Athletics: Birmingham revolution gets off to a record start

By Mike Rowbottom
Friday 07 February 2003 01:00

The energy required to run Birmingham's High Performance Centre, officially opened yesterday by the Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, is provided by light sensitive cells on its roof. It is an apt arrangement for an athletic facility dedicated to harnessing natural talent and turning it to best advantage. The launch of the £3.3m centre, jointly funded by the National Lottery and Birmingham City Council, was marked by a British record of 10.34 seconds for the rarely run indoor 100 metres by that most prodigious of local athletes, Mark Lewis-Francis.

The 20-year-old sprinter, born just a mile away from the National Indoor Arena, where Birmingham will host next month's World Indoor Championships, maintained later that he was happy enough to have got inside Darren Braithwaite's mark of 10.40. But his immediate decision to have another crack at it in front of an invited audience of Minister, media and local schoolchildren, indicated the level of performance he expects of himself.

Having thought better of an action replay after consultation with his physiotherapist, the young man whose last big public appearance saw him limp away from the Commonwealth Games 100m final explained how this year was one of consolidation before the 2004 Olympics, at which he hopes to realise his huge potential.

"What happened in Manchester opened my eyes and made me realise I'm human like everyone else,'' said Lewis-Francis, who missed the rest of the season, including the European Championships, with a torn hamstring. "It was a big shock to the system that I couldn't go to the Europeans.'

But there are complications ahead in Lewis-Francis's year of consolidation – notably the World Championships in his own back yard. Having lost to his fellow Briton Jason Gardener over 60m in Glasgow at the weekend, Lewis-Francis knows he will need to be at his best to gain one of the two British places next month, given that the joint European record holder, Dwain Chambers, is also planning to challenge.

As he looked ahead to the coming season, Lewis-Francis appeared relatively relaxed and confident, and at least part of his state of mind was down to his new training environment. "I've been training here for two weeks and I can feel the benefit already,'' he said. "The facility has all the things I need. This is the start of great things. There's a lot of talent out there in Birmingham, I'm not going to lie to you. And I think it helps to bring the kids in when they realise you don't have to be running out in the cold. I've seen a lot more kids around here this winter than last winter.''

Others who have already benefited from the new complex, which includes an eight-lane 110m sprint track, high jump, long jump, triple jump, pole vault and throws areas and onsite physiotherapy, weights and medical advice, include fellow British athletes Ashia Hansen, the Commonwealth and European triple jump champion, the Commonwealth long jump champion, Nathan Morgan, and Jonathan Moore, one of the country's fastest rising jumping talents.

Moore has had particular use for the range of facilities as he completes his rehabilitation from the serious knee injury that checked his dramatic rise to the top of the sport at the age of 17. "I've been down here every single day and it's been great,'' Moore said. "I've been able to go straight into the physio after the weights room. Everything is here for you. It's been snowing here this week but I've been able to carry on working. It's a very different thing from being outside and trying to do technical work with five or six layers on, two pairs of gloves and a woollen hat.''

Moore's father, Aston, the former international triple jumper who now coaches Hansen, is well placed to evaluate the benefits of the latest piece in the English Institute of Sport's national network, given that he is UK Athletics' Performance Director for the West Midlands. "If you are in an event that relies on a high proficiency level in terms of technique, a facility like this is what you need if you are going to get close to tapping your full potential," he said. "It's been a long time coming. Too long. I sometimes wondered if I would see something like this in my lifetime. But it's here now. Birmingham definitely deserves it.''

The Birmingham facility is the 20th dedicated site to have been put into operation within the EIS framework, and another 20 are due to be set into motion by the end of 2003. The overall plan, which has been set into motion by the former world mile record-holder Steve Cram and Wilma Shakespear, a pivotal figure in the development of the Australian Institute of Sport, involves nine multi-sport hub sites liaising with 35 satellites such as Birmingham. More than £120m has been earmarked for the development, which will be augmented by Manchester's Commonwealth Games facilities, where a further £135m has been invested.

The EIS deputy director, Mike Calvin, a former Daily Telegraph sports writer, said: "Ideally, the Institute will be a catalyst for change in the system. The idea is, forget the politics, just go out and do it.''

Easier said than done in this country, as a generation of sports administrators has discovered. But on the evidence presented by the Alexander Stadium's new companion yesterday, it is an idea that is coming ever closer to realisation.

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