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Athletics: Brown provides hint of gold

McKiernan throws down her world title challenge while Radcliffe suffers from cold
There was a golden glint in Jon Brown's measured stride as he showed a disappearing pair of muddy heels to his rivals in the County Durham cross country international yesterday. With not one but two rainbows arcing across the skyline above the Aykley Heads course on the outskirts of Durham city, it was a welcome sight for British athletics.

After the silvery-grey summers of 1996 and 1997, when the best of Britain failed to shine at the Atlanta Olympics and the Athens World Championships, the sport in these shores is in urgent of some golden sparkle. Not since Jonathan Edwards triple jumped to world championship glory in Gothenburg three years ago now has a British athlete won a major track and field championship event. Judging by the sparkling new year form he uncorked yesterday, Brown could be one of the great Britons to emerge on top of the podium, if not literally on top of the world, in 1998.

With no major championship on the global stage this year, the medal prospecting will be of a more parochial nature: at the European Championships in Budapest in August and at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur the following month. Brown's summer target is the 10,000m in the Hungarian capital. He may well hit the bull's-eye. Certainly, any of his continental rivals would have been simultaneously impressed and depressed by the imperious manner in which he left the rest of the field stuck in the Durham mud yesterday. Making his move after the first of six laps, the European cross country champion of last season won the 9.3km men's race by a margin of 22 seconds from the Frenchman Yann Millan.

It was such an emphatic break, one of the leading Kenyans broke himself in the act of belatedly attempting to cover it. Thomas Nyariki, bronze medallist last year in both the World Cross Country Championships and the 5,000m at the World Championships, faded to a distant third. He finished 41 seconds adrift of Brown, who beat Daniel Komen, Kenya's 5,000m world champion and world record holder, in the same race last year but was pleasantly surprised by his winning form yesterday. "I was genuinely worried going into the race," the pragmatic Yorkshireman said. "I've hardly trained since the Chicago Marathon. I'm not in great shape."

The hip problem that hampered Brown on his marathon debut in the Windy City three months ago has since eased. Ninth place in Chicago, in 2hr 10min 13sec, was an encouraging enough first attempt at the marathon distance but Brown, clearly, is capable of much more. He is planning to prove it in the Flora London Marathon on 26 April. That intended engagement, however, will preclude the 26-year-old from leading the British challenge in the World Cross Country Championships in Marrakesh in March. "It would be just impossible to prepare for the marathon and do the world cross, too," the Vancouver-based great Briton reasoned.

Catherina McKiernan might dispute such an assertion. She has yet to decide whether to chase gold in Morocco as well as on the streets of London. It was not difficult to understand the pull both events have on the Irishwoman as she blew away the nominal opposition in the 5.2km women's race yesterday with greater force even than the wicked north-east wind. The last time McKiernan raced in Durham, across the city at the Maiden Castle site where Newcastle United train, she finished second in the 1995 World Cross Country Championships. It was her fourth runner-up placing in four years. She has still yet to strike the gold that could be hers for the taking should she decide to line up in Marrakesh.

She led from gun to tape yesterday, finishing 18 seconds clear of her nearest rival, the American runner Liz Wilson. Sally Barsosio, the Kenyan 10,000m world champion, faded to eighth and Paula Radcliffe, who took the silver lining behind Deratu in the World Cross Country Championships last year, failed to reach the finish. Struggling from the start, the Bedfordshire mudlark pulled up in mid-race and made a brave attempt to carry on before reluctantly deciding to register the first DNF of her racing career. "I've had a cold this week," Radcliffe revealed. "I didn't think it would affect me but I had nothing there right from the start."

McKiernan, by contrast, was so full of strength and pace she looked as though she could run all day. Having recorded the fastest ever debut marathon by a woman, 2hr 23min 44sec, in Berlin last September, she is clearly a different athlete from the country girl bridesmaid of old. She remains, however, disarmingly modest. "I felt all right, like," she replied when asked to elaborate on her untouchable form. The former camogie star from County Cavan is unbeaten in nine races now. It would take a human express to stop her in Marrakesh.