Athletics: Gold at last for the golden girl

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The Independent Online
THE BANNER hanging from the rim of the Nepstadion said: "Denise - Golden Spice". And last night, after Olympic bronze and world silver, she was.

A steady run in the last of the heptathlon's seven events, the 800 metres, was all that was required to make the 25-year-old Wolverhampton athlete European champion. She produced it, running 2min 20.38sec to finish with a total of 6,559 points, 99 points clear of the silver medallist, Urzula Wlodarcyck and 149 clear of the Belarus athlete who had held the overnight lead, Olympic silver medallist Natalya Sazanovich.

Fittingly, the medal presentation party included Britain's former Olympic pentathlon champion of 1972, Mary Peters, and as they embraced, Lewis's smile was something to behold.

That smile had given the clue to the crucial point of the day a couple of hours earlier, when Lewis had watched her javelin land at 50.16m. As she turned, her face showed that she knew the gold medal was within reach. Earlier in the day, in the first of the three final events, she had achieved 6.59m in the long jump, just eight centimetres short of her best. It left her one point ahead of Sazanaovich, who recorded 6.50.

Her javelin throw, as she suspected, proved sufficient to win the discipline - the closest distance to hers was the 47.35 thrown by Germany's Sabine Braun, who had taken the world title ahead of Lewis last year and was seeking a third European title.

Thus Lewis approached the final event with a 121-point lead over the nearest challenger, Sazanovich - equivalent to eight and a half seconds. The Belarus athlete finished behind her, and although Wlodarczyk, with a personal best of 2.09.59 for the event which was eight seconds better than Lewis's, recorded 2.11.75, it was not enough to earn her better than silver.

Lewis has been an outstanding prospect since she came to prominence by taking the 1994 Commonwealth title ahead of the favourite, Judy Simpson, not to mention a pin-up since her photo-shoot last year clad in nothing but the scantiest of body stockings and a lot of red, white and blue paint. Not suprisingly, they found their way on to the pages of Britain's newspapers. Now her image will find its way there again, this time clad in a red, white and blue flag.

This victory vindicated her decision to seek coaching help from the Dutch head of multi-events, Charles van Commonee, last year after deciding that she needed one-on-one attention which her British coach Darryl Bunn, who has a training group, could not give her.

Lewis, whose prepartions this season have been hampered by an ankle injury, has spent much of the past year training in Amsterdam, while still liaising with Bunn. "Charles is like the captain of the ship",' she said, "and Darryl is the first mate." Last night the crew of the good ship Lewis captured their golden booty.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Richard Nerurkar, Britain's finest marathon runner of the past five years, who again entered a stadium at the end of a 26-mile championship race knowing that the chance of standing on the podium had gone half-an-hour before.

While Britain's sprinters appear unbeatable in Europe now, the distance runners always seem to encounter athletes from Mediterranean nations who are too strong in the final miles. Yesterday, it was three Italians who enjoyed a clean sweep of the medals, led by Stefano Baldini, who finished in 2hr 12min 01sec, and was so fresh from his stroll along the Danube that he was chatting and smiling as he signed autographs five minutes later. Spaniards filled places four, five and six, then another Italian, Giovanni Rugiero, was seventh, cruelly passing Nerurkar on the final lap of the track, as the Briton completed the course in 2:14:02. Britain's other runners, Dave Buzza (28th, 2:19:58) and Mark Hudspith (30th, 2:19:58), had an even harder time of things.

The frustration for Nerurkar was evident afterwards, when he tried to put a brave face on what is, for him, by now a familiar story. In Helsinki, at the last European Championships four years ago, he finished fourth behind a trio of Spaniards; a year later, at the World Championships, he was seventh; at the Atlanta Olympics, fifth.

"I'm just very disappointed that I was wasn't good enough to be European champion," Nerurkar said. To appreciate his disappointment, one needs to grasp the commitment he has shown to this one race, turning. his back on the the big-money marathons of the spring - and anything upwards of $100,000 in prize and appearance money.