Athletics: Jones in the long shadow of May

Simon Turnbull meets the athlete born in Derby and reborn in Italy; Countdown to Seville: Superwoman's game of monopoly is undermined by daunting schedule
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The Independent Online
NOT SINCE the buccaneering prime of Captain Henry Morgan has one person threatened to plunder so much Spanish gold. If all goes to plan for Marion Jones over nine hectic days in Seville's Cartuja Stadium she will leave Andalucia on Monday week with four World Championship gold medals in her Nike kitbag.

"People keep telling me it would be wonderful to come away with three golds," she said after completing her competitive preparations with a 200m win in Zurich on Wednesday night, "but I will be disappointed if I come back with anything less than four."

The world is wondering just who can stop the supposed Superwoman of track and field. A mere mortal who was born in Slough, raised in Derby and educated at Leeds University could well provide the kryptonite. "I'm certainly not afraid of Marion Jones," Fiona May said. And she has no great reason to be. In the long jump world rankings for 1999 May stands above Jones, albeit only just - with a season's best of 7.02m, against the American's 7.01m. (Maurren Maggi stands above them both with 7.26m, though that quantum leap was achieved with the considerable assistance of high altitude at Bogota; the Brazilian's sea-level best, 6.79m, is a more accurate indication of her form).

May also has a major championship long jump medal collection: world gold and bronze, Olympic silver, European silver and bronze plus world and European indoor golds. Jones has yet to start one.

"It's one thing doing a one-off long jump competition at a regular track meeting," May pondered, "but it's completely different at a championship. You have to be more focused. You have to be better prepared. And you have to do a qualifying round, just three jumps. Then you've got six jumps in the final and you have to do all six at 100 per cent, because if you don't then you're going to be eaten.

"Marion Jones is not used to all that. She did the World Championships two years ago and she came 10th. So she can talk all she wants, and she can jump as far as she wants in a one-off meet. It's the major championships that count.

"When she jumped that 7.01m in June she didn't land too well and injured her knee. It just shows that in the long jump it's not that easy. Everyone thinks she just has to run down and take off. It's not like that at all. It's going to be tough for her if she wants to win four medals in Seville. Good luck to her. But she's going to find it hard."

She is, indeed. The schedule alone is daunting, with the long jump qualifying round starting 15 minutes before the first- round 100m heats on the opening morning on Saturday. And, assuming she gets through to both finals, Jones will have four rounds of the 100m in her legs when she jumps for gold on the Monday. She will also have to overcome seeds of doubt, however deep she may have pushed them.

Of the three individual events the golden girl from Thousand Oaks, California, intends to contest in Seville, in addition to the 4 x 400m relay, the long jump is the one in which she has been beatable this season. Undefeated at 100m (apart from one disqualification for two false starts) since September 1997, when she finished runner-up to Merlene Ottey, and unbeaten over 200m since her college days five years ago, she has lost twice as a long jumper in 1999.

She was beaten by Dawn Burrell, sister of the former 100m world record holder Leroy Burrell, in the United States championships in June and looked none-too-impressive when second to Heike Drechsler in Linz last month. Drechsler struck gold in the long jump at the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki in 1983, and again in Stuttgart six years ago, and May considers the 34-year-old German to be a greater threat than the 23-year-old Jones.

"Heike also beat Marion at the World Cup in Johannesburg last year," May pointed out. "She's an experienced competitor and a formidable one too. I jumped 7.11m in the European Championships last year, my best ever, and it still wasn't good enough to beat her. So it's not all about Marion Jones in the long jump. There's Eunice Barber of France too. She's jumped 7.01m this year. It's going to be one of the big events. I just want to go there, do my best and try to regain the world title."

If May does claim Jones' scalp and finishes on top of the world again, as she did in Gothenburg in 1995, she will not, unfortunately, be waving a Union Flag in celebration. A world junior champion for Britain in 1988, her final appearance in a Great Britain vest was as a great underachiever, failing to qualify for the World Championship final in Stuttgart in 1993. Offered pounds 500 by the British Athletic Federation when she asked for support, she accepted an offer of marriage instead and moved to Florence as the wife of Gianni Iapichino, holder of the Italian pole vault record.

The Italian athletics federation, the Federazione Italiana di Atletica Leggera, installed her in the national training camp in Formia and turned her into a world-beating member of the track and field azzurri. They gave her some financial support too. Her salary, as captain of the Italian women's team, is pounds 70,000. "I'm very lucky that the Italians have accepted me," May said. "When I compete as an Italian it's very important to me. I worked hard to learn the language, the culture, everything. Now I think in Italian, dream in Italian, even swear in Italian.

"I was afraid the other athletes might be against me, particularly the long jumpers. But they were all very good. They helped me settle in. I knew I was accepted when they grabbed hold of me at the European Cup in 1994 and put salt and vinegar in my hair. It's an initiation ritual for new internationals."

Twenty-four years a Briton and five an Italian, May now carries the taste of her adopted homeland wherever she goes. "I take my parmesan and my pasta with me," she said, "and I have a portable espresso maker." She also takes with her the good wishes of her new compatriots, who smother her with kisses whenever she ventures into Florentine shops and who have christened her - affectionately, if uncorrectly in the political sense - La Pantera Nera, The Black Panther.

"These five years in Italy have really toughened me up as an athlete," she said. "I'm positive in everything I do now, which wasn't the case before." With the triple jump on her personal schedule in Seville as well as the long jump, the Derby panther could even pounce twice and claim two Spanish golds - which is about as much as her old country can hope for, if not Marion Jones.

KEEPING UP WITH JONES

Saturday, 21 August 9.30am: Long jump qualifying. 9.45: 100m first round. 5.55pm: 100m second round.

Sunday 6.15pm: 100m semis. 8.00: 100m final.

Monday 7.05pm: Long jump final.

Tuesday 9.45am: 200m first round. 5:35pm: 200m second round.

Wednesday 6.30pm: 200m semi-finals.

Thursday Day off.

Friday 6.45pm: 200m final.

Saturday 28 August 7.20pm: 4 x 400m relay first round.

Sunday 7.50pm: 4 x 400m relay final.

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