Resurgent Black focused on enjoyment

Ian Stafford finds Britain's premier 400m runner is happy to be healthy and delighted with his Olympic silver medals
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The Independent Online
There were few smiling British Olympians returning last week from their antics in Atlanta but, amid all the acrimony, inquisitions and general gloom, one well-known athlete was making the Cheshire Cat look depressed.

The man in question is Roger Black, double silver medallist in the 400 metres individual and relay races, and a sportsman who has defied career-threatening ailments virtually non-stop since he first burst on to the scene back in 1986.

Bumping into him during the last day of the Olympics in the athletes' village was a good experience for anyone feeling anything but content with life because, within a few minutes, his infectious mood ensured that you, too, were immediately cheered by the genuine joy and relief on show. If you are a member of the Black family, or a good friend of the 30-year- old, now would be a good time to ask him for a favour, or request an outrageous birthday or early Christmas present.

Inviting me to lunch in the athletes refectory Black, twice a European and Commonwealth champion, as well as a world relay gold and individual silver medallist, was able to clearly define the reasons behind his success in Atlanta.

"The main factor is simple," he said. "I'm healthy, and when you're healthy this business isn't difficult. I've not had a total clean bill of health since 1986, and when you have an injury you focus on it, both in training and competition. When you are healthy, though, you concentrate on just one thing - running."

There is much more to Black's resurgence, however, than this simple explanation. Despite his experience in corporate speaking, where he lectures about motivation, he had clearly never listened to himself before. "I took accountability for myself, rather than expecting other people to help me," he admitted. "It meant that I was able to make big decisions, like going to Australia for six months over last winter after my cartilage operation.

"I was able to do this because I found a way to enjoy my sport again, after a period, certainly during my glandular fever spell three years ago, where I clearly was not. I enjoyed the success when it came, but not the day-to-day process of athletics. So I decided to listen to my own motivational speaking and create a psychological situation which was better for Roger Black.

"You're always led to believe that you've got to be really aggressive and motivated to succeed, but I realised it wasn't my nature. I need to be focused, confident and at peace with myself. I read a lot of psychological books, worked closely with my good friend Sven Nylander, the Swedish athlete, and spoke at length with Steve Backley in Tallahassee, who is also a great believer in self-taught psychology. And once my injury had cleared up I was mentally stronger."

You would have got good money on Black even making the British individual team not too long ago, such is the strength of our one-lap running, let alone winning a silver medal. Even Black had his doubts during the winter. "Oh, there's no way I saw myself ending up with an Olympic silver medal back then," he agreed. "I went to Australia with Jon Ridgeon to get away from everything, get out of my natural environment, recover and to become an athlete again.

"It was only at the Olympic trials [when Black beat the best of Britain and set a national record] that I thought I could be on for something. When I walked into the stadium before the Olympic final I was as cool as a cucumber. I put my hand on my heart and couldn't feel it. At one time that would have worried me, but I saw this as confirmation that things would go well."

Did you see Michael Johnson surging ahead in the distance? "No, I was completely focused on my own race. Neither was I aware of people behind me. People will keep on telling me: 'If you'd tried to beat Johnson you could have won the gold medal,' but they are wrong.

"Johnson is a phenomenal athlete and for me to have beaten him would have required a faster run from me, and a mistake by him. I opted to run my own race and not even try to beat him because, if I'd run his race, I would have tied up and been caught on the line, as I did in the 1991 World Championships final in Tokyo. My natural instinct was to go with him, but I held myself back.

"If it had been Zurich I would have gone with him and seen whether I could break 44 seconds, but not in an Olympic final, and not when you knew what a silver medal would mean. I just couldn't risk it."

Black's plan almost introduces a whole new psychological theory based on aiming to come second, something for which he has already been criticised. "I know [Du'Aine] Ladejo has had a go at me because I talk in this way. He says I'm happy to be Britain's No 1, while he wants to be the world's No 1. Well, let's become the national champion first.

"The point is that I've rewritten a lot of stuff in my head, because the concept of running for second place is perceived as defeatism. I believe that the concept of running the best race you can, accepting the opposition, and knowing that if they make a mistake you will win, is the right mind set in certain circumstances. It also creates a success without actually winning. Success, don't forget, should be personal."

Black was so excited that he spoke at a great rate of knots. "Someone said to me on the radio: 'You must have a tinge of disappointment.' Tinge of disappointment? I've been in this sport for 11 years, and I've just won an Olympic silver medal after three operations and 10 years of injury and illness. You do well if you have one, injury-free season of success in this sport. How many people can say that they possess an Olympic silver medal in this world? And, to think, nobody had me down for any kind of medal."

He pauses quickly, and then repeats his indignation at the phrase used on the airwaves. "Tinge of disappointment!"

So, absolutely no bitterness then after a career which has borne much fruit, but could have produced even more had he not been subjected to a horrific list of injuries and illness?

"Absolutely none. I'm grateful for this moment, not bitterly looking back. I appreciate it much more at my age too."

And no points proved? "Nope. I've already exceeded my expectations, and I refuse to get caught up in this sporting disease of ultimately never being happy because I'm always striving to do better. My goal is simply to be happy, and by focusing on that it's made me a better athlete.

"You see, I've never needed to be an Olympic champion to be happy. I'm intelligent enough to realise that if your happiness depended on winning an Olympic gold medal then it would depend on something you can't control. All I can control is me. I ran a bloody good race in the final and won a silver medal and, believe me, it's the best thing I've ever done."

Black will race the season out, starting in London tomorrow and then start planning for the World Championships next year, and a crack at a third European title in 1998.

As we bade our farewells, I told him that I had never seen him happier with life. "I've not got a worry in the world," he replied. "It's absolutely wonderful. Fantastic. It's really great." You missed out fabulous there, Roger, but we get the drift.