Athletics: Forewarned: Four with a point to prove in Athens

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The Independent Online
Jonathan Edwards

In Spite of all his successes in 1995 when he took triple jumping beyond the 60ft barrier and became world champion, Edwards' career failed to be crowned with the Olympic title in Atlanta last year, when he suffered his first defeat in 22 successive competitions. Losing to the American Kenny Harrison was made worse by the fact that Edwards was the only British athlete who started the Games as a favourite to win a gold medal. His inability to fulfil his greatest ambition was not so much the result of the injuries he suffered in the weeks before but of self-doubt. He had never quite understood why it was he had spent several years as a comparative outsider on the international circuit yet within a few months suddenly found himself leaping amazing distances. The thought that he could just as quickly lose what he considered a God-given talent probably contributed to his defeat at the Games. Now, after another injury, which forced him to miss the world championship trials in Birmingham (he got in to Athens on an IAAF wild card), he is back in form. Yet the 18 metre mark achieved two years ago is proving difficult to repeat and he knows that Harrison recently recorded 17.51.

Hicham El Guerrouj

last summer's Olympics left El Guerrouj believing that he still had something to prove on the most testing of stages. He was the man in form in the 1,500 metres in Atlanta but with just over a lap to go he stumbled and fell, leaving Noureddine Morceli an unexpectedly clear path to the gold medal. Even so, to go to the Games with such a high reputation after having arrived on the international scene only two years earlier was remarkable. After Atlanta he had some consolation when ending Morceli's awesome four-year unbeaten run over 1,500 metres in the Grand Prix final. Then, in February of this year he clipped 2.98sec off Morceli's world indoor 1,500m mark. This season he has clearly been determined to erase that Olympic memory as quickly as possible. He narrowly missed breaking Morceli's world mile record recently and he has had a succession of 1,500 metres victories in times bracketing the 3min 30sec mark. Even so Morceli, who thrives on the challenges offered by the big days at the big championships, again looks in ominously good form at the right moment, and it may be that El Guerrouj has been almost too competitive in his punishing run up to Athens.

Ivan Pedroso

Although he is the reigning world long jump champion, the Cuban still has plenty of reasons why he still feels unfulfilled. He is only 24, so he still has time to mount another Olympic challenge, but he should have been at his peak in Atlanta. Instead he was recovering from a knee operation, which gave the great Carl Lewis a chance to increase his own competitive longevity and take the title. Pedroso's disappointment was all the more understandable considering that he had been unbeaten in 26 competitions from 1995 to early in Olympic year. Eventually, he finished a disappointed 12th in Atlanta. This year he has consistently jumped in the region of 8.60 metres while suffering just one disruptive defeat at the hands of the Olympic silver medal winner, James Beckford. Apart from his Olympic frustrations (he missed the bronze by one place in 1992), he also feels the need to prove that he can again tackle Mike Powell's world record (8.95m). His leap of 8.96 in Sestriere in 1995 was disallowed, allegedly because an official was standing in front of a wind gauge. But for injuries, probably he would now be considered the most consistent long jump athlete of the post-Lewis era.

Sonia O'Sullivan

Quietly training in warmer places than home last winter, O'Sullivan had a lot of time to convince herself that the terrible disappointment of the Olympics, when she failed to finish in the 5,000 metres, really had not been her fault. A debilitating stomach problem left her so weak that she did well even to brave the start line. The knowledge that she now goes to Athens as the defending champion is hardly compensation, but to defend her title successfully would go a long way towards reminding her that she had travelled to Atlanta with high hopes. Up until the Olympics everything seemed to be going according to plan. She had been beaten only once in 1995 (by Kelly Holmes in her least-favoured event, the 1,500m) and seemed invincible over 3,000 and 5,000. In the months before Atlanta she looked similarly confident, winning six major races, but the illness denied her the opportunity to prove that she was indeed the best on the biggest day of all. So far this season her competitive running has not been totally convincing but, unlike last year, being out of the limelight could prove beneficial.