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Classics teacher Graham Knight trains Olympic hurdlers in his other life. Harvey McGavin met him on the track

Work and pleasure are inextricably linked in the life of Graham Knight. The head of classics at Newcastle-under-Lyme college teaches students about ancient Mediterranean civilisation and trains athletes for one of its most lasting legacies the Olympics.

So it's no surprise to find that he's going on holiday to Greece this year or that his trip coincides with the European Athletics Championships in Athens. Sometimes it's difficult to recognise where the professional job ends and the hobby begins, he admits.

Compared with their equivalents in other sports, athletics coaches are not so much underpaid as unpaid. Graham receives just Pounds 630 a year in expenses as national event coach, a job he has held for the past 18 seasons. While their proteges are on the podium, coaches never get the garlands. They are invisible, a crucial factor in success but unknown to those outside the sport. How many people have heard of Ron Roddan, for instance? He's the retired post office worker who also happens to be Linford Christie's long-term trainer and confidant.

Graham, now a fit and stocky 50-something, was once a useful athlete himself, running and playing rugby at county level and having trials with a couple of football clubs. But remembering the experience of his father (who played professionally for Walsall until a knee injury ended his career at 19) he took the academic route, leaving school in Walsall for Nottingham University, where he read classics.

I didn't have the natural ability or physique to carry on athletics to the level that would have satisfied me. I just wanted to teach. So he hung up his spikes and went to work at Wolstanton grammar school in Stoke-on-Trent, where he made his first discovery.

There was a boy there who was a rugby player and he did the 400 metres and triple jump. When it came to the town sports day we didn't have a hurdler so I put this gangly lad in for the 80 metre hurdles and he won. The gangly lad, whose name was Mark Holtom, went on to break the British record for 110 metre hurdles in 1982 and came second in the Commonwealth Games.

People say to me that was inspired talent selection but I always say it was a fluke. Several more flukes followed, notably when Graham coached John Ridgeon to a second place in the 110 metre hurdles at the 1987 World Championships, when he was also voted British athlete of the year.

The quickfire dash-leap, dash-leap of sprint hurdling makes it one of the most explosive spectacles in the track and field repertoire, second only to the blue riband event, the 100 metres. According to Graham, the principle is the same, summed up in the two-word slogan his athletes wear on their sweatshirts: Hos Tachista. It's ancient Greek for as fast as possible and the message Graham instils in his athletes is that it's not how you get over the hurdles but how quickly. As he points out, half the fastest British 4 x 100 relay team in history Colin Jackson and Tony Jarrett were sprint hurdlers.

It's not enough to look good in the air there are no style points in hurdling like there are in highboard diving. The Olympic champion hit eight hurdles in the final but he was first over the line and that's what counts.

Top athletes clear the 110 metre hurdles in about 13 seconds. But to get that good takes hundreds of hours of conditioning, weight training and road slogging. Graham meets his current squad of 10 runners, come rain or shine, four times a week.

A lot of his work, especially through the dark winter months, is motivational. But his pep talks aren't confined to race tactics or technique. Most of the athletes I have coached have been force-fed elements of the classics. I expect them to know all about the Acropolis in Athens.

Just as he battles to preserve the place of his subject in the college timetable, Graham has to struggle to hang on to his best athletes in the face of more lucrative futures in other sports. Ten barriers, 3ft 6in high, aren't the only obstacles on the way to success; money can be another stumbling block.

In sprint hurdles we have got maybe 20 men in the world's top 200 but only two of them Jackson and Jarrett can make a living at it. Most people will only watch athletics every four years when the Olympics come around. It's not a spectator sport like football so the money isn't generated and you have to be very very good indeed to get sponsorship.

After the heroics of Christie and co. at Barcelona, last year's Olympics disappointed those hoping for a re-run of Britain's success in Spain.

I went into the staffroom after the Atlanta Games and everyone was saying what happened to so-and-so'. I expected us to get a maximum of seven medals and we got six. The athletes are really cheesed off with the perception of what happened in Atlanta. We want winners, we expect winners but we still want an amateur ethos. Athletics is an amateur sport where the expectation is for professional results.

My mother-in-law says Linford's had it', but he's still fifth best in the world and he was Olympic champion. And yet we go into raptures about someone like Tim Henman who is only 20th in the world.

Although the Olympic ideal of amateur competition depicted in Chariots of Fire has romantic as well as box office appeal, it doesn't have much basis in historical fact, says Graham.

It's a myth. The ancient Greeks were full-time professional athletes in every sense they were given houses and considerable rewards. Our perception of the Olympic ideal is pie in the sky.

But the Olympics remain the goal of every top athlete and coach. Graham's first experience of the games was on a school trip to Rome in 1960 (Perhaps there was something portentous about that) and he has been to five more since, three of them as event coach. But the highlight of his trackside career came at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart when Colin Jackson broke the world record and Tony Jarrett came second.

To see British athletes first and second on the rostrum in an event which the Americans must have thought of as their own was unforgettable. Nothing like that has happened in British athletics since the Eighties, when Coe and Ovett were in their ascendancy.

Graham has high hopes for three up-and-coming stars of sprint hurdling Ross Baillie, Damien Greaves and Matthew Clements to emulate their feats. Remember their names, and if they finish among the medals, rest assured it will be no fluke.

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