World Athletics Championships: Jackson faces hurdle of the mind: The favourite with a mission to become a winner

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The Independent Online
EVEN as Colin Jackson spoke the words, sitting in a hotel lobby before last month's meeting in Nice, you sensed their potential irony. 'I just want to stay healthy,' he said. 'I just want to feel like I do now on the day of the World Championship final. I can run it now.'

If only he had been able to. Five hours later he had extended his season's unbeaten run at 110 metres hurdles to eleven races. Against a field which included his friend, Mark McKoy, who a year earlier had won the Olympic title which had seemed destined for him, Jackson was utterly in control, as relaxed during the race as he had been before it, clearly the best high hurdler in the world. If only.

With the final just eight days away, the Welshman finds himself diminished by niggling injury, niggling doubt. His prospects appear to have reached a high point on 28 July, when he lowered his European record from 13.04sec to 12.97sec, just 0.05sec off the world record, at altitude in Sestriere, and then learned - regretfully - that McKoy would not contest the world title because he would not go to his national trials.

All this on top of his first uninterrupted winter's training. It seemed too good to be true: it was. On the first day of this month he withdrew from a meeting in Cologne with a bruised foot. On 4 August, having trained more than satisfactorily, he pulled out of the Zurich Grand Prix at short notice with a back problem.

'It is not serious at all,' Malcolm Arnold, Jackson's coach, said. 'He decided to let his heart rule his wallet in Zurich. He felt very stiff in his back and decided not to take any risks.' But as Arnold wearily acknowledged, this was the third such problem in as many years. In 1991 he had to pull out 40 minutes before the World Championship semi-finals after straining a back muscle so severely in warming up that he needed nine pain-killing injections to get on the plane home.

In 1992, having dominated the event as he has this year, he finished a ragged and stumbling seventh in the Olympic final and McKoy took the gold. 'In Barcelona Colin hurt himself as a result of landing awkwardly after a hurdle in one of the earlier rounds,' Arnold said, adding acidly: 'Not that many people believe it.'

There is the worst part of it all for Jackson. He has won Olympic silver, World bronze, European and Commonwealth titles, but there are people who imply, or openly state as Tony Dees, his American rival, did recently, that he chokes on big occasions. 'When we hear that Colin just doesn't have any bottle - that's the one that sticks in our throats,' Arnold said.

Linford Christie, who has been training in Monte Carlo with Jackson and McKoy as he did last year, sees the kind of damage such assertions can make on Jackson, one of Britain's more sensitive athletes. 'When people say you are a choker, deep in your mind it stays there. It does make a difference. It gives opponents 10 per cent more confidence.

'But Colin's going to go out there and do his best. He is in very, very good shape. Before a major championship you become so highly tuned that you begin to start to feel all the aches and pains you've never felt before. The more highly tuned you become, then a sneeze can give you an injury.'

In Nice, Jackson was keenly aware of this phenomenon. 'I sometimes think it's amazing how we stay healthy when you consider how much we are all doing. You are walking on the edge all the time.'

Which way will Jackson fall this time? The signs from Monte Carlo have been encouraging. Although he delayed his trip out there in order to have physiotherapy, Jackson has trained without apparent mishap, concentrating mainly on hurdling technique. Yesterday, according to plan, he had a more strenuous start session with Christie.

'It was an excellent session,' Ron Roddan, Christie's coach, said. 'Neither of them had any problems. I don't think Colin was too bothered last week anyway. It was just a niggly thing.' But how niggly? Enough to prevent him attaining the championship which he admits he needs?

'I want to be one of the best hurdlers ever, but I can't be one of the best without winning a major title,' he said.

The memory of Barcelona - where, to make matters harder to bear, his stunning opening heat time of 13.10sec remained the fastest of the Games (McKoy clocked 13.11 for gold) - is one which he has faced up to. 'I can watch the tape now,' he said. 'It's no problem. I hit a hurdle in the second round and my back locked completely. I didn't do anything I didn't do for the rest of the year. It was just the fact that . . .' He paused, and you witnessed a man staring momentarily into an abyss. 'I don't know. I woke up the next morning and I remembered that hurdle. If I could turn the clock back, the clock would have gone back a long time ago.'

(Photograph omitted)