Athletics: Great talents ready to run for their money

Mike Rowbottom, in Paris, expects some high class athletics at the world indoor championships which start tonight
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The Independent Online
Paris in the spring sounds an attractive enough proposition for most people, but for today's top international athlete a little more is required to make the visit worthwhile.

Two years ago, the charms of Barcelona proved insufficient to lure more than a handful of leading performers to the world indoor championships. That poor showing prompted the International Amateur Athletic Federation to perform a hasty salvage operation before this year's championships, which start in the French capital today.

Athletes who might have decided that getting absolutely right for the outdoor season was their priority on such an occasion now have the inducement of prize-money. Every individual winner stands to make $50,000 (pounds 31,500), while victorious relay teams share out $60,000. For more ambitious souls, the stakes were upped at the end of last month with the announcement that anyone breaking a world record would earn a further $50,000.

That prospect is likely to be of particular interest to Haile Gebrselassie, who may well surpass his own 3,000 metre mark of 7min 30.72sec given the strength of the field around him. The line-up is due to include the world 3,000m steeplechase champion, Moses Kiptanui, the 1992 Olympic 5,000m champion, Dieter Baumann, and Salah Hissou of Morocco, who indicated last season that he might yet provide a serious challenge to the Ethiopian's supremacy from 3,000-10,000m.

Others with more than a passing interest in the record bonus include Wilson Kipketer, the Kenyan-born 800m runner whose assumption of Danish nationality came too late to allow him to run in last summer's Olympics. He gained a measure of consolation soon afterwards by running the third fastest 800m ever - 1:41.83 - a mark only Joachim Cruz of Brazil and Britain's world record holder Seb Coe have bettered. That kind of ability means that the 1989 world indoor record of Paul Ereng, 1:44.84, is at risk.

Emma George, the Australian pole vaulter who has raised her outdoor world record twice in recent weeks, is another who looks capable of setting a new mark although she would only win half the standard record bonus because this is the first time the women's event has been included in a world championship.

World records are not a preoccupation for Britain's team, but medals of every hue are a realistic target. The main expectation of gold rests with Jamie Baulch, who has been invincible on the boards this season, lowering the 12-year-old British and Commonwealth 400m record to 45.39sec in the process. There are high hopes, too, for the high jump pair of Dalton Grant - European indoor champion in Paris three years ago and always capable of rising to the big occasion - and Steve Smith, the Olympic bronze medallist, for whom the same is true.

The prospects of a medal in the 60m for Jason Livingston, back in the British team after returning from a four-year doping ban, improved yesterday with the news that Ato Boldon, the double Olympic bronze medallist in the sprints, had been forced to drop his plans of running the shorter distance as well as the 200m because the schedule did not allow it. "It's great news for me," Livingston said. "I feel confident and I'm very proud to be back and running for Britain again."

Livingston was well beaten by Boldon in Birmingham two weeks ago, where he admitted that he was "scared to death" as he lined up in his blocks alongside the Trinidad & Tobago athlete. But Livingston was buoyant yesterday. "I'm a championship runner and when there is something like a gold medal on the line I'm planning to pull it out."

Boldon's mood contrasted sharply. "I feel cheated out of the chance to double up," he said. "The championships are over three days but instead of a sensible spread, I would have to run five races on the first day. All three rounds of the 60 are tomorrow and after the final I would have to go back and run the semi-final of the 200. Perhaps I should have done a Michael Johnson and told them to change it for me," he added, referring to the way the Olympic 200 and 400m champion arranged his challenge for a double in Atlanta last summer.

While the men's 400m looks like yielding a medal for Britain, the women's event could also prove profitable, although Phylis Smith will have to surpass herself to make the top three in an event likely to be dominated by the German runner Grit Breuer.

The British captain, Sally Gunnell, also runs the 400m, but her most realistic medal chance is likely to be in the relay. The men's 400 relay team also look capable of winning a medal, perhaps the title itself.

While Gunnell works towards a summer return to hurdling, Colin Jackson - like her, a world champion in 1993 - is seeking to rediscover his best form after winter training free of injury. As Baulch's coach, Jackson is likely to have something to celebrate in Paris even if he does not find top form. The withdrawal through injury of America's Olympic and world high hurdles champion, Allen Johnson, has clearly increased his chances, but Anier Garcia of Cuba has had the beating of the Welshman in recent races.

A change of heart by the selectors has provided Britain with another potential champion and likely medallist in Ashia Hansen. The Birmingham- based athlete, who has twice beaten the current world No 1 triple-jumper this season, was left out of the team for missing the trials. But she was allowed back in on appeal after claiming she had not received official notice of her obligation.