Athletics: Christie's high sense of occasion

World Championships: Britain bank on their inspirational captain to raise the spirits of a depleted team
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THERE IS no Colin Jackson and no Sally Gunnell to hurdle for victory. There are no absolute certainties for gold in any event, but Britain's small and depleted athletics team, who go to Gothenburg for the start of the world championships on Saturday, still travel in hope. The same hope that over the past few years has often brought unexpected success.

The perfect antidote to the disputes and drugs that have characterised the British athletics season so far would be a win in the triple jump for Jonathan Edwards. He is a nice family man, the son of a vicar, and brought up in the cosy world of tea-parties. Touchingly, he bothers about whether jumping into a sandpit is a proper or worthwhile way to make a living. He has already broken the world record this season, but he of all people knows that being the best in the world does not necessarily entitle anyone to think that their name is already written in the sand. And more than any of the present world-record holders among the 2,000 athletes from 190 countries he will know that the technical events are charged with problems. It has taken him 10 years to work out what was wrong with his technique and even now he does not always get it right.

He is one of just two British athletes who could reasonably be regarded as favourites in their event, the other being Linford Christie. He will be hard-pressed to retain his title in the 100m and may not even get a medal in the 200m, which he has been intent on running for months; mainly for the variety, it seems.

Christie's season has been disturbed by controversy and several defeats that he dismissed because he said he had recorded good times. So he remains favourite purely on the memories of past victories when he has rarely put a foot wrong. Against him will be Donovan Bailey, the Manchester-born Canadian who wants to erase his country's painful memories of the disgraced Ben Johnson. He is still ahead of Christie on time this season with a best of 9.91sec, which is a significant figure.

Of more importance than times is the fact that in Oslo recently Christie beat Dennis Mitchell to send a threatening message to the begrudging American camp in which Christie is never given much credit for anything. They are well aware, though, that he always saves his best for the big days - witness his own 9.91sec to win the Commonwealth Games gold last summer. As for the 200m, he still insists that he will surprise a few people but John Regis will do well to keep in contact with his Olympic champion colleague, the in-form Nigerian Olapade Adeniken and Namibia's Frankie Fredericks, not to mention the American Michael Johnson.

Britain had expected that the men's 400m would be their most successful event, but with Du'aine Ladejo and David Grindley pulling out, Mark Richardson troubled by injury and Roger Black missing competition and training over the past fortnight because of a cold, the situation is much less optimistic. All of which shifts national hopes to the outsiders.

For instance, is Curtis Robb, a finalist in the last Olympic Games, quite returned to peak fitness? Only the championships will tell. He has looked more like his old self this month, but what a sad reflection on British middle-distance running that he was the only one to qualify for the 800m, the event in which Sebastian Coe still holds the world record. Similarly, John Mayock and Gary Lough have much to do in the 1500m, another event Britain once dominated. At least Tony Jarrett has taken some notable scalps in the 110m hurdles this season, and he may well feel less inhibited without Jackson on his shoulder.

Apart from Michael Johnson, the most predictable gold medal winner overall is Noureddine Morceli, who this week confirmed his enduring fitness by coming within 15-hundredths of a second of breaking his own 1500m world record, which he set earlier this month. He must retain his world title even though Venuste Niyongabo, of Burundi, is steadily impressing his claim to being the Algerian's eventual successor. The 21-year-old may have to wait for several years, however.

Beyond the metric mile, Kenyans will dominate unless Germany's Olympic 5,000m champion, Dieter Baumann, can surprise them as he did in Oslo last week when he took them on and won a 3,000m event to prove he had recovered after several months' treatment for a succession of injuries. The world 5,000m record holder, Moses Kiptanui, showed his form by coming close to snatching Morceli's 3,000m record in Monte Carlo last Tuesday but in Sweden he will be tackling the 3,000m steeplechase for which he holds the three fastest times ever recorded. He may find his nearest challenger is yet another up-and-coming Kenyan, Christopher Kosgei, who, running without shoes, beat him in Stockholm this month.

Kelly Holmes would be the third British favourite to take a medal but she has yet to attain the world-wide recognition of her potential which would bring that burden. Of all the British women, she must have the best chance of taking Gunnell's place as the team's inspiration. Her tough, Army-honed competitive nature could well bring her medals in the 1500m and 800m.

She will have her best chance in the longer event, in which she faces the formidable Russian European champion, Lyudmila Rogachova, and in the two-lap event she will have to do remarkably well to overcome the amazing world champion, Maria Mutola of Mozambique. But if Mutola, Holmes and the rest are to be surprised in the 800 it could be Ana Quirot, of Cuba, who does it. Sonia O'Sullivan, of Ireland, may choose to run the 5,000m as well as try to make up for the 1500m defeat Holmes inflicted on her in Gateshead earlier this month. O'Sullivan's best 1500m time of 3min 58.85sec is by far the best in the world this year.

With Gunnell not risking aggravating her injury by competing in the hurdles, Marie-Jo Perec, the French Olympic 400m champion, was looking forward to her first major one-lap hurdles victory as well as a win in the flat event.

The whole of France seemed sure she would do it but her recent performances have suggested that in the flat race she could find Australia's Cathy Freeman more powerful. That may persuade her to drop the hurdles event altogether, which would be even more infuriating for Gunnell, who could easily have added another title to her impressive list.

One of the notable absentees, though not exactly lamented, will be the world 10,000m record-holder, Wang Junxia, whose row with her controversial coach, Ma Junren, was given much publicity last year. This summer she performed poorly in the trials and it seems unlikely that the Chinese will be as powerful as they were two years ago. Among those thankful for that will be the British distance runners Yvonne Murray, Liz McColgan and Jill Hunter, and Portugal's new world record holder for the 5,000m, Fernanda Ribeiro.

Steve Backley, whose fitness has been in doubt, says that he feels capable of at least one big throw in the javelin and he has the comforting knowledge that this season he has already beaten the Olympic champion, Jan Zelezny. Like the high jumper Steve Smith, he can look ordinary one moment and a world-beater the next. The same could be said of the marathon runner Richard Nerurkar, who has planned the whole of his year round this one event. Other athletes have chosen to spend the summer on the merry-go- round of the professional circuit. They may soon rue going for the extra dollar.