Athletics: El Guerrouj enhances gilt-edged field

A quality bill of athletics at Crystal Palace provides distraction from sport's woes
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The Independent Online
BRITISH ATHLETICS, beleaguered in recent weeks by doping cases involving Doug Walker, Gary Cadogan and - seismically - Linford Christie, will present at least one compelling reason to be cheerful at Crystal Palace this afternoon. Backed by a budget of around $3m (pounds 1.91m), the organisers of the CGU British Grand Prix are confident that it will prove to be "the best meeting ever staged in this country".

An expected sell-out crowd of 16,500 - only 300 tickets remained unsold yesterday morning - will see a collection of the world's brightest and best performers. They include America's world 100m champions, Maurice Greene, and Marion Jones, Ethiopia's multiple world record-breaker, Haile Gebrselassie, and Morocco's world 1,500m and mile record-holder, Hicham El Guerrouj, who will be seeking to improve on his own mark at the latter distance.

It will be a far cry from the last time the National Sports Centre staged an athletics meeting, back in 1997, when a half-full stadium witnessed a programme sadly deficient in big names. Since that occasion, the domestic sport has dipped dramatically with the collapse of the British Athletic Federation into insolvency, and risen again through deals with BBC Sport and CGU Insurance, which has signed a record pounds 10m four-year sponsorship deal.

However, David Hemery, the new president of UK Athletics, has warned that the renaissance could be ruined by escalating costs concerning the new glut of doping cases and has renewed his call for the establishment of a multi-sport independent testing agency.

Today provides the opportunity for the sport to look on the bright side, and the meeting promoters, Fast Track, have spared no efforts in putting together the most compelling distraction possible on the opening day of the Premiership football season.

Greene, the last of their big acquisitions at an estimated cost of $75,000 (pounds 48,000), will test Britain's new generation of sprinters - including Jason Gardener, Dwain Chambers and Darren Campbell - to their maximum just two weeks before the IAAF World Championships start in Seville.

The aspirations of Britain's sprint relay team, which includes the Commonwealth Games 200m champion, Julian Golding, will also be tested in a race against a powerful team containing Greene, Ato Boldon, Jon Drummond and Curtis Johnson, who will compete under the banner of their management group, HSI.

A total of 10 world record-holders will be on show, including Britain's triple jumpers Jonathan Edwards and Ashia Hansen, as well as high hurdler Colin Jackson. The Welshman will resume his running battle with the leading Americans, including Mark Crear, who narrowly beat him in Monte Carlo on Wednesday.

Kelly Holmes, rebuilding her racing fitness after a two-year injury gap, competes over 1,500m against the Kenyan who beat her to the Commonwealth Gold last September, Jackline Maranga.

Gebrselassie will be cheered on by a contingent of more than 1,000 of his London-based Ethiopian supporters, many of whom will have seen him break the world indoor 5,000m record at Birmingham in February. He will be seeking his 16th world record as he attempts to improve Daniel Komen's two-mile mark of 7min 58.61sec.

El Guerrouj, who took 1.26sec off Noureddine Morceli's six-year-old world mile record in Rome last month, clocking 3min 43.13sec, said: "I believe I can take the record below 3min 43sec in London if the conditions are good."

To mark his achievement, the 24-year-old Moroccan was yesterday presented with framed autographs of every mile world record-holder since Sydney Wooderson in 1937. The gift was handed over by Derek Ibbotson, the last man to break the mark on British soil when he ran 3:57.2 at White City in 1957.

El Guerrouj spoke yesterday about his long-term targets - he believes he can get to around 3min 40sec for the mile and in the metric equivalent, in which he holds the world record at 3min 26sec, he thinks he can take off another two to three seconds.

El Guerrouj acknowledged that the man most likely to push him to such achievements was Noah Ngeny, the 20-year-old Kenyan who chased him home in Rome last month and has since narrowly missed breaking the world 1,000m record.

"I respect him a lot," El Guerrouj said. "He has exceptional natural talent. But I don't think he's very intelligent - he races too much looking for money rather than great performances. If he could avoid racing so much then together we could make great progress in the distance."

The doe-eyed Moroccan has not done too badly on his own. Asked yesterday if he took any of the supplements now apparently so popular with athletes, he looked puzzled before responding that he enjoyed specialities prepared by his mother such as couscous and a traditional stew of meat and potatoes. "I respect my training regime," he said. "I train twice a day, and between October and December three times a day at 6am, 10am and in the afternoon. In those months I run 110 miles a week."

El Guerrouj's preparations at the National Training Centre in Rabat have been generously funded by the late King Hassan II, who died on 23 July. At the mention of his name, El Guerrouj pulled out from underneath his shirt a pendant and said: "It was a very, very sad day for Morocco when the King died, especially for athletics, because he was the father of the sport. He gave me this pendant after I won the world title in Athens two years ago, and I will wear it until I die."

A week before he died, King Hassan arranged for a Paris specialist to be flown over to treat El Guerrouj in Rabat after he had pulled out of racing with a stomach complaint from which he was suffering even while he broke the mile record in Rome.

Now fully recovered, El Guerrouj foresaw an even better future for Moroccan athletics under the reign of the new king, Mohamed VI, who is maintaining support at the same levels. Where that will take him may become more evident in south London today.

Leading article, Weekend Review, page 3