Athletics: Black set for final flourish in Sheffield

By Adam Szreter

WITH MICHAEL Johnson declining an invitation to appear and the malaria- stricken Wilson Kipketer also absent, the boost that British athletics was looking for arrived right on cue this week when Roger Black announced that tomorrow's British Grand Prix in Sheffield would be his farewell appearance, guaranteeing an attendance far in excess of what the organiser, Fast Track, could have dared to hope for.

But Alan Pascoe's outfit, while privately pleased with this short-term shot in the arm, will doubtless be among the first to admit that the controversial circumstances surrounding Black's premature retirement could just as easily turn out to be a long-term shot in the foot. The sport in this country needs all the goodwill it can generate and the selectors might have been forgiven for bending over backwards to accommodate the desires of the public to include such a popular athlete.

But by excluding Black from the individual 400 metres at this year's European Championships the selectors have risked tarnishing the sport's image at a time when, we are told, image is everything.

The task of rebuilding that image continues at the Don Valley Stadium tomorrow, where we are promised by the organisers that: "with the use of music, a huge video screen and new presentation techniques the British Grand Prix will be the most entertaining meeting ever staged in this country".

Similar efforts were made at Gateshead earlier in the season but atrocious weather spoiled that attempt, so it is to be hoped this time that at least they are given the chance to shine.

Black's 400m race is the final event of the evening and he faces Mark Richardson and Iwan Thomas but not Solomon Wariso, who injured himself in beating Black to third spot at the AAA trials last weekend.

Johnson's absence is apparently due to lack of form rather than money - he allegedly turned down $100,000 to compete in Paris on Wednesday in favour of returning to train in Texas.

Highlights before that include Colin Jackson taking on the three Americans who beat him over the high hurdles at the Goodwill Games last week - winner Mark Crear, Olympic champion Allen Johnson and Reggie Torrian, the fastest in the world this year. Jonathan Edwards confronts the delightfully named American La Mark Carter in the triple jump, while Steve Backley will be aiming for a measure of revenge over South Africa's Marius Corbett, who beat Backley to the javelin gold medal at last year's World Championships.

A couple of interesting 3,000m races see Kenya's Paul Tergat, four times world cross-country champion, head a strong African representation in the men's event while Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan and Britain's Paula Radcliffe renew their rivalry in the women's race and Svetlana Masterkova, a double Olympic champion in Atlanta, re-emerges after a quiet year to attempt a world record in the women's mile.

Given the constraints of its budget and the fact that the British Grand Prix is no longer among the elite in European terms, Fast Track has done well to come up with the names it has. But tomorrow the focus will be on Roger Black - perhaps for the last time, but you never know.