Athletics / European Championships: The golden age for a chosen few: British seek new inspiration from old crusaders Christie, Jackson and Gunnell: Norman Fox in Helsinki predicts a smaller treasure chest of medals for Britain

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The Independent Online
STUTTGART 1986: eight gold medals, two silver and five bronze. Split 1990: nine gold, five silver and four bronze. While all about them there was criticism of British sporting decline, the athletes kept on draping themselves in the Union flag and doing laps of honour.

Threatened as much as emboldened by past achievements, Britain embark on another European Championship challenge here today, and thanks mainly to the continuity and longevity of Linford Christie, who should win his third successive European title, the unsurpassed technique of Colin Jackson, the courage of Sally Gunnell and the muscularity of John Regis, come this time next week Britain should again be celebrating.

Being inspiring team captains, Christie and Gunnell are saying that this time Britain will do even better. Well, they would. An analysis of the entire programme suggests that while their optimism is not far-fetched, satisfaction may have to come from doing almost as well, rather than better than before.

While Gunnell herself remains the best in the world in her event, questions have been asked about Christie, though not to his face. Was the injury he appeared to suffer at Crystal Palace last month merely an excuse to avoid defeat by the in-form Americans? It would be pointless to broach the suggestion. After all, Christie can be mightily intimidating both on and off the track. All he said yesterday was that 'nobody wants to finish their career on an injury'. Either way, it matters little in Helsinki since his opponents are hardly in the same class as the Americans Leroy Burrell or Dennis Mitchell.

This season few newcomers, apart perhaps from Alexandros Terzian, of Greece, have looked capable of challenging the world and Olympic champion over 100 metres. Christie may not now be quick enough to think of world records but he is expected to lead by example both in his individual event and when taking Britain to victory in the sprint relay.

At the last European Championships John Regis became the first athlete to win four medals. This time he wants no distractions. He knows that quite small things, such as the suspicion that someone in an adjoining lane is moving before the gun, can disturb his concentration. He also knows that his willingess to run too much can be damaging. Unlike four years ago, he has no intention of helping out in the 4 x 400m relay, but he again starts as favourite for the 200m and will be a powerhouse in the sprint relay.

Only a week ago in Sestriere he improved the British record to 19.87sec, and last Tuesday in Monte Carlo he recorded 20.01sec, which although probably good enough to bring him gold next Thursday still left him trailing the formidable American Michael Johnson. Regis looks ever more muscular yet his speed continues to improve, based on winters spent in the United States. Only Jean-Charles Trouabal, of France, could threaten him and Norway's Geir Moen may surprise a few people.

Colin Jackson, who only six days ago in Monte Carlo ran an untidy race against his training partner, the Jamaican born, Canadian-turned Austrian Olympic champion Mark McKoy, is nevertheless even more of a favourite to win the 110m hurdles. He spent the winter dominating the indoor scene and his early summer season has seen him unbeaten. Britain has the luxury of knowing that his nearest rival could well be Tony Jarrett, especially as McKoy is injured and a doubtful starter. Jarrett is becoming peeved at being Jackson's perpetual understudy (he finished behind him in the last European Championships as well as last year's world championships) and says that some day soon he will get his chance to win. 'If I'm right there, when he clips a hurdle, who knows? In this event one mistake can cost someone a gold and give it to someone else.'

While Christie, Regis and Jackson are multi-European title holders, Sally Gunnell has never won a European crown, but no matter since her world and Olympic titles have both come since the last Europeans in Split. Only Kim Batten of the United States has seriously challenged her this season, and even then one defeat in Nice was followed soon after by revenge in the Goodwill Games.

As for Britain's other possible gold medal winners, Roger Black would undoubtedly be the most popular, having triumphed over adversity yet again, this time returning to action after a particularly pernicious form of glandular fever. His main opposition in the 400m, in which he goes for his third successive title, is likely to come from within his own team. Du'aine Ladejo has beaten him this summer in Monte Carlo and at Crystal Palace. The indications are that Black's prolonged absence from competition will take a toll and leave him without quite enough endurance to fend off Ladejo.

Unless the 1500m runners, Kevin McKay or the fast-improving Gary Lough, can take advantage of a poor quality field, in none of the men's events from 800m to the 10,000m has Britain a serious chance of winning medals; a sad reflection on the would-be successors to the stars of the Eighties. The fact that Steve Cram continues to delay retirement simply emphasises the lack of competition. And this at a time when middle and long distance running in Europe generally is in poor health. Only the Norwegian Vebjorn Rodal promises to improve the situation in the 800m. The past week's exploits by the peerless Noureddine Morceli, who added the 3,000m world record to his 1,500m and mile marks, merely extended African domination.

Two Olympic champions, Fermin Cacho of Spain and Dieter Baumann of Germany, should win the 1,500 and 5,000m respectively while Britain's Robert Nerurkar's quiet preparation for the marathon suggests that he could well peak at exactly the right moment. The same could be said of the 400m hurdler Gary Cadogan, who has been impressive in domestic competition this season, if he realises he is in an event without a dominant character. The high jump could have seen a Briton take the initiative but, with Steve Smith and Dalton Grant both hampered by injuries, hopes of gold seem futile.

In only one of the field events can Britain confidently expect to have men on the rostrum and in that, the javelin, they may well have two. With the defending champion, Steve Backley, coming back to fitness and Mick Hill in good form after his knee operations, there will be an all-British scrap but almost certainly it will be for silver and bronze behind the Czech Olympic and world champion Jan Zelezny, although yesterday he confessed to being concerned about a sore elbow. Finland being the spiritual home of the javelin event, this is likely to be one of the best competitions of the championships.

If he can become a shade more consistent, Jonathan Edwards could do what he often threatens and lead Europe in the triple jump especially because he enjoys the big events; in Monte Carlo he reached 17.06m, his best of the season.

Sally Gunnell, in the 400m hurdles, has the maturity, pedigree and form to win the only title that has eluded her, although expecting her to improve on the world record she set in Stuttgart last year is unreasonable unless Olga Nazarova suddenly finds late race speed to challenge her. That blip in Nice when beaten by Kim Batten has been smoothed out.

However, Gunnell apart, searching for other potential winners from the British women's team is a troublesome task. The sprints are expected to be dominated by the Russian Irina Privalova, but at least in the 800m Diane Modahl may collect bronze if not silver behind the Olympic champion Ellen van Langen, while Kelly Holmes continues to show enormous resilience in the 1,500m. Unfortunately Holmes will be up against someone of even greater staying power in the 42-year-old Yekaterina Podkopayeva, who last week beat Sonia O'Sullivan. The Irish runner has looked jaded in recent races and may have reached her peak too early, but she remains favourite to score another victory over the only British female winner in Split, Yvonne Murray, in the 3,000m. Pointedly, Murray said yesterday that she was pleased to have avoided being sucked into too many races too soon.

Murray's great rival Liz McColgan is absent, leaving the 10,000m to be fought out by the German Uta Pippig and Yelena Romanova, of Russia. Whether Jacqui Agyepong can get a 100m hurdles medal depends on how much she is holding back for the Commonwealth Games.

Obviously the bulk of the field events will go to the eastern Europeans and Germany, with a possible world record in the triple jump for Inna Lasovskaya, and Heike Drechsler is, of course, as much a favourite to win the long jump as Gunnell is in her event.

Predictions of 20 medals for Britain, compared with 18 in Split four years ago, seem unrealistic. Malcolm Arnold, the team coach, said yesterday: 'We would like to do better than ever before but you have to remember that these championships come in the middle of a very busy season. This isn't the best way to prepare.'

His predecessor, Frank Dick, was the one who talked of 20 medals but Arnold says that he feels that Germany, who kept Britain in second place in the men and women's sections of the recent European Cup, have finally brought West and East together and could win unexpected medals. That was exactly what British athletes had to do in the European Cup and are now being asked to do the same again. The demands are never ending.

(Photograph omitted)