months of anguish when a career in athletics seemed like a poor idea. Was it all worthwhile? 'I sometimes had to ask myself whether it was worth the sacrifices and the commitment, but the desire was always there.'

Curiously, as a youngster, born in Portsmouth, the love of running fast or, better still, running faster than everyone else, was not all- consuming. At first he only toyed with athletics. But his natural speed and strength took him to the English Schools Championships. At 17 his personal best was a highly promising 47.7sec, but his predominant ambition was to become a medical student, the irony of which is not lost on someone who from personal experience now probably knows as much about sports injuries and stress complaints as most doctors. Indeed, he is at the forefront of a campaign to keep Britain's leading athletes closely monitored medically.

In a way his schoolboy failure to achieve sufficient A-levels to open the door to medical school opened another into the more lucrative but just as demanding world of full- time athletics. Forced to re-sit his exams, he applied his spare time to serious running. Only three months after getting into real training he ran for Britain and became European indoor champion. Although by then he had qualified for medical school, he chose to opt out to prepare full-time for the 1986 Commonwealth Games and European Championships.

He was still only 20 and in Edinburgh a win by three or four metres over Australia's Darren Clarke emphasised his potential. But one race above all brought him to the attention of a television audience far wider than the usual clutch of athletics devotees. The European Championships in Stuttgart that same year saw Britain winning medals almost at will and brought Black his second major of the season by beating Thomas Schonlebe, the German world champion in the individual 400m.

The final question was whether Britain could win the 4 x 400m relay, the last event of all. A last- minute gamble by the then Director of Coaching, Frank Dick, saw Phil Brown dropped, leaving Derek Redmond to lead off before passing the baton to Black's training partner Kriss Akabusi, who fought off the Soviet Union and West Germany but when handing over to Brian Whittle he trod on his team-mate's shoe which flew off. One shoe on, one off, Whittle still kept the opposition under control and on the final leg Black almost teased them before striding away for victory. His future seemed paved with gold.

After spending the winter in California, he approached 1987 confidently but went to Prague for the European Cup final rather reluctantly since a few signs of tension were nagging him. There were also hints of unusual exhaustion and though he dipped below 45 seconds for the first time in his career, this time he lost to Schonlebe and admitted that just before the race he had a strange, lethargic feeling that he had never experienced before.

A hamstring injury forced him to miss a large part of that season, which included the World Championships in Rome, but he joined the British team there in time for the 4 x 400m relay. He was excused the first two rounds but in the final managed to do his bit to get Britain the silver medal in pursuit of the Americans. He was already suffering from a foot injury that doctors seemed unable to diagnose accurately. In the end he had screws inserted and for the next six months he hobbled on crutches.

He only began running again at the end of the 1989 season, and then only every other day but was fit enough to go to Split the following summer for what was to be one of British athletics' most successful excursions, the European Championships.

Black had spent the earlier part of the summer competing steadily at grand prix meetings, more or less learning, as he said, the difficult art of the 400m all over again. In Split he went off too fast in the individual event, adjusted his pace, slowed ominously over the last few metres but held off his old adversary Schonlebe to retain his title (nobody else had done so in that event before). 'I may have run like a plonker, but I'm a plonker with a gold medal,' he said.

The 1991 World Championships in Tokyo brought him the individual silver medal after again starting out too fast, and he ran in that memorable relay victory which Akabusi anchored so brilliantly. So the Barcelona Olympics of 1992 became the obvious target, but a persistent hip injury had worried him for years. He decided it would soon be time for another operation. 'The hip problem had been there for a long time, but it got worse about the time of the Olympic Games. The treatment wasn't working but neither did the operation. That really got to me. It was probably the reason I got the virus.' His Games ended at the semi-final stage.

It was a virus related to glandular fever and seemed to take over body and soul. There were times when he found it too much effort to pick up the guitar that had usually brought him relief from stress. In the end he went to the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra followed by training in France (his girlfriend is a former French Olympic 400m runner). 'I still can't say I've got over it completely. The virus changes you as a person. I don't expect to feel 100 per cent ever again and I've missed so much I can't expect too much this season, but when things go right I can still run fast.'

The cost of his time in Australia and France was about pounds 10,000, which he felt ought to have been paid at least in part by the British Athletic Federation. It took some hard talking with BAF officials to come up with a financial package for the present season in which he had convinced himself that another comeback was possible by running a 400m relay leg in Australia in 45.7sec, which brought the mixed reaction: 'I felt terrible but I had reminded myself that I was an athlete and could be again.'

He proved the point by winning the national championship last month in 44.94sec, the fastest time in Europe. With about 30 metres to go he risked a glance across to see whether he had broken Du'aine Ladejo, the young man waiting to take over his mantle as well as that of the injured David Grindley. He had, though the second half of the run had been tough. But he surprised himself with his time. In the European Cup final in Birmingham he and Linford Christie were the only individual British male winners but he began to worry that things were going too well and that perhaps he was pushing himself too hard.

In fact his training programme, mapped out by his coach, the former international hurdler Mike Whittingham, has been nothing like as strenuous as in previous years. The quality of training has become more important than quantity and, above all, the need to avoid unnecessary stress is central to the schedule. Still concerned that the virus could strike back, he regularly sends saliva samples to be tested, so far without any sign of anything to worry about. Even so, he was brought back to earth at Crystal Palace earlier this month when beaten by the American Derek Mills and by the comparatively inexperienced Ladejo.

At that point Black decided that the pressure of competing in the European Championships and the Commonwealth Games within the space of a fortnight this summer was a gamble with his fitness. He opted out of the Commonwealth Games but he says that his silver medal in the 1991 World Championships convinced him that it is possible to run well when not completely fit. He hopes to prove that again next week, but makes no promises.