Athletics: McColgan down again but not out: Norman Fox reports on the protracted fight for fitness that faces a former champion

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LIZ McCOLGAN, the former world 10,000 metres champion, has an anniversary today. Not one to celebrate. A year ago she ran her last major event, an Aberdeen five-kilometre road race which is being held again today and should have seen her return to top-class competition in defiance of advice to stop running altogether. Her withdrawal with yet another injury, this time to her foot, has not only revived concern about her ability to compete for Britain in a busy year but cost the sport an early-season chance to balance a lot of bad publicity with a fascinating head-to-head between Scotland's finest women distance runners.

Athletics administration in Britain lost a lot of credibility following allegations that Andy Norman, the former British Athletic Federation's promotions officer, had made comments that may have been a contributory factor in the suicide of Cliff Temple, the Sunday Times athletics correspondent. Then there was the resignation of Frank Dick, the Director of Coaching, who was unhappy about his contract. The latest news that the Amateur Athletics Association was considering inviting both of them to next month's championships in Sheffield opened up a wound that the BAF thought was beginning to heal.

McColgan is among the leading British athletes who, this season, have the task of not only looking after their own interests but showing that the sport can prosper without its Mr Big. She said yesterday that the inflammation of her foot was of no great consequence, but it comes after she has resumed the arduous programme of training that led some coaches to believe that her previous back, hamstring and knee injuries were the result of putting too much stress on a frail body. The Aberdeen race should have put her up against Yvonne Murray, her long-time and sometimes bitter Scottish rival, Sonia O'Sullivan, of Ireland, and Zola Pieterse, the former 5,000m world record holder.

Merely considering running emphasised McColgan's tough determination. She will be 30 on Tuesday and the latest injury has brought more suggestions that retirement is imminent. However, her outlook over the past 12 months of frustration has always been: 'If I'm going to quit, it's going to be my decision, not the surgeons'.' After winning a comparatively minor 10km race two months ago and following a few weeks training in Florida, she was convinced that her career could continue at the highest level.

The secret of her recovery from knee problems, which have required two operations, has been treatment by Frank O'Mara, an American-based Irish physiotherapist, who is probably better known in Britain as a former world indoor 3,000m champion and a pretty formidable athlete in his own right. O'Mara allowed McColgan to resume her punishing training programme of up to 100 miles a week which, earlier in her career, was suggested by some coaches to be the reason she suffered so badly from leg injuries. She has always denied that the problems had anything to do with her training schedule and said that her disappointing run in last year's London Marathon was the result of being above eight stone for only the second time in her competitive life (the first was when she was pregnant).

Providing she makes a quick recovery from the latest injury, she will compete in most of the top events this season, including the European Championships in Helsinki, but her priority is to defend her 10,000m Commonwealth Games title in Canada in August. Peter, her husband and coach, says he has been telling her to take up the same training programme that led to her winning the world 10,000m title in Tokyo in 1991 and treat the past year as an enforced 'rest' that perhaps could see her return even stronger.

Not that the year's absence has been all bad. In a survey of the highest paid women in Britain, McColgan was listed as 52nd, equal with Sally Gunnell, with an income of something in the region of pounds 250,000.

In last year's Aberdeen race Murray inflicted a substantial 11-second defeat on McColgan who was later critical of Murray's alleged intimidation by running too close to her. There was talk of retaliation ('I've got elbows too') but threats came to nothing when McColgan suffered her serious knee injury which led her to a late and much-criticised withdrawal from the World Championships in Stuttgart.

This year, with McColgan out, Murray is still unlikely to have an easy race. Pieterse is ahead of her in competitive fitness since only last week she won the South African 10,000m in 34min 57.1sec, a fair warning as it was the first time she had run the distance.

The favourite for the men's race is Ismael Kirui, the Kenyan world 5,000m champion, with Rob Denmark likely to be the leading Briton.

(Photograph omitted)