The happiest of returns for the one-lap wonder

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The Independent Online
He is 30 years old, he has had four operations and a serious viral illness, but Roger Black is still ready to run the race of his life. Interview by Mike Rowbottom

When Roger Black finally retires from athletics, a career as a motivational speaker beckons. His competitive career, with its bewildering flux of glory and injury, has provided him with a rich seam to mine for the edification of fellow strivers in the sporting or business worlds.

What experience he has had of public speaking convinces him that his future could lie in that direction. "Ironically," he said, "my problems have given me a very good story to tell that seems to go down very well.''

Watching Black take his place at the combined AAA Championships and Olympic trials this weekend, in what promises to be the greatest 400 metres event in the competition's history, will afford athletics aficionados enormous pleasure.

At 30, after four operations and a debilitating viral illness, Britain's pre-eminent one-lap runner of the last decade has re-established himself as the one the others have to watch.

And this in a year when British 400m running has an unprecedented strength in depth, with nearly a dozen men in contention for the three individual Olympic places, six of whom have run faster than 45 seconds.

"There has been nothing like it in any of the AAAs I have run," said Black, whose first two races this season, in Atlanta and Eugene, have yielded times of 44.81sec and 44.77. "I get a lot of satisfaction from my current situation," he added. "I'm proud that I'm 30 and running the best I've ever run. Despite all the setbacks I've had, I'm still doing it."

When Black started out in athletics as a callow, converted rugby player, he was known joshingly as "Bambi" - the runner whose legs went wobbly. At 6ft 2in, and with classic, blond English good looks, his effect on the female population soon prompted his training partner Kriss Akabusi to call him "Sex on Legs", a phrase which stuck. But the circumstances and trials of the last few years have turned Bambi into a far more serious, sure-footed character.

Black's international career began perfectly - individual and relay gold in the 1985 European junior championships, two more golds at the 1986 Commonwealth Games and European Championships and, just for extras, a British record of 44.59. At 20, he seemed big and strong and talented enough to ride any challenge.

But he wasn't. Soon he began to encounter the injuries which go with the territory of one-lap running, missing the 1987 World Championships and 1988 Olympics.

Medical opinion varied over how to rid him of the pain and frustration that was beginning to dominate his thinking; without money coming in, he had to put his house on the market; his car sponsors ever so politely requested their car back.

If it could happen to Black, the athlete who had it all going for him, it could happen to anyone. And the nice, middle-class doctor's son, who had abandoned the prospect of a medical career to concentrate on his special talent, began to wise up.

He returned to further glories - a second European title in 1990, world silver in 1991 and a triumphant gold in the relay. But injury and illness were never far away. He was not fully fit for the 1992 Olympics, had another operation and in 1993 he went down with Epstein-Barr virus, which debilitated him to such an extent that he was unable at times even to pick up a book and read.

That was the lowest point for Black. As he admits, there were times when he seriously thought he was finished as an athlete. But back he came again, to earn individual silver and relay gold in the 1994 European Championships and a place in the following year's World Championship final. His only concern now is to make the Olympics and run well. "I have never had a good Olympics," he said. "I missed '88, and even though I ran 44.71 in 1992 I walked away not enjoying it. I said to myself: `I really want to walk away from the Olympics happy, because that's what the Olympics should be about.' Since I came back in '94, everything has been geared towards that."

To that end, despite equalling his best of 44.59 last year, he took the risk of putting this season in jeopardy when he underwent an operation before Christmas to remove a torn cartilage from his knee. The Swiss surgeon Roland Bieden had been recommended to him by Sally Gunnell, but he knew he was still taking a risk.

"It was a dodgy operation," he said. "I could not be sure it was going to work. When you can run in pain and still do pretty well, it is a hard thing to judge, and it was one of the big decisions in my life. But now I am running without pain for the first time in nine years, and that is a wonderful feeling, I can tell you."

Not all of his domestic rivals will arrive in Birmingham this weekend in the same happy position, but at least they will all be there - because they know they have to be, given the level of competition.

Black views Britain's current glut of 400m talent as "a cyclical thing". But he points to Britain's record in the European junior championships, where he, David Grindley, Guy Bullock and Mark Hylton have contributed to a run of six successive 400m titles, as evidence of a continuing tradition of success.

"Success breeds success," he added. "I also think our relay win in the '91 World Championships had a big impact. I think a lot of people will have thought: `That looks like a lot of fun. I'll have a go at that'."

He himself has played his part, setting high standards in the event for 10 years. "People in this country have always known that if they were going to make it in the 400, they would have to run fast. Now we have six people who could beat 45 seconds this weekend. But let's be realistic. If you can't do that, you are not world class. Michael Johnson runs 43.50. Enough said."

Black believes the 400m event has changed significantly in the last two or three years, becoming more sprint based. Accordingly, he has worked this winter at lowering his 200m best.

And when he assesses his domestic rivals in Birmingham, the first man he picks out is a converted sprinter, Wales's 23-year-old Jamie Baulch, who lowered his 400m best to 44.97 last Friday. Baulch and his fellow Welshman Iwan Thomas, who ran 44.66 at altitude in South Africa earlier this year, are the two runners Black is taking most notice of at the moment, despite Du'Aine Ladejo's prediction that he will win the final in a time around 44.80.

"Anyone can talk it," Black said. "You have got to perform it. And this season, Jamie and Iwan have performed. But there will be a lot of side bets on the 1-2-3, and I couldn't call it at all. Whatever happens, though, there will be surprises."

Whether this current domestic 400m strength can prove a foundation for even greater international success depends, Black believes, on whether one or more runners can make the breakthrough of running sub-44sec.

"I regard myself as a world-class runner, but I am no Linford Christie," he said. "For the event in this country to reach a new level, we need someone running a seriously fast time or winning a seriously big medal, such as the world or Olympic title.

"I hope it's me," he said. "But if not it has to be one of these other new guys."

Retirement is something Black has had to think seriously about more than once. But not, thankfully, at the moment. "One more major injury and then I'd stop," he said. "But if I'm running 44.5's and still enjoying the sport, I could go for another four years. A few years ago that really wasn't the case. There was a period when I thought `sod this'. But I would love to win the European Championships for a third time..."

If ever Black needs encouragement to carry on what he describes as his "road full of obstacles", he needs only to think of his recent training sessions in Irvine, California, with his friend Jon Ridgeon, who has made his third comeback this year after Achilles tendon injuries which have required four operations.

"Every day, without fail, however hard the session, Jon would say: `This is great.' He's just an inspiration. He makes you realise you have to make the most of this life. Because" - he added with a chuckle - "the real world sucks, you know."

EIGHT INTO THREE WON'T GO: WHY THE 400 METRES WILL BE THE BEST RACE OF THE OLYMPIC TRIALS

ROGER BLACK

Age: 30. Personal best: 44.59

(1986, 1995). 1996 pb: 44.71.

First man to win European 400m title twice (1986 and 1990). Silver behind Du'Aine Ladejo in 94. World silver medallist and relay gold medallist in 1991. Has won 10 gold medals including relays. Career punctuated by injuries - 87, 88, 92 - and illness - Epstein Barr virus ruined his '93. Knee cartilage operation last December. Now running as well as ever.

Brum rating: *****

DU'AINE LADEJO

25. Pb: 44.94 (94).

1996 pb: 45.57.

Beat Black to the 1994 European title, having broken through with European indoor title earlier that year. Retained indoor title this March. At high school and university in United States before returning to Britain in '92 and earning a bronze with the Olympic relay team. High profile - has hosted own feature show on ITV called Du'Aine's World.

Brum rating: ****

MARK RICHARDSON

23. Pb: 44.81.

1996 pb: 45.72.

Fourth in the World Junior Championships at just 16, he fulfilled his potential last season after two years of illness and injury, winning the European Cup final and finishing fifth in the World Championship final. Degree in sports science from Loughborough University. Patchy form this season, now troubled with food poisoning picked up in Rome last week.

Brum rating: **

JAMIE BAULCH

23. Pb: 44.97.

1996 pb: 44.97.

Blond, dreadlocked Welshman. Won gold with British relay team at '92 World Junior Championship. Has made rapid progress since switching from sprints last season. Ran 45.14 last season, beating Roger Black at Gateshead, and reduced that to his current personal best at Nuremburg last Friday. Coached by Colin Jackson.

Brum rating: ****

IWAN THOMAS

22. Pb: 44.66.

1996 pb: 44.66 (at altitude).

Ginger-haired Welshman. Coached in Southampton by Mike Smith, who orchestrated Roger Black and Kriss Akabusi's early careers. As a boy he was the 4th best BMX rider in Europe. Ran 47.37 in first year at 400 (1992). Had an impressive series of races in South Arica early this year. Beaten by Black in the Atlanta grand prix last month.

Brum rating : ****

DAVID GRINDLEY

23. Pb: 44.43 (UK rec, 1992)

1996 pb: 45.66.

Surprised everyone in '92 by qualifying for the Olympics with Black and Derek Redmond. He then set the British record before finishing sixth in the final - and all at 19. Won Grand Prix final in 1993, but Achilles injuries were already starting, and he has had nearly two years out before this season's comeback. Former rugby league player.

Brum rating: ***

MARK HYLTON

19. Pb: 45.83.

1996 pb: 46.39.

Became Britain's sixth consecutive European junior 400m champion last year, following in the line of Black, Grindley et al. Trains with Richardson at Windsor and Eton under direction of Martin Watkins. AAA indoor champion in '95 and '96, but suffered groin injury after last title. Relatively small, gave up football for athletics - played for Slough Town youth team.

Brum rating: **

ADRIAN PATRICK

22. Pb: 45.63.

1996 pb: 46.29

Made the World Championship relay squad last year under the direction of Ron Roddan, Linford Christie's coach. A sprinter who has moved up to good effect.

Brum rating : **

OTHERS TO WATCH OUT FOR:

Guy Bullock, European junior champion...David Nolan, 27-year-old Army man who set 46.20 pb this season...David Mackenzie...Jared Deacon.

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