Athletics: Gunnell looking good

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The Independent Online
Sally Gunnell's hopes of overcoming the injuries that cost her the chance to retain her Olympic 400 metres hurdles title last summer were greatly enhanced at yesterday's world indoor championship trials in Birmingham when in a 400 metres defeat by Phylis Smith she ran painlessly and confidently.

Every time she runs competitively, Gunnell lives with the shadow of past injuries, not least the one that saw her wheeled away in Atlanta. She says the most difficult time of all was the week in which, as British team captain, she felt she had to remain at the games before coming home for treatment and a long period of doubt about making another comeback. She opted for one last try in this world championship year. Her gentle 52.32sec for 400m in Stuttgart last weekend told her she was competitive but not yet in the frame for gold medals indoors or out nor quick enough to put the suspect tendons under real strain.

Gunnell has taken to using football manager talk. "I have to take each race as it comes." What she means is that in every race she is fully aware that her achilles tendon could squeal in protest or shout "no more".

She again put no pressure on herself in the heats yesterday but looked strong, finishing in 54sec. In the final it was obvious that she had no intention of making an injury-threatening dash in pursuit of Smith who was always in control. Smith made a determined start and an equally gutsy finish that saw Gunnell clinging on in satisfying style.

Smith had a four-metre lead going into the last 200 metres and was never going to concede the gap to Gunnell. Smith had covered the first 200 in the quick time of 24.36sec which, at this stage of her recovery, was beyond Gunnell. Smith won in 51.85sec, the second-fastest time in the world this year with Gunnell recording a satisfying 52.35sec. Of British runners only Gunnell herself and Verona Elder had ever run the distance faster indoors.

The likelihood is that Gunnell will elect to run the flat 400m rather than the hurdles at this summer's world outdoor championships in Athens but yesterday she said: "There was no pain - like a good day's training. It gave me a hell of a lot of confidence, which I needed. I certainly didn't have any at the start of the year. Now I realise I can get back and get my head round the summer."

She was even slightly disappointed with her time. "I would like to have run faster. I know I can - it was all right but Phylis put up a brilliant time. It's nice to know that two of us can get to the final in Paris. She didn't half go - my indoor record is going to go for sure." Now she intends starting her normal hurdles training. "I'm dreaming of doing that in Athens but I'll soon know after some more training sessions. But if the injury can stand up to the boards like this I can see no problem."

Whether or not Linford Christie delays his often announced and frequently rescinded retirement from athletics at the highest level, his name never seems far away. While this week the sport has been fretting about the proposed demolition of the South's only important training centre, Crystal Palace, the business of turning boys into men who could one day establish Britain as a centre of world sprinting excellence has largely continued without the need to worry too much about such problems. It is thanks mainly to Christie that there are more fine young British sprinters than ever before, so his absence yesterday does not call his loyalty into question at a time when most top athletes are uniting in support of the sport domestically. Such potential champions as Darren Campbell, Ian Mackie, Darren Braithwaite and Jamie Baulch have been subsidised by Christie in their winter training.

Jason Livingston, yesterday's winner of the 60m in 6.56sec and another potential Christie successor, is struggling to win back public sympathy after his drugs ban but is slowly regaining confidence on the track. Following his victories in the recent AAA championships here, he had gone to Madrid where he lost to Braithwaite and finished only fifth, but yesterday he led at halfway and was never really challenged by Braithwaite who was carried out of the arena with a leg injury after finishing second. Colin Jackson, who is aiming for a 60m and hurdles double in Paris, finished third, but later ran 7.59sec to win the hurdles comfortably inside the world championship qualifying time. Significantly, while watching Livingston's victory, Gunnell repeated that she firmly believes that drugs bans should be for life.