Athletics: Lewis travelling in discomfort: Mike Rowbottom on the form and views of a great Olympic athlete

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THEY lengthened the long jump runway for Carl Lewis on Friday night. It was hardly worth it.

At a meeting where several United States competitors were made to feel uncomfortable by home athletes, Lewis was in danger of becoming the most uncomfortable of all as he struggled to produce form in the only event he will be contesting at this year's Olympic Games.

Admittedly, taking on the best that Britain and Sierra Leone could offer on a blustery evening in Gateshead was not likely to inspire the medal-laden mega-star to the heights, or rather the lengths, he has attained with unparallelled consistency over the past 10 years.

But until the Olympic champion jumped 8.23m on his fourth effort, Mark Forsythe, of Haringey, whose first-round leap had established a four-centimetre lead, appeared set for the most startling victory of his career.

That would surely have left even the loquacious Lewis lost for words. As it was, he felt able to look ahead to the Barcelona Games which begin next Saturday with some equanimity.

'I was sluggish tonight, but at this point I am still recovering from the sinus infection I had during the trials,' he said. 'I was nowhere near 100 per cent then, and I was able to jump 8.50 something, so I think I can jump a lot better. I feel physically that I will be in the best condition I've been in all year for the Games. That's the way things are pointing now.'

Even so, he was not to be drawn on the possibility that Barcelona might witness the first long jump of more than nine metres from either himself or the man who beat him at last year's world championships, his fellow American Mike Powell.

'A lot of people are talking about nine metres, but you can't say what distance you are going to jump at any particular time. There are so many variables. Just like in the trials - everyone was talking about 30ft jumps, but I was under the weather and Mike was under the weather a bit. We'll just have to wait and see what happens.'

At least Lewis will be in a position to make things happen in the long jump; having failed to qualify for the 100 and 200 metres, he is in the galling position of having to watch his Santa Monica team- mate, Leroy Burrell, whom he beat in the world championship final in Tokyo last year, take up the challenge.

At the longer distance, there is no question that Michael Johnson, who won the US trials in 19.79sec, is the man most likely to take the gold medal. But Friday's meeting confirmed that the 100m looks like being between Burrell and Linford Christie, presently in the most consistent form of his life.

The British No 1, beaten only once this season over 100m, began the night by seeing off Mike Marsh, the American who heads this year's rankings with 9.93sec but will not contest the distance in Barcelona after finishing only fourth in the US Olympic trials.

Christie then went head to head over 200m with Burrell, who will run only in the shorter event at the Olympics, and finished neck and neck, with both men being credited with a time of 20.47sec.

It could be as close again if Christie and Burrell meet in the 100m in Barcelona, although Lewis does not think so.

'Leroy has to be the favourite. Last year he took the pressure off my back by being the No 1 sprinter so I was able to focus all summer long on what I had to do at the big meet,' Lewis said. 'And through all that Leroy still ran the best race of his life, so he has to be favourite. He's the only one who has broken 9.90. Other people have done well this year, but no one's run to that level so far.

'I know Mark Witherspoon's going to surprise a lot of people. I train with him every day so I can say that . . . and, of course, Linford has to be included as well.'

Indeed he does. Christie, despite his blithe assertion that he would simply tiptoe through the tulips from here on in, seemed quietly thrilled at having come away from two races against top US sprinters with a win and a draw.

He is hardly overflowing with warm feelings towards Burrell, with whom he has almost come to blows on the track in the past, but his respect for Lewis is patent. 'I think he is the best of all time,' Christie said. 'It's a shame he's not there. But in a way I'm relieved because he runs so like me' - he paused to make a telling adjustment - 'I mean I run so like him that it could be off-putting.'

However hard Christie may protest otherwise, Lewis's reduction to the role of frustrated spectator in Barcelona has cleared away the biggest obstacle to his ambition of emulating Allan Wells's 100m victory of 12 years ago at the Moscow Olympics.

(Photograph omitted)