Athletics: Leading role for British men

European Cup defence on course as Whiteman, Challenger and Morgan shine
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The Independent Online
DEFENCE is something the people of this city know all about, having withstood invading German forces for 900 days and nights during the Second World War.

Britain's male athletes, here to defend the European Cup they won in Munich last year, fortified themselves with a performance which gives them a lead going into today's conclusive programme. A lead - and a reasonable chance of success. With points given for a win down to one point for last, this event al-ways has and always will be a rollercoaster in terms of emotions. The British men's first-day total of 53 points was ten better than the statistical experts had predicted.

Yet with Linford Christie, 13 times an individual winner in this event, retired and athletes such as Steve Backley, Nick Buckfield and Steve Smith dropping out late, this was the most inexperienced European Cup team Britain has ever fielded.

The sprint relay team, and Mark Richardson in the 400 met-res, provided expected victories, but this is a competition which often turns on unexpected achievements and that came for Britain through Anthony Whiteman in the 3,000 metres, 20-year-old Ben Challenger in the high jump and 19-year- old Nathan Morgan in the long jump.

Britain's 53 points puts them six points clear of the hosts, Russia, with Germany a further 2.5 points behind, and it looks as if they will at the very least sec-ure one of the top two places and so qualify for the four-yearly World Cup to be held in South Africa next month.

If the statisticians were to be believed, avoiding relegation was the main target for Britain's women as they faced up to their first European Cup in many years without the presence of their long-standing captain Sally Gunnell, who - like Christie - retired last year.

Buoyed up by an overwhelming 5,000 metres victory from Paula Radcliffe and unexpected bonuses such as that provided by Connie Henry in the triple jump - replacing the injured world record holder Ashia Hansen, she finished fourth in a personal best of 13.95m - the team went into the last event of the day in third place. But a calamitous mistake in the sprint relay dropped the team down to sixth, just one place above the relegation zone.

It was a day of fluctuating emotion for Nathan Morgan, the man who is being looked on as the long jumper most likely to break Lyn Davies's 30- year-old British record of 8.23m. The European junior champion fell foul of administrative incompetence as his first effort failed to be recorded properly. He disputed the distance of 7.57m ascribed to him, arguing his case with the judges. "I said to them there's no way it was 7.57. I was much closer to eight metres. At the end of the first round they had a distance recorded of 7.85, but they didn't know who had done it. I said to them 'That was me. Either give me my 7.85 or let me have another jump.'"

The judges allowed Morgan an extra jump, and with his fifth effort of the day - one more than was scheduled - he recorded a personal best of 7.93m. However, after a protest from the Italians, his last jump was invalidated, but he was correctly credited with his opening leap of 7.85 and so held on to fourth place behind Kirill Sos-unov of Russia, who jumped 8.38, and Milan Kovar of the Czech Republic, who recorded 8.14.

Whether Morgan will be all-owed to keep 7.93 as his official PB is uncertain, but he was rightly pleased with his efforts in what was his first senior international. "When they showed me the list of personal bests my opponents had jumped, I was last," he said. "So to have done what I have is very promising. I am over the moon, actually."

Morgan's exuberance was matched by his friend Challenger, whose dreadlock bunches made him a conspicuous competitor in the high jump arena. The European junior silver medallist, a late replacement for Britain's Olympic bronze medallist Smith, equalled his personal best of 2.28m to take an unexpected second place behind Sergey Kliugin, who also recorded 2.28 but won on countback.

Whiteman appeared to be dropping out of contention in the 3,000, failing to stay with the leading group. But in the last two laps he accelerated and eventually finished third in 7min 43.61sec, a personal best by 14 seconds. "It may have looked as if I was out of it but I was running to my plan," Whiteman said. "I went off too fast in this event last year and I didn't want to make the same mistake."

Colin Jackson's selection for the 100 metres, rather than any of the young talents in Britain's sprint relay squad, aroused controversy which will not have been quelled by yesterday's events. Jackson, who is expected to win his specialist event, the 110m hurdles, today, was third behind the French winner Stephane Cali, recording 10.41sec. It was a perfectly respectable performance from the Welshman, but the statistics from an early 100m B race made uncomfortable reading. Jason Gardener won in 10.32, just 0.01sec off Cali's time, with fellow Britons Darren Campbell and Dwain Chambers second and third respectively in 10.37 and 10.41. "I was selected to run, and that was all I could do," Jackson said. "If those guys had been running quicker beforehand they would have been chosen."

Radcliffe, who won in 15min 06.87sec, has been on a double dose of treatment for her asthma. She will decide today whether to go for the 1500m.