Athletics: Hopes for fresh talent to bring Nebiolo's party to life: Mike Rowbottom on the aspirations and fears being focused on Stuttgart

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The Independent Online
THE anthem for last night's opening ceremony was Harmonia Mundi - the world in harmony. Given the stresses which fault this year's event in Stuttgart, there was a distinctly hopeful ring to the sentiment.

Even the opening ceremony has suffered fundamental disturbance. Earlier this week the organisers heard that, due to a split with her management group, Liza Minelli had cancelled all existing contracts and would thus not be getting the fourth world athletics show off to a showy start. On Tuesday, however, Minelli's replacement was announced - Chuck Berry.

The gaps in the athletics programme cannot be filled so satisfactorily. Some of the missing personnel are absent of their own volition, notably Noureddine Morceli, the 1500 metres world record-holder, and Yobes Ondieki, of Kenya, the world 10,000m record-holder. Their defiant actions have conveyed a chilling message to the International Amateur Athletic Federation, which has aroused widespread resentment among athletes for switching the World Championships from a four-yearly to a biennial event.

As the centrepiece of the IAAF president Primo Nebiolo's ever-expanding array of events, the World Championships, first held in Helsinki in 1983, were beginning to match the stature of the Olympics. Now he may have overplayed his hand in instituting two-yearly championships as part of a dollars 91m ( pounds 62m) television contract.

That particular piece of business enraged many athletes - and more particularly their agents. The idea that they should compete for nothing - other than a Mercedes car donated by Mercedes-Benz if they actually won their event - when that kind of money was being fed into their sport stuck in many throats, and there was talk of a boycott earlier this year.

Individual economics probably did as much as anything to prevent action of that kind being taken - if you do not show up at the season's biggest event, your personal sponsors are not going to be impressed. But the resentment - and the possibility that the championships may devalue themselves - remains. Ironically, expectation of financial reward has been stimulated by the money which is now to be won within the IAAF framework of events. And the rigours and temptations of that circuit have helped create a lot of tired and injured athletes.

The British have been particularly hard hit with a list of sick and injured which includes Liz McColgan, Roger Black, Peter Elliott, Jon Ridgeon, Eamonn Martin, Jill Hunter, Dave Lewis, Phylis Smith and David Grindley. Some of those still planning to compete, such as Steve Backley, do so doubtful of their ability to withstand the physical demands.

Are there any athletes left, then, who are not either alienated or crocked? Yes. Plenty. Such is the beauty of the sport. We wait to see if Linford Christie can complete his set of 100m titles, if Sally Gunnell needs to run at world-record pace to add to her Olympic 400m hurdles gold medal. If Sonia O'Sullivan, at 3,000m, can become the first Irishwoman to win a track gold medal. If Michael Johnson, Sergei Bubka and Colin Jackson can make up for their disappointments at last year's Olympic Games. And if there are any new athletes out there - Chinese, Korean, Algerian, Kenyan - who can help to make the next nine days memorable.