THE trick to understanding James Nolan is to recognise from the start that there's a lot less to him than meets the eye.

The flash Harry who's been known to whip up his singlet and perform a belly dance at the end of races ? it's not him.

The show-off who'll cross the line first and pull a couple of imaginary six-shooters on the crowd ? that's not him either.

Don't be taken in by the Beckham crew-cut, the saturnine good looks and the designer shades wrapped around his angular face. Ireland's great white 1,500m hope insists he's just a quiet country boy at heart.

There are so many James Nolan stories in orbit out there that it's hard to pick what's true from what's apocryphal.

When he was a boy in Tullamore he smoked like a chimney before races. That's one story. It wasn't that he craved the nicotine he sucked from those old dog-ends. It was to show the other boys that he could still win, even with his lungs full of smoke. "That's definitely not true, " he says, looking puzzled but not displeased. "All lies. You'll hear plenty of lies about me, I'll tell you that. I've heard a few myself that are even worse than that." The hubris he demonstrates on the track dissipates just as soon as his audience does. But people confuse the showman with the man. "People think I'm arrogant because of what I'm like when I'm out there running. But when they find out that I'm actually the opposite of that, they think that's arrogance as well. They say, 'He thinks he's something special, ' because I don't talk to people. I'm quiet. That's the way I am." He's been daft in the past;

that, he admits. That silly, impulsive gesture he made at the national championships last summer will forever define him in the popular mind, even if he achieves his lifetime goal of breaking the Irish record that Ray Flynn set in 1982.

He was full of it going into the 1,500m final. The race was between him and Gareth Turnbull and there was a seat on the plane for the World Championships in Paris for the winner. "Gareth runs, let's just say, differently from me, " he says. "He's rugged. I don't feel comfortable running just behind someone with a different running style to me because it's hard to keep your rhythm. So I had to look at the ground, which I wouldn't usually do. I couldn't believe how lucky I was when I saw one of his teammates pacing the race. I was like, 'Brilliant.

It's going to be quick'. In my head I had it won. I was cruising. With 400m to go, I thought the crowd would be 50/50, for me and him. But when we hit the bell you should have heard the noise. And it was all for him." So Nolan licked his index finger and stuck it in the air. He was saying what exactly? "It was, I'm the man. In other words, Not you." It would have looked great had he won. He didn't. He knows what he looked like.

"The thing is I didn't even run badly that day. I mean, forget the finger thing. That just made me look stupid. The real mistake I made was kicking too late. I should have done it with 250m to go and then just blown Gareth away. But I was edgy and I left it 'til the last hundred. When I went by him I thought that was it. But in a split second he was an inch or two ahead of me again. And he was so strong. He stayed there the whole way to the line." He couldn't even channel his anger properly that day.

He stormed into the changing area and hit the door of what he thought was the gents with the heel of his hand. He found himself standing in the ladies. Another sign he'd failed to read. "Out I walked with my tail between my legs again.

It was like, 'Sorry, girls, ' and me left feeling like a complete idiot again." The cost of defeat was huge.

Out of the big summer production. He was still only 26 but he couldn't ignore the trajectory his career seemed to be taking. When he won a silver medal over 1,500m at the European indoors in 2000, he was seen as the great white hope of middle-distance running in Ireland. Then the summers started zipping past him.

He failed to get out of the first round at the Olympics in Sydney ("didn't enjoy it ? three grown men sharing a portacabin for two weeks"), ran a tactically disastrous race at the worlds in Edmonton the follow year ("my first and last attempt at front-running in the 1,500m") and ran so poorly at the 2002 Europeans in Munich that he seriously considered quitting ("I was going to get a job, go back to college, whatever had to be done").

Then he watched last year's World Championships on the television. Someone with less self-belief would have gone on the lash for what was left of the summer, then looked for work.

"I was convinced that I could still salvage something from the year. So I went to Italy and ended up doing a season's best for the 800m, then knocked two seconds off my mile time in Rieti. Apart from losing a very good race to Gareth at Santry, it was a great year for me. So I missed Paris. Big deal.

I ran a personal best for the 1,500m and as it happened that was good enough to get me to the Olympics." So he started the New Year with the hard work banked. He doesn't need to sweat about chasing qualifying times this summer. Even the problem he's got right now with his sciatic nerve ("the nerve that runs down your spine and splits down your leg") is little more than an irritation at the moment. "It's the same injury that ruined my season in 2002, except on the other side. But now I've got the time to get it fixed." There are few athletes who look like they enjoy running as much as Nolan. Those little showboating cameos of his articulate his love for what he does. Showing his six-pack to the crowd at the Cork City Sports and all those Wyatt Earp impersonations were, he insists, just spontaneous outpourings of excitement. He had one poster on his wall as a child. It was of Eamonn Coghlan, at that famous point when he passed Dmitriy Dmitriyev at the 1983 World Championships and balled his fists in victory, still a hundred metres short of the line. They said it was disrespectful to the Russian. Arrogant. Gauche. He's in the rare position of being able to empathise with the sheer junk rush of that feeling.

"When you're an athlete at this level, 90 per cent of the time you're carrying an injury of some degree and you can't do what you want to do.

Then very occasionally it happens that you're injury-free and you've a good season of training behind you and there you are, with 150 metres to go, and you're accelerating and you're passing guys who have nothing left and you're still going up through the gears. I love that feeling. I know how Coghlan felt at that moment.

"People would criticise me the odd time for doing stupid things. Yeah, I do some stupid things and I cringe maybe afterwards. But when I did that belly dance in Cork ? I don't know where it came from but it was back in the days before I had to watch what I ate ? I wasn't being disrespectful to the Kenyan I beat. I didn't do it for his benefit. I did it for me." The sport would be a duller place without characters like him. Increasingly, middle-distance running is a Conga line of impala-legged Africans running desultory anti-clockwise laps of a track. He admits it bores him. "There's no real racing anymore. In international athletics especially you've got two or three pacemakers who are set up to help one athlete who's going for a fast time or a world record.

It's all single file and I'm usually at the back hanging on for dear life. Races tend to get decided at halfway. In the old days you'd have four or five people coming off the bend together, five guys from five different countries, a bit of argy-bargy, a few elbows and it was entertaining. It's not like that now." It's no longer the sport he chose over Gaelic football as a 16-year-old, indefatigable midfielder who might well have played for Offaly one day. He was that good. Again, it's a story. "I was okay but at that age the game starts to get quite rough. When you're a runner, your legs are a different shape. From your knee to your ankle, it's quite long and skinny and there's nothing there to protect you. My big thing was I could run all day and never get tired. But then you'd hear some coach down some back arse of Offaly shouting, 'Take the runner out, ' and I started to miss a few races due to being smacked around." When he left school he chose not to follow his athletics heroes to the States but accepted a scholarship at UCD instead. But the itch to leave Ireland arrived later. His home for a large chunk of the year now is a quiet town, a oneand-a-half hour drive south of Johannesburg. He went there in September 2002 after a poor European Championships left him questioning what he was doing with his life. Another winter in Ireland and he'd have ended up in the funny farm.

"I was very close to quitting. Going to South Africa, it was now-or-never time. I'd been injured but I was also in a rut. Same training techniques, same athletes, same places. In Ireland there's this hard man attitude where we think that what doesn't kill you makes you strong. It's, 'Get out there in the rain, it'll do you good.' That's bollocks. Or it's, 'You have to run sub fourminute mile pace in training.' That's crap. I'm doing things more professionally now. And everything's there for me ? grass track, synthetic track, trail runs ? all within a onemile radius of where I live." It's made a difference to his mood, he says, preparing for his second Olympics with the sun at his back and the crepuscular chatter of the jungle in his ears. He's not fixated with making the final in Athens, just running as close as he can to 3:32 and maybe taking out Flynn's record in the process. He thinks he'll come back for his third Olympics as a steeplechaser but that's for another day.

"I've a great winter behind me. I got into the shape of my life in January before this injury happened. South Africa has changed my whole perspective. You're running around and you stop and you're doing a bit of stretching and you see a monkey or a snake. I'm into my wildlife, you see. Every morning I wake up and I think, 'I wonder what I'm going to see today.' Makes life interesting." With James Nolan, has it ever been anything less?