Athletics: Christie takes strain: Norman Fox contrasts an unhappy Olympic champion with the confident Sonia O'Sullivan

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The Independent Online
THE INJURY that Linford Christie suffered at Crystal Palace is unlikely to be as serious as the damage it did to his morale in the run-up, or hobble- up, to the European Championships in Helsinki next month. The world and Olympic champion is not accustomed to being beaten twice in quick succession, and it was not just the hamstring strain that slowed him up against Jon Drummond on Friday.

Already beaten by Davidson Ezinhwa in Linz earlier this month, Christie was never at his explosive best at Crystal Palace and he had clearly lost to Drummond before he began to clutch his thigh after taking evasive action to avoid another runner. This latest setback comes at a time when Leroy Burrell, the new world record holder, has taken away some of Christie's charisma. The injury, a stretched rather than seriously damaged hamstring that will keep him out of action for 10 days, could mend more quickly than his ego.

The cost to Christie in terms of competition is obviously important. He is definitely out of tomorrow's grand prix meeting in Nice and the match between Britain and the United States in Gateshead on Wednesday, but until he is examined properly by a sports injuries expert, Dr Hans Muller Wolfhardt, in Munich tomorrow, the extent of the injury and the recovery time will not be known. Wolfhardt has a high reputation in his field, also looking after Boris Becker and assisting with the medical well-being of the German football team.

What Christie will be most concerned about is a lapse in his training schedule before the European Championships in which, provided he makes a quick recovery, he will be clear favourite and should take the 100m title for the third time in succession. But at 34, any injuries will take longer to repair than in a younger athlete, and set-backs erode confidence.

At the other end of the scale, no one is more full of self- belief at the moment than Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan, who on Friday set a European record of 8min 21.65sec for the 3,000 metres. The record had not been bettered for 10 years, but in her present form O'Sullivan endangers records in every event she enters. She remains astounded by her success, however: 'I can't believe it, I can't believe it,' she kept repeating after the event.

O'Sullivan is one of those athletes blessed with a physique that boasts a natural aptitude for the events which she puts it through. She weighs 8st 4lb, is almost 5ft 8in and looks the part of a future Olympic gold medal winner. That, though, will depend not so much on her potential as on the threat of Chinese domination in every event from 800m upwards.

She came to prominence internationally in last year's World Championships in Stuttgart when she gave the mysteriously unbeatable Chinese a run for their money in the 3,000m and took the 1500m silver medal. In a way, she says, the Chinese remain both a threat and an inspiration.

'I'm sure that I had my best ever winter's training because I always had them at the back of my mind. I just wish I could run against them again now.' If she, who is Europe's most promising female middle-distance athlete, has to admit that the memory of three Chinese finishing ahead of her in the World Championships still troubles her, the thought must petrify the many Western athletes who have not yet got close enough to clip their heels.

This season has already shown why the rest of Europe will fear O'Sullivan in Helsinki. She was thrust into the Bupa 5km road race in Aberdeen as a last-minute replacement for Liz McColgan and promptly beat that other formidable Scot Yvonne Murray, who is fading into her shadow. Her sprint finish heralded her success to come and emphasised the sort of preparation that allows her to consider running both the 1500m and 3,000m (or 800m) in Helsinki. Last September at Crystal Palace she won a 3,000m and within the hour came second in the mile. Last week she went back to Scotland and bit three seconds out of the 2,000m world record, eclipsing Murray in the process, just as she did on Friday. In both races she yawned through the early pace, stretched, then sped away over the last lap.

The 2,000m is rarely raced but its previous record-holder was the battle-hardened Romanian Maricicia Puica who had held it for eight years. O'Sullivan admitted that before tackling another 3,000m she had been looking for a record that was comfortably within her grasp at this comparatively early stage of the season 'but it all seems unreal because I always thought records were something you watched other people achieve'.

Like the Manchester United and Ireland international footballer Roy Keane, the

London-based O'Sullivan began her sporting career in Cobh, near Cork. Unlike Keane, for the moment at least, she is not given a hero's welcome back in Ireland after failing to reach a final.

Her links with Ireland have to be fleeting. She spent three years studying accountancy at Villanova and won the United States Collegiate title as well as the gold medal in the 1991 World Student Games 1500m. Then she still felt in awe of the stars she now races against and beats; these days she is starting to believe she belongs among the best and her confidence is growing accordingly. 'There was a time when I thought if Liz McColgan or Yvonne Murray were running in my race they would win. But not now.' So she proved again on Friday.

(Photograph omitted)