Athletics: London Marathon on security alert

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Organisers of Sunday's Flora London Marathon yesterday promised high levels of vigilance after the IRA's disruption of the Grand National. But Nick Bitel, the event's chief executive, accepted the race was vulnerable to terrorist intervention given the numbers of people involved.

"We take the safety and security of runners and spectators extremely seriously," Bitel said. "We are not going to discuss specific security arrangements for the event. But having an event that is held on public roads over 26.2 miles does mean that you cannot absolutely secure the whole of the course.

"All you can do is take security measures to an appropriate level, and that is what we are doing. We must not forget that some pounds 11m will be raised next Sunday for charities around the world. It would be a criminal disgrace for anybody to target it. It must be a possibility, however, in the light of what has just happened at Aintree.

"Since the cancellation of the IRA ceasefire we have taken as many security measures as we consider necessary and worked closely in conjunction with the police and other agencies to ensure the security of the event.

"We have never believed - I suspect like the National - that we might be a target, but we realise we run through what must be areas of concern to the police. You just have to think of some of the landmarks we run past." Among these, of course, will be Docklands, the target of an IRA bomb of last year.

Next Sunday will present police and transport authorities in the capital with a nightmarish challenge. Apart from the London Marathon, which is expected to attract a record number of 28,000 competitors and up to half a million spectators, there will also be the FA Cup semi-final between Wimbledon and Chelsea at Highbury, which will kick off at 12.00.

Bitel confirmed that the Football Association did not consult the Marathon organisers before fixing the time of the match. "No doubt football fans would have preferred not to travel across London at the same time as half a million people were stuck on the course," he said.

To add to the complexity of Sunday, an Asian arts festival in Southall is expected to draw around 100,000 people, many of whom will be arriving in London on the day.

Meanwhile the marathon has lost one of the main British competitors in the men's race, Peter Whitehead. The Leeds runner, fourth in the 1995 World Championships, dropped out on Monday after suffering a back injury during a training run.

Yakov Tolstikov, the Russian who won the event in 1991 and was the fourth fastest entrant this year, has also dropped out, having chosen to run the Paris Marathon instead.

The favourite for the men's race, according to William Hill yesterday, was the Mexican Antonio Pinto, at 7-4, followed by Britain's Paul Evans at 5-2. Evans was also 7-4 on favourite to finish the top Briton, ahead of Richard Nerurkar, Gary Staines and the 1993 winner, Eamonn Martin.