By Steven Downes
LONDON, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Twelve years ago the European indoor men's 200 metres final in Madrid threw up a surprise winner. Briton Linford Christie went to win the European 100 title later that year and added the Olympic and world gold medals before finally retiring last year widely acknowledged as the best European sprinter of all time. Now fellow-Briton Julian Golding aims to use this week's indoor championships in Valencia to stake his claim as Christie's heir.
"Madrid was Linford's breakthrough race," Golding said. "And I'd like to emulate the achievement." Christie has been Golding's role model from his earliest days in athletics, and now his hero is also his manager. Already, the 23-year-old from Harlesden, north London, has surpassed one of the company's elder statesmen. When he clocked 20.46 seconds at the British national championships in Birmingham this month, he went faster than John Regis, a former world indoor champion, ever managed. Now, only Christie stands above him on the British all-time lists.
"I'm in a privileged position, Golding said.. As European under-23 champion, the indoor championships represent the next stage in the progression, a stopping-off point on his route to the top. "I am a 100-200 metres runner, not just a 200 metres man," he said. "I will be known as a 100-200-metre man before I finish my career - have no doubts about that." As evidence, Golding points to his anchor stage run in the 4x100 metres relay at the world championships in Athens last year, when his speed and determination secured a surprise bronze medal for an inexperienced British quartet.
There will be pressure on Golding for the first time during his career in Valencia, where anything other than a gold medal will be considered a failure. "Before I was the hunter, now I'm the hunted. But I like being the hunter. I get a buzz out of it. I feel I've got to take my chance while it's there." Golding the hunter showed exceptional nerve under pressure in his two races at Birmingham this month, producing his race-winning surge in the final strides off the last bend to pounce on the British tile ahead of Allyn Condon and then defeat American Jon Drummond in the Birminghan indoor grand prix 10 days ago. It was a policy assisted by his draw in the outside lane in both races. A favourable lane draw in his heat this weekend will be essential if this rangy Briton is to thrive in Valencia. It seems unlikely, however, that such matters of mere fortune will bother him too much. "My mentality has changed now," he said. "Before I used to see the top guys as idols. Now they are in the palm of my hands. I want to let them know I am a contender. I love competition. It's what I thrive on."
The multi-talented Golding might have taken up tennis had he found it a more welcoming sport. He won the Westminster County Schools tennis championship at 16 and knew he was good enough to play at a higher level. But Golding became disenchanted. "I saw there weren't many black pros; there were no black people in the clubs I went to," he said. "At competitions I saw a few black guys, but in the main it seemed too full of middle-class white kids. The image of tennis tells kids that unless they're well off or they come from certain families they may as well forget it. I had no support or professional guidance, so I forgot it." There is a sense that having turned his back on one sport, Golding has determined to feed his hunger in another. A month ago, through their mutual sponsors, Golding met Olympic champion Donovan Bailey. The Canadian was impressed. "He's hungry, which is when sprinters are at their most dangerous," Bailey said. "I believe, if he's patient and looks after himself, he's going to make it."