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Take a chance and run the risk of winning

WAITING IN the vet's the other day, I began to feel uneasy. It was all the leaflets that did it. "Horse Theft", proclaimed one, above a picture of a busted-open stable door. "It happens to people like you."

"Only if they own a horse," I thought. Life - it's all about risk, isn't it?

Paul Merton taking over the presentation of Room 101 from his mate Nick Hancock, and interviewing Nick Hancock as his first guest. That's not a risk.

Arsenal expecting Nicolas Anelka to come back to Highbury for pre-season training. That's not a serious risk.

Tony Blair appointing Tony Banks as Minister for Sport. Now that was a risk.

As Banks settled into his seat at last weekend's World Athletics Trials in Birmingham, just in time for the climax of the women's 5,000 metres walk, Banks looked rather subdued. It may have been the walk. But presumably he knew which way the wind was blowing by then - away from his ministerial job and towards his super-dooper new position as World Cup Envoy. Whatever that means, exactly.

The sharp-witted East Ender has discomfited many during his period of tenure, but when the long, grey line of previous incumbents is considered, he should be properly celebrated as a fellow of infinite jest. And, just as importantly, a man unafraid of risk.

Everyone may love a winner, but they hold a special place in their heart for a risk-taker.

We all relish the kind of choice taken by Michael Owen - remember him? - in scoring for England in last year's World Cup game against Argentina. After reaching the last line of defence, he shunned a pass to his better- placed colleague, Paul Scholes, preferring to hazard a shot himself.

It wouldn't have looked good for Owen had he missed - although being Owen, he didn't - but he would still have been given the benefit in public opinion for the enterprise which had taken him to that precise spot on the field.

This week's TV investigation by Michael Buerk into the smoking habit interviewed a man who, for many, remains the quintessence of a sporting risk-taker, Alex "Hurricane" Higgins.

The former world snooker champion, sadly, is more of a gentle breeze now than a hurricane, having suffered throat cancer. Talking to Buerk as they played at a snooker club, Higgins still exhibited something of his old elan at the table. But after sinking one red, he turned pensively to his interviewer and declared: "If I'd been cueing properly, that would have gone at one million miles an hour." Snooker balls don't need to be dispatched to every corner at one million miles an hour, but that was part of the crack for this tragically flawed Ulsterman. From all the long frames of past years, the televised image of his twitching face, registering the crack of a shot on target and shifting instantly to reposition itself for the next pot, is one that endures.

Dave Bedford, who now organises the field for the Flora London Marathon, may have suffered crushing defeats at the 1971 European Championships and 1972 Olympics, but he was a runner with the same flashing spirit as Higgins. With his long, curly black hair, Zapata moustache and scruffy black socks, he presented a rebellious image on the track that was matched by his attitude off it. Before the Munich Olympics he rashly predicted a 10,000m gold medal for himself to anyone who would listen.

History records that Bedford was wrong, and that the honour went to the phenomenal Finn, Lasse Viren. As in the previous year, Bedford led for the bulk of the race, until the jostling shadows in his wake burst past him.

The British runner demonstrated his genuine worth the following year with a world 10,000m record at Crystal Palace. He may have lost at the highest level, but he had the guts to risk all in pursuit of his goals.

As Britain's sprinters, the 400m runners and triple jumpers enjoy their time in the sun, there are many in the sport who are preoccupied by the dearth of middle distance talent - where are the Coes of yesteryear?

So bad are our current crop of runners being made to feel about their failure to compete with the likes of Hicham El Guerrouj, Daniel Komen and Haile Gebrselassie that it might be worth Britain's kit sponsors starting work on a sackcloth-and-ashes look.

John Mayock, our leading miler, has come in for more than his fair share of criticism, but I have a message for him which might alter things. Just for a change, in your next international race, risk going to the front and see what happens. You may be overtaken, but no one will be able to say you were afraid of winning. Victory - it happens to people like you.