1996: The shape of things to come

Athletics: Britain's best beholden to fickle form and fortune
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The Independent Online
The Olympics dominate all considerations for Britain's athletes in 1996. There is a good chance that they will make a similar impact to that of 1992. But who will do the impacting?

The prospects for Britain's gold medallists of 1992, Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell, are far from certain. Christie still maintains that he will not defend his 100m title because of the media pressure which it would bring to bear upon him. But he is wintering once again in Australia and plans to do selected grand prix races. If he can steer clear of the injuries which marred 1995 - and at 36 that is a big "if" - he still looks capable of beating the world's best. Were he to reach that shape, he might find it hard to resist going out on a high.

Gunnell, whose miserable, injury-bound year was compounded when America's Kim Batten took her 400m hurdles world title and world record, has a hard road back. In her absence, the world 400m champion, Marie-Jose Perec of France, has doubled up with increasing effectiveness, and there are rumours that Russia's Irina Privalova is considering a similar option. If Britain's team captain can recapture form and fitness, however, her superior technique and competitiveness will ensure what is likely to be the most memorable women's 400m hurdles contest of all time.

Britain's most realistic hope of gold must rest, however, with the ebullient figure of Jonathan Edwards, who finished the year having won virtually everything short of the Formula One world title. Edwards knows as well as anyone that 1995 was his annus mirabilis as he established himself as the world's supreme triple jumper. His characteristic reaction was to say that his achievement would merely serve to encourage his rivals. But he seems grooved into his state-of-the-art technique as sweetly as Steve Davis at the height of his snooker fame, and it will take a mighty effort or misfortune for him to be denied in Atlanta.

Kelly Holmes, Steve Backley, Steve Smith, John Regis will all proceed as much in expectation as in hope, and Britain's ever-deepening reserves of talent at 400m could also mean medals.

All the aforementioned must negotiate the intriguingly weighted trials at Birmingham on 14-16 June, where first and second places gain automatic selection.

Malcolm Arnold, Britain's head of coaching, is advising Atlanta contenders to cut short their indoor season to give themselves time to prepare for Birmingham - a piece of realpolitik that will dismay the organisers of the European Indoor Championships, on 8-10 March, but could yield longer term rewards.

PREDICTION: Yet another world record to be claimed by Jonathan Edwards