Will Johnson be racing the real Jackson?

The 110 metres hurdles world champion faces a revitalised Welsh world record holder. Mike Rowbottom reports
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The Independent Online
Jonathan Edwards is not the only athlete who has had to cope with a sudden transition from ordinariness to extraordinariness in recent times.

Four years ago, Allen Johnson was a not particularly successful decathlete turned triple jumper turned long jumper.

When he takes to the Olympic track tomorrow, this genial 25-year-old from Washington DC will do so as the 110 metres world indoor and outdoor champion, and with a best time of 12.92sec - just 0.01sec outside Colin Jackson's world record - to his name.

Having taken up the high hurdles after the last Olympics, Johnson arrived at the top level in February of last year when he ended Jackson's unbeaten run of 44 races in Madrid, before going on to secure his world titles. "It's been real stressful to be honest," he said. "So many things coming at me faster than I ever thought they'd come." The fast-moving objects he will have to deal with here include his fellow countryman Mark Crear, Florian Schwarthoff of Germany, and, of course, Jackson and Tony Jarrett.

Shortly before the Crystal Palace Grand Prix on July 12, Johnson talked about Jackson's mixed season, and expressed the hope that he would sort out all his problems with injury and technique. "I look forward to racing the real Colin Jackson," he said.

Will the real Colin Jackson step forward here? Speaking on the day before the track and field programme got underway at the Centennial Olympic stadium, the Welshman indicated that his recent training had shown a marked improvement after the problems he had encountered with tendinitis in the knee of his lead leg.

"Things were a bit iffy and sketchy earlier this year," he said.

The thing most affected was his basic speed, which contributed to a series of grand prix defeats. To rectify the problem, Jackson has spent time training with Frankie Fredericks, Linford Christie and Merlene Ottey.

"Lack of speed in the legs was the main thing I needed to improve," he said. "Working with the fastest people in the world has helped somewhat. My speed has increased considerably. Things seem to have knitted well together, so I'm smiling again."

After his turbulent experiences of 1995, when a combination of injury and a breakdown in relations with the British Athletic Federation meant that he did not defend his world title in Gothenburg, Jackson has re-established himself on a more even footing.

Fences were mended with the federation, Jackson returned to the fold from his Australian training camp to compete for Britain and run in domestic meetings. All seemed set for a smooth Olympic preparation until a binding appeared around his knee in competition.

After defeat by Schwarthoff in the European Cup, Jackson was philosophical about his position, saying that he would not be able to have intensive treatment on his knee until he came to a break in competition after the Olympic trials.

The subsequent news that he would not require an operation on the knee came as a great relief to him.

Having won world, European and Commonwealth titles, as well as an Olympic silver in 1988, there remains only one main goal for Jackson, now 29. Four years ago, Olympic gold seemed his for the taking as he strolled through his opening heat in 13.10sec, which remained the fastest time run in Barcelona. But an injury picked up in the second round hampered him, and he drifted, disastrously, to seventh in the final. Victory went instead to his Canadian training partner, Mark McKoy, who is expected to put up a strong defence of his title here under his new Austrian nationality.

"After the disappointment of Barcelona, I picked myself back up again with the world title the following year," he said. "But I really want the Olympic gold because it would be the last piece of the puzzle in my athletics career. I think I'm in good shape."

After winning the Olympic trials in Atlanta in 12.92sec, Johnson described the super-hard Mondo track as being "probably the fastest in the world."

Jackson, so far, has only been on the Olympic warm-up track. "They tell me it's the same surface, and I find it very quick," he said. "I'm looking forward to seeing how fast I can go on it."