The 400m runner looks back at the Bislett Games in Oslo in July 1998 when he beat Michael Johnson and won in a PB of 44.37 from the inside lane
Just weeks before claiming European bronze, the two-time Olympic relay medallist became only the second man in nine years to leave the greatest 400m runner in history trailing in his wake.
Mark Richardson takes up the story…
There had been a change in my training regime. Martin Watkins, my coach up until Atlanta 1996, helped me towards winning an Olympic silver in the 4x400m relay. He did an absolutely fantastic job, but I had the opportunity to spark a coaching relationship with Roger Black.
He wasn’t actually my coach, but I guess Roger was so satisfied with clinching individual Olympic silver that he was just more open to inviting the competition in or maybe passing the baton on. I’ve got no idea why, but the time was right.
I was just like a sponge, I wanted to learn from him and I thought what he’d done was incredible so I wanted to model aspects that he brought. We chatted and he said: “Why not think about joining the training group?” It became a no-brainer, really.
His model was having a number of coaches that were almost reporting in to him. Mike Whittingham looked after the entire overall programme, but Roger had inputs from other coaches and I went to a much more speed-based coaching methodology.
Tony Lester was Roger’s sprint coach at that point and ultimately became my coach. They all put that greater emphasis on my qualities and you see what the athletes are doing now over the 400m. It’s scary. You look at how much real speed they’ve got and I just probably got on to it too late. If I’d done that earlier in my career, it could have been really quite interesting.
I had a supreme confidence in the base that I had built up. I felt quick and strong. Everything was pointing towards a good season.
There’s no doubt that the Bislett Games is one of the meccas of track and field. It’s just hallowed ground. It’s been the host venue to some of the greatest athletes who have ever walked the planet, so that was huge. It was just electrifying. At the time, it was part of the Golden League and it was the first race of that year’s series so that gave it another special dimension.
The line-up for that race was amazing. With those kinds of meets, promoters move heaven and earth to get the best athletes possible. The quality and depth was absolutely staggering. It was as good as the World Championships final of the previous year.
I was in Lane One. Iwan Thomas was in Lane Eight. Michael Johnson was in the middle. It was mouthwatering. Just getting into the race was great, but the lane wasn’t. When I saw the draw, I thought: “Okay, this isn’t cool.”
I started catastrophising a bit, trying to get on to my manager to see what he might do but that was more of a comfort blanket thing and then I had to get a grip and have a word with myself. I reframed it to how it would be quite a powerful statement if I could finish in the top three from that lane.
In Oslo, and during that season, it was all about adapting to the set of circumstances that I was in. It was trying to stay true to my race plan and understanding that you can’t sprint efficiently and effectively going around the turns, so you have to make some type of modification to compensate for that. It just works.
I guess there was something about the natural cadence of that race. I knew if I could stay in contention, I’d be alright. We came off the top turn and I was in contention. I wasn’t in the top three and may have been fifth, but the gap wasn’t so decisive that I couldn’t close it in the closing stages. Because I hadn’t gone off perhaps quite as quickly as I might have liked or anticipated, I just had more in reserve coming down the home straight.
I beat Michael Johnson. It wasn’t a championship or even one of my medals – perhaps the biggest accomplishments of my career came with the relay team – but in that race, I came out with a personal best performance. Michael recognised he wasn’t on his A-Game in that race but he’d been unbeaten for so long that to even see a tiny chink in his armour was a bit bewildering.
There’s a level of frustration that I didn’t go on to win the Europeans that year because it was within my own control. I fairly recently found out some interesting stuff about my childhood family dynamic and I think I was trying to prove something on that day in Budapest. That massively derailed me. I took the wrong mindset into that race, which meant I didn’t perform anywhere near the level I should have. That was on me. I don’t blame anyone else.
I now consult with organisations and I take a lot from being an athlete and setting performance goals, deconstructing things into thinking about what it is you’re trying to achieve, thinking about those performance milestones, those key performance indicators, and then breaking it down into bite-sized chunks that you can be doing, day in and day out.
I’m a big believer in that. I learned that skill as an athlete – and the ability to compartmentalise as well. There are loads of things I probably didn’t realise that I was doing 20 years ago as an athlete, but I’ve got the benefit of really strong knowledge about performance psychology now.
» This article first appeared in the January 2023 issue of AW magazine. Subscribe to AW magazine here