18 February 2001

Sprint prodigy Mark Lewis-Francis aims to eclipse the man who believes athletics is corrupt

Linford Christie was not at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham on Tuesday night. More is the pity, because at a stroke he could have righted his now notorious “the sport is so corrupt now I wouldn’t want my child to do it” outburst which led to this week’s public spat with Sebastian Coe.

On Tuesday, Christie could have seen the kids happily trying the pole vault, some of them 12 years old and pony-tailed, some of them grey-haired and 40, almost all of them equally inept. He could have watched others haring round the banked, clanking boards of the running track while the likes of 400 metres star Duane Ladejo looked on. And, above all, he could have talked to Mark Lewis-Francis, the 18-year-old sprint prodigy who aims to emulate his Olympic 100 metres gold.

This afternoon BBC viewers will be at the NIA for the biggest event of our indoor season, the Norwich Union Grand Prix. They will have their own chance to judge Lewis-Francis, the nurse’s son from Darlaston, near Wolverhampton, who last year wisely ducked the Olympics to win the 100m gold at the world junior championships in Santiago. They can take a view of what harm six years with Birchfield Harriers has done to the young man who could lure a whole new generation to the sport.

“I’ve met all my friends through athletics,” Mark said in youthful rebuke to the legendary `Lunchbox’. “My father brought me along when I was 12 years old and straight away I loved it. The money now may be a bit of an incentive but it’s only really a bonus. I’m doing this sport because I’m enjoying it. I think athletics is a good place for a kid. It’s a sport with no contact, no violence. If you lose, you step back up and try again.

“Athletics has taught me so much, ” he continues with a bubbling enthusiasm, “about discipline, about people, about ambition, not just for sport but for life. I think Linford is just scared that someone is going to come along and break all his records. That’s definitely my aim. I want to break the world record and win a gold medal at the Olympics. You have to aim high.”

At 6ft and 14st, he was the most powerfully built but not necessarily the most assertive of the pack of teenagers working the softdrinks machine after training. “Sure I want to beat him,” he said of today’s 60m clash with Olympic silver medallist Christian Malcolm. “I would like to go the world indoor championships. But the real focus is the European under-20s in July. If I got selected for the world championships, that would be huge. If I got to the final, it would be out of this world.

“I’ve got loads of things to build up,” he says, the face almost apologetic behind the pencil line `French Foreign Legion’ black moustache.

“Muscles, stamina, strength, speed, skills. They have all got to come and I’m waiting for it. I reckon that at the age of 20 I’ll be able to give it a go. This year I should be happy to do 10.10 again [his time at the Crystal Palace last summer which led Maurice Greene to say he was the best junior he had ever seen]. If I did anything quicker I would be over the moon.”

This statement of downbeat expectation is watched approvingly by the silver head of Steve Platt, the GKN engineer who has used his spare time and holidays to act as coach and mentor to the young hustler ever since he came to Birchfield Harriers on his father’s hunch that such a “hyper” kid ought to benefit from “running around a bit”.

Platt, just a club runner himself, took his son to the Harriers in 1984 and since then has been the sort of unpaid but not unloved supporter to whose defence senior officials sprang after Christie’s reported slur. “If Linford said it and meant it,” Birchfield chairman Roy Tilling added uncompromisingly on Friday, “he should be hung, drawn and quartered.”

Platt has no plans for medieval punishments but searches for what he calls the “fine balance” between giving his protege enough challenge and avoiding injuries from overload. “I wouldn’t want him to get much heavier,” Steve had said earlier, as we watched Lewis-Francis return from one of his speed drills with that big-shouldered, almost lumbering, sprinter’s walk, “and there is no great pressure to get into things like the world indoors, but he does need the focus of competition.”

That will come this afternoon. On Thursday night in Stockholm, Lewis-Francis was 0.02 of a second behind Malcolm when they were fifth and sixth in the 60 metres final, clocking 6.71 and 6.73 seconds respectively. Platt was relaxed about it. “He told me at once that he had made a mistake at the start; if you do that over 60 metres it’s over. He’s quite happy with his performance.”

Which brings us to the bigger challenge which continues this afternoon, the challenge of fame. Of already, at 18, having the label of being the future fastest man on earth. For if “fame is the spur”, its prick can poison, too. If not handled it can fatally distort a victim’s view of others and of himself.

At the moment there is still a charming boyish innocence about Lewis-Francis which this year’s sallies into the big time will necessarily remove. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing,” said Roy Tilling, “a sprinter has to become forceful and extrovert if he’s to compete. The trick is to have a base to which to return, to have friends that you trust. I believe we have provided that for him.”

The supremely unathletic Cyril Connolly once wrote the darkly prophetic lines “those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first call promising”.

Linford Christie apart, there are good grounds for thinking that Lewis-Francis might be an exception to the rule.

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