Athletics: New faces and a new dawn for Britain

European Cup athletic success erases the memories of a miserable year
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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S TEAM members strolled along the sun-lit Nevsky Prospect here yesterday without the appearance of a care in the world. They had earned their moment in the sun with their efforts of the weekend which had retained the men's European Cup for the first time in Britain's history and secured the women's place in the Super League of Europe.

After all the doubt and misery of the last eight months, which left many of these chatting sightseers owed substantial amounts of money following the financial collapse of the British Athletic Federation, the events here this weekend were especially sweet.

A team who included 18 debutantes in this event achieved their success despite widespread predictions that they would fail to match the performance of last year in Munich, when Linford Christie - in what was his last hoorah before retiring - accepted the trophy into British hands for the first time since he had been summarily chosen as captain to perform the same duty at Gateshead in 1989.

"It's like a phoenix rising from the flames," Max Jones, Britain's performance director, said. "This is the sort of success that attracts youngsters to the sport because they want to be involved in success. We would now like to carry on winning this competition and we are also aiming to win both the men's and women's event in the same year."

The next opportunities to achieve that ambition will come in Paris next year and, the year after that the place where Britain's European Cup fortunes first prospered spectacularly, Gateshead.

Jones, who is responsible for overseeing the direction of National Lottery funding to British athletics is convinced that this weekend's success has come as a result of the much-criticised system of becoming properly functional.

"It's great for the team and the sport," he said. "We are seeing an immediate effect of Lottery funding. In the last few months we have never had better support in terms of communication and finance."

His words appear to be borne out by the experience of some of the lesser known names, whose ability to rise to the occasion was identified by Britain's team captain Roger Black as one of the key factors in the success.

Nathan Morgan, for instance, the 19-year-old long jumper from Leicester who marked his debut with a highly creditable third place, has been able to give up full-time working for two years thanks to Lottery help - and, it should be said, assistance from the sport's unofficial patron, Eddie Kulukundis.

The 30 hours a week spent working in grocery stores have been a thing of the past and earlier this year Morgan, the man whom Jones identified as as the man most likely to break Lynn Davies' 30-year-old British record, benefited from a spell of warm weather training in Florida with his coach, Darryl Bunn.

This weekend is likely to stand as a landmark in the career of Morgan and other young talents such as his 20-year-old friend Ben Challenger, and the 21-year-old steeplechaser Ben Whitby,

However Britain's success has presented Jones and his fellow selectors with several potential problems. Now that Britain has qualified for the lucrative World cup event in Johannesburg on 11-13 September by finishing in the top two places here, there will be some awkward electoral judgements to be made when several experienced competitors who missed this competition through injury return to fitness - notably Steve Backley, the European javelin champion and Steve Smith, the Olympic high jump bronze medallist.

But this - in football managers' parlance - is a good problem to have. Where Jones may hit more difficult territory is the matter of encouraging athletes to compete in all the forthcoming events of a madly crowded fixture list. The World Cup starts on the same day as the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, and although the athletics does not begin there until the following week, it is likely to present a difficult choice for some athletes.

"Colin Jackson booked his flight to Johannesburg and on to Kuala Lumpur five months ago," Jones said. "But guys like Colin in the explosive sprint events are likely to suffer a lot less than the endurance athlete.

"This is a matter of great concern to us. We know it could be a problem but there will not be a three line whip where we will say `you must go to the World Cup'.

"Athletes will have different opinions of what is more important in their careers - the Commonwealth or the World Cup. But we will do all in our power to help those who want to combine the event. We are proposing to offer warm weather training for those athletes who need to acclimatise after competing at the European Championships in Budapest in August.

"We know that not everyone has allowed for the World Cup, so there is a compromise there. But I do not expect us to have a weakened team in Johannesburg."

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