Athletics: Gunnell leads the charge to final spot: British teams mount fighting finishes to ensure place in World Cup at Crystal Palace

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S women athletes, resigned for so long to being overshadowed by their male counterparts, made their own bit of history here yesterday as they qualified for the first time to compete in the World Cup final.

The joy which lit Sally Gunnell's features as she anchored the 400 metres relay team to a concluding victory in the European Cup final perfectly expressed the overall feeling of satisfaction within the women's camp.

Having entered the second day with a narrow lead, they suffered some early misfortune - notably the withdrawal of their javelin thrower, Shelley Holroyd, with an asthma attack - before making certain of the second qualifying place with 97 points, one behind Germany and two ahead of Russia.

Britain's men, whose overnight tenure of second place looked by no means secure, responded to the women's success - responded, indeed, to one or two playful taunts - to ensure that they, too, would be present when the world comes to Crystal Palace in September. It would have been an embarrassingly thin celebration from a British point of view had their two depleted teams not surpassed themselves on this occasion.

The men, like the women, finished behind Germany, rounding off the afternoon with victories from their team captain, Linford Christie, over 200m, and their 400m relay team, anchored by Roger Black.

The women's charge to the line gathered pace as Katharine Merry and Kelly Holmes finished second at 200 and 1500m respectively before Jackie Agyepong produced the performance of her career to win the 100m hurdles in a personal best of 13.00sec into a 1.4 metres per second headwind.

It was an exhilarating way for the 25-year-old Haringey athlete to diminish the disappointment of her fall while leading in the national championships earlier this month; it was also a vindication of the decision to select her anyway. 'The women have always been in the shade of the men,' Agyepong said, 'but now we've shown what we can do.'

Both teams benefited from aberrations by the men's and women's title-holders, Russia, who finished third in both competitions. Rodion Gataullin, the only other 6m pole vaulter apart from Sergei Bubka, scored no points after no-heighting three times at 5.60.

And in the women's 400m relay - where the British could not afford to finish behind Russia - Vera Sychugova ran the entire second leg in her lane instead of breaking inside half-way through with the rest of the field. She thus transformed an apparent lead of around 10 metres into a similar deficit at the hand-over point as Britain's Tracey Goddard and the German runner made the most of the lapse.

Such was the spirit of the subsequent performances of Phylis Smith and Gunnell that the British might have prevailed anyway. But it was an inexplicable gift to the British from a 30-year-old who was part of Russia's winning team at last year's European Cup.

Gunnell put the experience alongside her victories at the Olympics and World Championships in terms of the satisfaction it brought. 'It was fantastic, seeing all the girls come running up afterwards, and seeing what it meant to them,' she said. 'We saw the standings on the board before the start, so we knew exactly what we had to do. I said to the girls 'We can win this'. I thought about sitting back and waiting, but the crowd was there and I told myself: this is it. Go out, keep your fingers crossed. And don't look back.

'I think this will mean British women getting a lot of good results at the European Championships and Commonwealth Games. It was a real boost today. I think you will see a whole different attitude now.'

Christie, who had won in the 100m and 100m relay the previous day, filled the 200m place vacated by the injured John Regis and won in 20.68sec. For him, the weekend's events bettered winning the European Cup in Gateshead five years ago.

'This time it was against all the odds because we had a weaker team. We weren't expecting to finish in the first two, and I'm sure the women weren't either. I'm proud of the youngsters who came in and dug deep. The women were brilliant, but there was no way they were going to qualify without us.'

Unlike the first day, there were no major disappointments for the British teams, although the size of the crowd - no more than 8,000 in a 14,000 capacity stadium - was less than expected.

Major potential contributors were missing - Matthew Yates at 1500m, Rob Denmark at 5,000m, Liz McColgan at 10,000m, Regis at 200m, Colin Jackson and Tony Jarrett in the high hurdles, Tom McKean and Curtis Robb at 800m, Yvonne Murray at 3,000m. But the chemistry of the team event worked again for the host country.

Diane Modahl's stirring 800m victory on Saturday was very nearly matched at 1500 by Holmes, who was narrowly ousprinted by the Russian Lyubov Kremlova. Craig Winrow, taking a cue from the third place earned by his friend Gary Lough in Saturday's 1500m, earned the same position with a bold run over 800m. Andy Tulloch ran close to his personal best for third place in the 110m hurdles.

'We exceeded all expectations,' Malcolm Arnold, the national coach, said. A relieved and happy man.

European Cup final results,

Sporting Digest, page 31

(Photograph omitted)

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