Athletics: Johnson hears call of the wild

Simon Turnbull contends Britain may lead the changing of the guard in Athens
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The Independent Online
Atlanta was all about recognition for Michael Johnson. Athens, or the lead up to it at least, has been all about accreditation for the man with the golden shoes. The star of the Olympic show 12 months ago has been obliged to bum a ticket for this year's global track and field gala, the sixth World Championships, which open in the Athenian Olympic Stadium on Friday.

The last-minute wild-card move by Primo Nebiolo, the dictatorial president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, to contrive the appearance of Johnson would stand out as a Greek tragedy had such insidious improvisation of the rule book not been instrumental in Johnson's Olympic tour de force. The Texan only struck gold in the 200m and the 400m in Atlanta because Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, altered the track schedule to allow him to contest both events. And Johnson will only be in Athens because Nebiolo pushed through a motion two weeks ago to allow reigning world champions to defend their titles.

The motivating force in both cases was the same one that ensured the modern Olympics celebrated its centenary closer to Athens, Georgia, than Athens, Greece, last July. To US television Michael Johnson is not just the star of track and field; he is track and field. Thus the Superman of Atlanta, a hamstrung absentee from the US trials and fifth on his return over 400m in Paris last month, gets the chance to rediscover his cloak of invincibility and reclaim his one-lap crown.

It ranks as a slap in the face to all who have trodden the well-defined ladder that leads to the top of the athletics tree: right from those Britons who never made it to the first rung, the English schools' championships, because they happened to be flu-ridden on county championship day and failed to finish in the first two or achieve the qualifying standard. The law of sod is an integral part of athletic life, but there are those who are able to sod the law.

Not that such manipulation is anything new. It was in the world championships that the long jump was rigged to provide a bronze medal on home sand for Giovanni Evangelisti in Rome in 1987. The emergency issue of wild- cards was first mooted the following year, when Samaranch provoked outrage by inviting Sebastian Coe to compete in the Seoul Olympics after he failed to qualify for the British team. What the overlords overlook, in their short-sighted concern for the high-profile projection of their showpiece, is the natural law of athletic evolution. Each turn of the year inevitably brings with it a new sprinkling of stars to dazzle the watching world.

Wilson Kipketer and Daniel Komen are not exactly new to the track and field firmament, Kipketer having won the 800m world title in Gothenburg two years ago and Komen having smashed the 3,000m and two-mile world records last summer, but neither was able to sparkle on the Olympic stage in 1996 because of rules that did not bend. The Kenyan Government refused to grant Kipketer permission to compete for his adopted country, Denmark, while fourth place in the national 5,000m trial was one short of that required for Komen to make Kenya's team.

Twelve months on, they go to Athens with a golden glow, Kipketer having equalled Coe's 16-year-old 800m world record, 1min 41.73sec, in Stockholm three weeks ago and Komen having achieved a back-to-back "Bannister" with his sub-eight-minute two-mile run - 7min 58.61sec - in the Belgian town of Hechtel eight days ago.

Kipketer starts clear favourite for the 800m, Komen likewise for the 5,000m, and there is a fair possibility that every men's track event from 100m up to 10,000m will witness a changing of the global guard from Atlanta. Hicham El Guerrouj - not Noureddine Morceli - is the man to beat in the 1,500m and Haile Gebrselassie has chosen to prepare for his 5,000m clash with Komen in Zurich on 13 August rather than contest the 10,000m. That leaves the three sprint events, in which the intrigue carried into this season from Atlanta - the precise identity of the world's fastest man - could be resolved by the third man.

Ato Boldon, the 23-year-old Trinidadian who was third in the 1995 world championship 100m final and third in the 100m and 200m in Atlanta, is the fast man in form. In Stuttgart two weeks ago he recorded the fastest same-day sprint double - 9.90sec and 19.77sec - and has promised "some outrageous times" in Athens. Having mastered the art of major championship peaking in Gothenburg two years ago and again in Atlanta, Donovan Bailey will be hard to beat in the 100m, even though his recent form has been affected by a hamstring problem and a virus.

Johnson misses the 200m to concentrate on the threat posed to his 400m crown by Iwan Thomas. Having eclipsed Roger Black's British record in Birmingham two weeks ago, Thomas seems certain to claim the European record Thomas Schonlebe set 10 years ago, 44.33sec, as the last non-American winner of a global outdoor men's 400m title. If Johnson has not regained his superhuman powers, Thomas could well apply the Midas touch that eluded the British track and field team last summer.

For Britain, Atlanta was all about silver linings. With Thomas, Kelly Holmes and the men's 4 x 400m squad - not to mention Jonathan Edwards, Denise Lewis, Steve Backley and Ashia Hansen - Athens is beckoning with a glint of golden promise.