Athletics: Stakes rising in game of wild cards

Mike Rowbottom, Athletics Correspondent, on a championships that offers British athletes a wealth of possibilities
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The Independent Online
In the city which first nurtured the Olympic flame, fire once again burned brightly this week. Under the glare of television lights, a dreadlocked model bearing the logo of a leading sports clothing brand limbo-danced under a bar which had been set alight.

It was a media spectacle which said much about the sixth World Championships, which get under way in the Olympic Stadium today. This, more than any before it, is an event which has to accommodate itself to commercial imperatives.

The controversial presence here of Michael Johnson, whose unique 200 and 400 metres double dominated last summer's Olympic Games, is a clear indication of the realpolitik of these biennial championships.

Once Johnson failed to qualify at the US trials because of injury, the International Amateur Athletic Federation stood to lose its most potent attraction for the American television networks.

Consequently the IAAF's autocratic president, Primo Nebiolo, forced through a rule change which offered a wild card to defending champions who had failed to qualify.

It was a measure which met with much resistance. The IAAF vice president, Arne Ljungqvist, described the decision as "crazy". Athletes, too, have voiced criticism. Merlene Ottey, who will seek to add to her record number of 13 world medals in the next 10 days, said this week that the decision would not have been made had Johnson not missed the US trials.

Johnson's own appraisal of the situation was entirely accurate: "It was a business decision."

These championships, involving 1,957 athletes and being televised by 200 countries, represents sport on a scale unmatched by anything other than the Olympics or football's World Cup. In order to keep his precious creation in a state of rude health, Nebiolo has pushed pragmatism to its limits.

Winners at the last two championships received Mercedes cars; this year, for the first time, cash is on offer. Gold medallists receive $60,000 (pounds 36,000); silver is worth $30,000, bronze $20,000. Anybody breaking a world record receives an extra $100,000.

The last bonus seems destined for Denmark's Wilson Kipketer, who is poised to break Seb Coe's 16-year-old 800m record. It is also likely to go to the winner of the 100m, although who that will be is a hard one to call.

Ato Boldon, Maurice Greene, Frank Fredericks all appear to have the capability of breaking the mark of 9.84sec Donovan Bailey set in winning the Olympic title last year. John Smith, Boldon's coach, said yesterday that he regarded it as a soft record. "I think it should be 9.76, 9.74," he said.

"Athletes are training better these days, the tracks and shoes are better, and science and coaching are pulling closer together."

Ultimately, the winner is likely to be the man with the best attitude. A lone Canadian journalist who sought out an unforthcoming Bailey this week discovered the world and Olympic champion having a shouting match with his long-time coach, Dan Pfaff.

Bailey had come to these championships complaining of a sore hamstring and the after-effects of a virus. His coach told him that he had to stop complaining and get on with the job. Bailey's physios, apparently, believe there is nothing wrong with him. His rivals are of the same opinion.

Bailey's reticence contrasts starkly with the public profile he presented two months ago after his one-to-one $1m challenge against Johnson over 150m in Toronto. Johnson, too, has shunned the public eye this week. After the razzmatazz, both men appeared to be getting down to the business of sprinting.

The injury which caused Johnson to pull up lame in Toronto has affected his whole season. Having made an abortive return in Paris six weeks ago, when he lost his eight-year unbeaten record over 400m, he has raced only once since, recording 45.02sec in Houston 11 days.

He was repported to have said this week that he would not be here if he were not in good shape. His main opponents, including Britain's 400m trio of Iwan Thomas, Mark Richardson and Jamie Baulch, will learn soon enough how fit the American is.

The old British certainties no longer exist. Of the trinity which provided world titles in 1993, Colin Jackson is struggling to keep in touch with the best of the high hurdlers. Sally Gunnell, two seconds off the top 400m hurdlers this year, is thinking in terms of retirement. And Linford Christie will merely be an interested spectator as he provides comment for the BBC and oversees the performance of those athletes he now coaches, such as Baulch, Darren Campbell and Paul Gray.

Yet if the probabilities have gone, Britain has a new wealth of possibilities: perhaps seven, or eight gold medal chances.

If things go well here - as well as they did for the team in their European Cup victory at Munich in June - British athletics could return triumphant from Athens, thumbing its collective nose at those who denigrated the performances of competitors in last summer's Olympics.

The problem in Atlanta, in terms of public perception, was that there was no gold medallist; no - to use an overworked word in athletics - focus.

Earlier this year, looking forward to these championships, Britain's chief coach, Malcolm Arnold, mused: "But we need a gold. We need a gold."

Who might provide it?

If Johnson is less than fully fit, Thomas, in the form of his life, could take advantage. Certainly the European record of 44.33 looks doomed. The 400m relay team, with Roger Black playing a captain's part despite being left out of the individual places offers another golden opportunity.

Steve Backley has also put together encouragingly consistent performances as he seeks the global gold to add to his other javelin titles. The defending champion, Jan Zelezny, is always a threat; but Backley is wary also of the Greek, Kostas Gatsouidis.

Like Johnson, Jonathan Edwards is another world champion - Britain's only one - defending his title from a position of doubt. A heel injury has prevented him competing for six weeks, although his physio reports that all is now physically well. If Edwards can get straight back into the competitive mode, there is no finer triple jumper in the world.

Kelly Holmes, who leads the world's 1500m rankings this year, looks utterly ready to put the disappointments of the Olympics behind her and Ashia Hansen, second in the world indoor triple jump, can do at least as well outdoors if her back problem holds up; perhaps better, if the defending champion, Inessa Kravets, has not made a full recovery from injury.

And Denise Lewis has a truly golden opportunity to overcome the veteran Sabine Braun in the heptathlon with the Olympic champion, Ghada Shouaa, out injured.

Just one gold. Although more would be good, too.