Athletics: Christie turns back clock

European Cup: British hopes boosted as former Olympic champions find their form with commanding victories
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The Independent Online
Time seemed to go backwards at the Olympic stadium here yesterday afternoon. In the space of 10 minutes, Britain's Olympic champions of 1992, Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell, performed in their old, commanding manner to earn maximum points on the first day of the European Cup. For Britain's team captains, it was as if Atlanta had never happened.

Roger Black, who left Atlanta with two silver medals, won his 400 metres with ease in 45.63sec. At the end of the first day, the British men still had everything to play for as they finished just two and a half points behind the joint leaders, Spain and Russia, with Germany a point ahead of them. The women stood fourth of eight after 10 events, 25 points adrift of Russia, the leaders.

Christie's victory in what he has insisted will be his last competition in a British vest adorned his unmatched record in the European Cup. It was his eighth consecutive 100m win, and his 16th victory in all.

He clearly revelled in the huge approbation of the 29,000 crowd in the stadium which hosted the 1972 Olympics. But it was his time - 10.04sec, as quick as anything he managed last year - which pleased him most. At 37, he is still up there, and familiar questions will now be asked about his resolve not to go to the World Championships in Athens.

"I seem to be getting quicker," he said. "I believe I am the best. The whole object for me is to get quicker. Athletics is great for me, and to get a standing ovation from a crowd that really knows its sport was tremendous."

Christie, who finished two metres clear of his nearest challenger, Geir Moen of Norway, who clocked 10.19sec, was quick to praise the women's captain. She also had metres to spare as she finished with a clenched fist salute. After two years of injury, in her first major international since being carried from the Olympic track, she was back to the pre-eminence she enjoyed in the early 1990s.

Gunnell's time of 54.57sec was her best this season by more than half a second, and although still well short of her best of 52.74, it left her well clear of Germany's Silvia Rieger, who finished second in 55.23.

"Sally's performance was tremendous," Christie said. "No one expected her to do that. That's what separates the great athletes from the normal ones. When the chips are down they rise to the occasion."

Gunnell was as much relieved as delighted. "It's great to be back running in style," she said. "I really needed that. I've had a few technical problems, but today I got it right."

"This competition always seems to get the best out of me," she said. "This is probably the most satisfying of my four European Cup wins. Certainly it was the toughest."

The up and down nature of this competition, where points are awarded on the basis of eight for the winner down to one for the last-placed, was emphasised by the events which followed Britain's mid-afternoon flourish.

The men's fortunes took a downturn as Steve Smith, Britain's Olympic high jump bronze medallist, had to settle for fourth after failing twice on 2.30m and gambling in vain at 2.32 on his last attempt. Smith has been working on a new double arm action, but as he stood with head in hands, he knew there was more work to be done.

The women, however, received an unexpected bonus in the performance of Donna Fraser, a late replacement in the 400m after Phylis Smith's withdrawal in protest at her lack of National Lottery funding. Fraser held off the challenge of Russia's Olga Kotlyarova to earn second place behind Germany's Grit Breuer, in a time of 51.51.

The was a further lift for the women as Janine Whitlock - who has also complained about the low level of Lottery funding she has received, like Smith, around pounds 2,500 - put her financial worries aside to improve her British pole vault record by seven centimetres to 4.10m. The unemployed 23-year-old from Dewsbury managed to lose her pole when she got out here, but found it again in time for her competition. If she wanted to make out a case for improved funding, this seemed a more effective method than Smith's.

Chris Rawlinson, making his first major international appearance in the 400m hurdles, put in a respectable performance to finish fifth in a race which included three men clearly faster than the rest of the field.

The 25-year-old former Royal Marine, who had been hoping for fourth place, missed it by 0.01sec on the run-in behind the Italian winner Fabrizio Mori, recording 51.05sec.

But the good news for Britain was that their main rivals, Germany, had to field a late replacement in Klaus Ehmsperger, who finished last. "I was a bit disappointed with the time, but otherwise I'm happy," Rawlinson said. "The atmosphere was really overwhelming. I've only done little meetings for the majority of my career."

The British men's challenge for the day finished with a third place for the sprint relay team. Ian Mackie, anchoring the quartet, missed second place by just one-hundredth of a second. There was an equally close finish for John Mayock in the 1500m. After leading into the home straight, he was passed by Fermin Cacho and Gennari di Napoli and pipped on the line to third place by Vyacheslav Shabunin of Russia.