Athletics: Jackson heads pursuit of gold

British athletes aim to keep up good work in World Indoor Championships in Maebashi.
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LAST YEAR'S medal-rich performances by British athletes provided the domestic sport with all the right kinds of publicity after the trauma of the British Athletic Federation's financial collapse.

This year and next, when the major championships are all global, gold will take more diligent prospecting - a fact which Max Jones, performance director of UK Athletics, knows only too well.

His comments on the eve of the International Amateur Athletic Federation World Indoor Championships, which start in Maebashi, Japan, tomorrow are cautious.

"The 1998 season was, for Great Britain, a year of superlatives, and it will be a difficult act to follow," he said. "The team selected is a good balance between the experienced, established athlete and the inexperienced, emerging athlete. The World Indoor Championships cannot be used as a benchmark for the sport, but rather as a stepping-stone for individual athletes."

Even on that basis, however, there are a number of British athletes ready to step forward with confidence at an event which has attracted a record entry of 717 competitors, representing 123 countries from five continents.

The strongest hopes of gold medals for Britain reside in Colin Jackson, Ashia Hansen and Jamie Baulch in the 60m hurdles, triple jump and 400m respectively.

Other than the Olympic title, the World Indoor Championship is the only other major event Jackson has not won in a 14-year international career.

Six years ago in Toronto, Jackson was deprived of victory after his friend and training partner Mark McKoy took advantage of a flying start, which even he admitted had been blatant, to add a world indoor title to the Olympic gold he had won the previous year.

Two years ago in Paris, Jackson was beaten on the dip by a 21-year-old Cuban hurdler, Anier Garcia, who will seek to defend his title this week. This time around, the 32-year-old Welshman is hoping that fortune will be kinder to him.

Hansen, who set the world indoor record of 15.16m at last year's European Indoor Championships, has returned to something approaching that form this year after a season which was undermined by injury.

Baulch, unbeaten in four 400m races on the indoor circuit, has gained in experience since he was beaten into second place at the last World Indoor Championships. His season's best of 45.60sec offers hope of victory in Japan, where his rivals include reigning champion Sunday Bada of Nigeria, who defeated Baulch two years ago, the rising Spanish talent David Canal, who ran 46.00sec virtually by himself at the recent national championships, and Tomas Czubak of Poland.

There are also golden possibilities in the 400m relay event, where Baulch will be joined by a team that includes the highly talented but unpredictable Solomon Wariso and the former double European indoor champion, Du'Aine Ladejo, now concentrating mainly on the decathlon. Ladejo's experience could also see him make an impact in the individual event.

At the 1997 World Indoor Championships in Paris, Britain came away with three silver medals; two years earlier in Barcelona the pickings were even thinner - a silver and a bronze. But a talented team which, as Jones points out, combines youth and experience, offers a clear prospect of a better return from this event than has been gained in recent years.

For three 21-year-old athletes - Ross Baillie, the 60m hurdler who trains with Jackson, Eddie King, a convincing winner of the AAA indoor 1500m title, and Shani Anderson, who took the 200m title at the same event - Maebashi offers the opportunity for a breakthrough.

At the other end of the age scale John Regis - written off by many after two years of indifferent form - is intent on showing that there is life in his legs yet. The 32-year-old, who earned a Commonwealth bronze at the end of last season, won last month's Bupa grand prix 200m at Birmingham in 20.50, a time which puts him in the medal frame.

Regis will face another 32-year-old in Frankie Fredericks, the man who ran him into second place over 200m at the 1993 outdoor World Championships.

The shorter sprint features Maurice Greene, who looked ready to improve upon the world record of 6.39sec he set in Madrid last year when he ran 6.40 in the semi-finals of last weekend's US indoor championships. But the man from Kansas City slightly injured his hamstring in the process and could only manage second place in the final, clocking 6.49sec to Tim Harden's 6.44.

Jason Gardener, with a best of 6.52sec this season, will be hoping to get among the medals for Britain.

While many athletes still regard indoor competition as little more than winter training, the potential rewards offered by this championship have attracted many well-known names apart from Greene and Fredericks to Japan this weekend.

Haile Gebrselassie, Gail Devers and Wilson Kipketer are among the Olympic or world champions scheduled to appear at an event where winners stand to earn $50,000 (pounds 31,000), with a further $50,000 on offer for a world record. Silver is worth $20,000, and bronze $10,000.

Janine Whitlock, who set her 29th British pole vault record - 4.29m - in the Bupa grand prix last month, needs to find 10 more centimetres to be in with a realistic medal chance.

Disappointingly, John Mayock, who elbowed aside the challenge of three Spaniards on their home territory to win last year's European indoor 3,000m title, has had to withdraw from the championships because of injury.

Steve Smith, back to top competition for the first time since seriously injuring his neck in a freak training accident last July, has done remarkably well to return to this level of competition so swiftly.

Britain's team captain, who feared in the aftermath of his accident that he might never walk again, will face a familiar opponent in Cuba's Javier Sotomayor, the world record holder, who is seeking his third world indoor title.

Sotomayor's team-mate Ivan Pedroso has an even better record in this event - he will be seeking his fourth gold medal.

ASHIA HANSEN

Back to the kind of form which brought her the world indoor triple jump record of 15.16 metres last year after a summer season marred by injury. Her 1999 best of 14.81 puts her within range of that record, but opponents such as Sarka Kasparkova of the Czech Republic will punish her for any inconsistency.

COLIN JACKSON

Other than the Olympics, this is the only title in a 14-year international career he has yet to win. With confidence restored by two good years of competition which saw him win world silver and European gold, the 32-year-old Welshman is ready to run close to his own 60m hurdles world record of 7.30sec.

WILSON KIPKETER

The naturalised Dane, who broke the 800m world record twice at the last World Indoor Championships and went on to lower Seb Coe's outdoor mark, caught malaria last year while in his native Kenya. Despite that, he ran 1min 43.18sec for the distance on his return, although he later finished last in the Commonwealth Games final. How fit is he now?

HAILE GEBRSELASSIE

The Ethiopian, who set his 15th world record in the 5,000m at Birmingham's national indoor arena last month, has his sights on number 16 in Maebashi - the 3,000m mark of 7min 24.90sec set by his Kenyan rival Daniel Komen in Budapest last February. Gebrselassie has already run the distance in 7.26.80 this season in his indoor debut at Karlsruhe.

EMMA GEORGE

The blonde Australian raised her world pole vault record to 4.60m in Sydney last month, but she is competing in a relatively new event which is generating widespread competition. At the last World Indoor Championships, she was beaten by Stacy Dragila of the United States. This time there is another outstanding US challenger in Melissa Mueller.

FRANKIE FREDERICKS

The 32-year-old Namibian, who has won nine major outdoor sprinting medals including four Olympic silvers, has only entered the World Indoor Championships once before, taking silver in the 200m six years ago. He arrives with no indoor background, but recorded outdoor times of 9.94sec (100m) and 19.92sec (200) in Australia last month.

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