Marcus Adam, by his own admission, has never cared for perilous rides, which is by no means a logical position for a man who has won a place in Great Britain's bobsleigh team for the Winter Olympics, which open here tomorrow. "I don't even go on roller-coasters," said Adam, who has already appeared in the summer Olympics, reaching the 200 metres final at the Barcelona Games of 1992.
Now 33, the former Commonwealth champion has embraced his new sport with an enthusiasm that has not been compromised by two bone-breaking accidents within the first 16 months of what he describes as his "second life". Soon after being introduced to the event in 2000, in what was his first extended run-out in a four-man bob, he was in a crew who flipped over midway down a run in Lillehammer. "We turned over as we were coming down and we were running along on our heads," he recalled. "When I got up my shoulder bone was sticking up through my skin."
A good time to give up, surely? Not as far as Adam was concerned. He was out of action for nine weeks, missing the bulk of the season, but last year he was back in the thick of the action on the World Cup circuit. Then, a couple of months before the British Olympic trials in December, he broke his toe. Out for four weeks this time.
The team authorities gave him an extended deadline to prove his fitness, and when it arrived, on 19 January, he rose to the challenge to ensure that his name was included in the official squad announced a week later. And there are no second thoughts about remaining in an event that can go spectacularly wrong.
"This year I've got no fear," said Adam, who nevertheless admits that bobsleigh is not to every ex-athlete's taste. "You have got to be a bit crazy to go on one of these runs. You're flying at 85 miles per hour, and you're being thumped and bumped all over the place. You can see the ice out of the sides of your visor, your heart's pounding, everything's a blur. Believe you me, the adrenalin rush you get is incredible. It's a fantastic buzz, and I'm on a different planet for about an hour afterwards.
"Athletics is very different. You still get the same kind of butterflies beforehand, but during a 200 metres you are relaxed into your running and you can see what is happening around you clearly. You're going for a fixed point, and you are in control of yourself. In a bob you don't have that control unless you are the driver."
Adam was invited to try out for the bobsleigh, along with his old training partner John Regis, by another former British sprinter who had switched successfully to the sport, Lenny Paul. The British trials took place in Oberdorf, shortly before the Sydney Olympics – for which Adam had narrowly failed to qualify – got under way. "There were some seasoned campaigners there, but I was the fastest guy, which was pretty amusing," Adam recalled. "I made a big impact."
Unfortunately, his big impact with the Lillehammer ice halted his progress almost immediately, but Regis was selected to take part on the World Cup circuit. After a few events, however, it became clear that the multiple European champion and world silver medallist was not ideally suited to the winter sport.
"John's a really big powerful guy and he had a better first hit than me," said Adam. "But it's a different thing when you have to push 200kg in front of you and then get into racing position. Technically, John wasn't really sound. He has a long, loping stride which was difficult to adapt to the event. For me, though, it just clicked, because I have a stacatto stride which is better going down the hill."
Adam is determined to stay the course, partly in order to make up for an athletic career that he describes as no more than "up and down". After reaching the 1992 Olympic final, a series of injuries which required two Achilles tendon operations, and untimely illnesses, curtailed his chances.
He has proved himself against the best – Carl Lewis, whom he defeated indoors at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow, Linford Christie, whom he defeated in the Commonwealth Games trials in 1989. He is the only British athlete – and probably the only international athlete – to have beaten the double Olympic champion Michael Johnson five times.
But Adam's wins – save for the Commonwealth Games of 1990, where he defeated a field which included John Regis to take the gold – have come at the wrong times.
Life on the World Cup circuit replicates a lot of the camaraderie which Adam missed during his comeback years in the late 1990s, when he was training alone. Among his colleagues in the Great Britain squad is Philip Goedluck, a Commonwealth 100m relay bronze medallist from 1994 with whom he began training back in 1984. But communal life also produces its own particular strains. Phil Harries, who competed in the 400m hurdles at the 1988 Olympics, brings a third athletic element to bear in the final selection.
"Being on the road with 10 guys, you can get on each others' nerves," he said. "I'm a happy-go-lucky type of guy, but I like some time to myself just like anyone else. Having come from an individual sport, I have my own ideas about how to prepare, and sometimes it is difficult to adapt. I've got a big mouth – I tell people how things should be done. It may not always go down well, but I like to put my two pence in."
Adam brings the intensity of his track and field days to the British bobsleigh effort. "When I get into the arena I have my competition head on and it's like a red mist comes down," he said.
Adam and his team-mates face a tough job in following the exploits of the four-man bob at the last Games in Nagano, where Sean Olsson steered Britain to bronze. Olsson has now stepped away from top-class competition, as has another crew member on that day, Courtney Rumbold. The other two – Dean Ward and Paul Attwood – remain in the hunt for further glories.
All Adam's misty powers of concentration will be required in the coming fortnight, however, after disappointing results in the four-man's most recent World Cup events. "We were 19th in La Plagne at the end of January, which was our worst-ever finish," Adam said. "But its a wake-up call for us. We know what we have to do now.
"What makes the four-man so exciting is that you never know what can happen on the day. It just takes two taps on the way down and you can lose it. I think there are going to be a lot of shocks in Salt Lake. I don't think the favourites are going to be coming out on top."
Britain's bobsleigh chances have been given a lift by the involvement of the Formula One car designers Lola, which has begun modifiying the chassis of the bob as part of a five-year plan designed to take Britain back to the top of the event. The clear target, according to Lola's sales director, Christopher Tate, is a gold medal at the next Winter Games in Turin.
Adam welcomes Lola's involvement, although the timing gives him cause for some frustration. "It's like getting a pair of new shoes – you need to wear them in properly," he said. "I'm disappointed that it's come a bit late for us as far as the Olympics are concerned, but better late than never. We know we have got a mountain to climb. The Germans, the Swiss, the French, and the US teams will all be strong.
"We've got two weeks to work on things in Calgary before we go to the Games, and that gives us a chance to turn things around. We haven't done the business in the last couple of World Cup races, and we are going to have to move up a couple of notches. But the World Cup doesn't really count. It's all about the Games now. The Lola plan is for five years, and by the end of that time I'm sure we're going to do really, really well."
That is something Adam is driven to do if humanly possible. "I've been in the best arenas, and beaten some of the best athletes out there," he said. "But I've never been numero uno, and that's what bugs me. I never really fulfiled my potential on the track. That's why I want to see how far I can go in the bob. If I can be the best, then I want to be the best. And if it doesn't happen this year, then maybe next. I have to give it my best shot before I can walk away from it."
But please don't ask him to go on a roller-coaster.
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