Athletics: Britain's chance to lift spirits

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been a very long year since Linford Christie plunged into the mass of British athletic supporters at Munich's Olympic Stadium, brandishing the European Cup which his team had just recaptured after an interval of nine years.

Within four months, Britain's incomparable sprinter had retired, along with his fellow Olympic champion of 1992, Sally Gunnell, and British athletics had gone bankrupt.

The men who defend the trophy in St Petersburg this weekend form the least experienced British team in the event's history. Their task was made all the more difficult by the injuries which obliged three proven performers to drop out in midweek - the Olympic high jump bronze medallist Steve Smith, the UK pole vault record holder Nick Buckfield, and the European javelin champion Steve Backley.

The void left by Christie - whose record of 13 individual European Cup victories is unmatched - has been partly filled by his old friend and training partner Colin Jackson, who is doubling up to add the 200 metres to his customary high hurdle commitment.

That was a controversial decision given the number of talented young sprinters Britain has to choose from right now, but Max Jones, Britain's performance director, stressed that Jackson, the world 110 metres hurdles record holder, had been picked because he could be relied upon to "produce the goods on the day".

Frustrated as the young sprinters may have been, their contemporaries in other events have been given ample opportunities to introduce themselves to the wider world through this point-scoring competition in the way Robert Hough did in Munich as he won the 3,000 metres steeplechase in what was his international debut.

Hough is injured this year, so another debutant, Ben Whitby, comes into the event. Other first-timers include Anthony Borsumato in the 400 metres hurdles, Karl Keska, a US-based 5,000 metres runner, and Nathan Morgan, the 19-year-old European junior long jump champion.

In naming his original team, Jones was upbeat about the forthcoming task: "I will be disappointed if we don't win," he said. "I will be really disappointed if we don't qualify for the World Cup." Only the top two men's and women's teams will qualify for that lucrative event in South Africa on 11 to 13 July. But Britain's chances of making the trip have dipped in the face of strong opposition from Germany - still smarting from defeat on home soil last year - Italy, and the hosts, Russia.

The women's team, third last year, will also have an uphill struggle to contest a World Cup place with the favourites, Russia, and strong-looking German French, Czech and Italian selections.

Apart from Gunnell, they are also missing the world indoor triple jump record holder Ashia Hansen, 1500m runner Kelly Holmes and world heptahlon silver medallist Denise Lewis, who are all nursing injuries. One leading figure who is fit, the world cross country silver medallist, Paula Radcliffe, will double up over 1500 and 5,000 metres.

As David Moorcroft, the chief executive of the at present intermediate UK athletics body, strives to get the domestic sport back on track, another victory would be timely indeed in terms of morale. Realistically, however, that is unlikely.

Spirits are likely to be raised by some individual flourishes, however, with much expected from Jackson, Mark Richardson in the 400 metres, the European indoor 3,000 metres champion John Mayock in the 1500 metres, and the men's 4x400 metres team.

For the women, Radcliffe is expected to shine and sentiment dictates a satisfactory outing for Judy Oakes, the veteran shot-putter who is taking part in her 10th cup final - more than anyone else in the history of the competititon.