Mark Lewis-Francis after winning the 100m at the 2000 IAAF World Junior Championships (© Getty Images)
New World Junior 100m Champion Mark Lewis-Francis (Birchfield Harriers) is "just the blink of an eyelid" away from greatness, says UK Athletics Performance Director Max Jones
But the 18-year-old will not be rushed as he strives to cover the small time difference between him and the top seniors such as World and Olympic Champion Maurice Greene (USA).
Jones is well aware of the pressures of expectation that have been heaped on Mark - and his advisors at Birchfield - since he became the fastest 17-year-old ever in July by clocking 10.10 seconds at the Norwich Union British Grand Prix at Crystal Palace.
Having supported Mark’s decision not to go to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games - even though he was third in the Norwich Union Olympic Trials and AAA Championships, Jones was "absolutely delighted" with his stunning World Junior Championships victory in Santiago, Chile, last night in 10.12 seconds.
The inevitable question is: What does Mark do now?
"He takes one year at a time, as his club has been encouraging him to do since he joined them as a 13-year-old," answers Jones. "I’ve heard people tipping him as a future Olympic Champion and I hope they’re right. But he shouldn’t be thinking the Gold medal is his in Athens.
"In a way, he now has to learn his trade. It’s going to be hard, as well. Look at Dwain Chambers, who set the World Junior Record of 10.06 seconds at the 1997 European Junior Championships. He’s improved by nine hundredths of a second since then.
"There’s only a blink of an eyelid between Mark and Maurice. But there’s a huge amount of work to be done and someone with his potential should be encouraged to make haste slowly, as has obviously been the case already.
"It’s good that the European Junior Championships and seniors’ World Championships don’t clash next year. It might give him the opportunity to cut his teeth among the seniors in Edmonton - though there’s a lot of seniors who will have something to say about that!
"While Mark will want to express himself on the world stage, we are getting good depth now. There’s a continuous stream of quality through from the Under 20s to the Under 23s to the Seniors."
Recent research points to an all-round improvement. A study of UK Under 23 track and field rankings lists shows that performances have improved by an average of 2.6 per cent in the last four years.
And women have made the greatest strides. Averaging the top 10 UK performers in each event each year, men have improved by 1.25 per cent - while women have improved by just over 4 per cent.
"That amounts to a colossal move forward," says Jones. "A similar study of the senior rankings shows that the level of performance has remained just about static over the same period.
"So the fact that the Under 23s are improving so noticeably is tremendously encouraging, especially so far as the women are concerned. I think it shows what a positive result Lottery funding is having.
"It has enabled us to support the Under 23 age group, like the Under 20s, by arranging international matches. And we’ve liaised with the AAA of England to establish the Norwich Union National Championships for the age group.
"Before the introduction of the Under 23 group, athletes emerging from the Under 20s were presented with a very tall mountain to climb to get to the Senior peaks. Now we are giving them a few base camps to aim for on the way.
"And from next year there will be even more help in that age group with the start of England’s World Class Potential Plan. There have been similar schemes in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales for the last couple of years or so; and there is no question they have helped to keep talented athletes in the sport.
"Nobody knows how many we lost in past years when they went to university and found other interests or simply couldn’t find an incentive to keep training.
"And how many late developers have we missed? Remember, Linford Christie and Jonathan Edwards came through late. We have got to keep athletes like them in the sport."
UK Athletics for the IAAF