Athletics: The one-lap wonders lead medal hopes

European Championship: Talented British team savour prospect of best-ever performance over the next six days
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The Independent Online
THE STIRRING sight of Sebastian Coe, Tom McKean and Steve Cram finishing one-two-three in the 1986 European Championship 800 metres prompted one observer to liken them memorably to "Spitfires out of the sun". Twelve years on, the sun is shining fiercely here on the brink of the 17th European Championships, and three more Spitfires are preparing to manoeuvre themselves into another fly-past - although this time the event will be the 400m.

In Mark Richardson and Iwan Thomas, Britain has the two pre-eminent European one-lap runners of the moment, both almost a second clear of any foreign rivals in this year's rankings. And in Solomon Wariso, who earned the third individual place ahead of Roger Black amid much controversy, it has an unpredictable talent well capable of winning a medal. If the 31- year-old does not lose his concentration as he did when he underperformed at the European Indoor Championships in February, he could even surprise his more fancied colleagues.

In world currency terms, the Eurodollar is not strong. In Britain's case, there is only one performer currently undisputed as the world No 1, namely Jonathan Edwards. Despite nagging problems with an ankle injury - or, according to some, problems with worrying about an ankle injury - the triple jump world record holder is still well clear of his nearest European rivals, Alexander Glavatski of Belarus and Denis Kapustin of Russia, as he proved last Wednesday with an impressive victory at the Zurich Grand Prix.

But the next six days promise to be rich ones for Britain in terms of medals and morale. The British record of eight European titles in a single championship could well be surpassed, and the sight and sound of the victory celebrations will be just what is required for a sport still striving to reinvent itself domestically after the financial collapse of the British Athletic Federation last October.

Despite the absence of two potential gold medallists - Kelly Holmes, still rehabilitating after the Achilles injury which undermined her world championship challenge over 1500m last year, and Ashia Hansen, whose world indoor triple jump title and record in February brought on the heel problem with which she is still struggling - the women's team has title hopes in the form of Paula Radcliffe, who runs at 10,000m, and Denise Lewis in the heptathlon.

Lewis, the Olympic bronze medallist and world silver medallist last year behind Germany's Sabine Braun, has also overcome injury this season, and indicated her return to fitness last week at the Welsh Games, where she ran a season's best of 13.42sec and recorded a personal best of 14.72m in the shot putt. Speed and strength both of which will be required against Braun, who has performed similarly well in bits and pieces after failing to finish her heptathlon at last month's Goodwill Games.

The main strength of Britain's challenge lies with the men, who emphasised their own strengths at the end of June by retaining the European Cup in St Petersburg. That superiority is likely to be reflected in individual terms in the Nepstadion.

The 100m sees three of the post-Christie generation, Darren Campbell, Dwain Chambers and Marlon Devonish, striving for a title Christie has won on the last three occasions. Chambers, who set a world junior record of 10.06sec last season, believes they can take all the medals between them. That claim seems overly bold, given the presence of the European Cup winner, Stephane Cali of France, and other potential threats, such as Carlo Boccarini of Italy and Alexandros Alexopoulos of Greece. But the truth is that the standard in the 100m is lower than it has been for many years, which gives the young Britons something to shoot for.

The same holds true in the 200m, where Britain's European Cup winner, Doug Walker, has been additionally assisted by injuries which have ruled out Russia's European indoor champion, Sergei Osovich, and the top Belgian sprinter, Patrick Stevens.

The 400 title surely has to be Britain's, although which Briton will prevail is hard to predict. Richardson leads Thomas 5-1 on victories this season, but the latter, who won the trials in fine fashion, is very strong and has learnt his lesson from going out far too strongly in last year's World Championship final, where he faded to sixth.

Colin Jackson, who is having his best season since he set the world record of 12.91sec in winning the 1993 world title, has an outstanding chance of earning his third title. Falk Balzer of Germany, and another Briton, Tony Jarrett, appear likely to be his main rivals, but Jackson, who has run 13.07sec this year, should be a stride clear of them.

Like Jackson, Steve Backley has also been having an outstanding season - his javelin throw of 89.89m last month was the furthest by the Olympic silver medallist in six years. He may have too much championship experience for the 23-year-old leading the rankings this year, Ari Parviainen of Finland. Others, such as the Greek thrower Konstantinos Gatsioudis, may prove more of a threat to the Briton, who -again like Jackson - is seeking a third consecutive title.

The middle distances have become stony ground for Britain's men since the hey-day of Coe and co, but Jon Brown, who runs in the 10,000m, and the European indoor 3,000m champion, John Mayock, are capable of reaching the podium, if not the very top of it, as is Richard Nerurkar, who had to miss last year's world championship marathon because of a virus.

But it is Friday's 400m final which promises to create another enduring image for Britain. And Sunday night's concluding event, the 4 x 400m relay, despite the presence of a strong Polish team, should provide a jubilant finale for the Union Jack wavers.

And, surely, a pang of regret in Roger Black as he looks on from the BBC commentary position.

BUDAPEST TIMETABLE

TODAY

1000 Shot Putt Group A-B Men 1030 Javelin Group A Women

1045 100m Rd 1 Men

1130 400m Hurdles Rd1 Men

1150 Javelin Group B Women

1215 400m Hurdles Rd1 Men

1600 OPENING CEREMONY

1710 20Km Walk Final Men

1720 100m Rd 1 Women

1725 Shot Putt Group A-B Women

1730 Hammer Group A Men

1740 1500m Rd 1 Men

1800 Long Jump Group A-B Men

1845 Shot Putt Final Men

1900 Hammer Group B Men

1930 800m Rd 1 Women

2005 10,000m Final Men

TV Coverage:

Eurosport 4-7.30pm

BBC2 4-8pm.

TOMORROW

0915 Decathlon 100m Men

0930 Pole Vault Group A-B Men

1000 400m Rd 1 Women

1000 High Jump Group A-B Men

1010 Decathlon Long Jump Group A-B Men

1020 Discus Group A Women

1100 400m Rd 1 Men

1140 Discus Group B Women

1200 Triple Jump Group A-B Women

1215 Decathlon Shot Putt A-B Men

1600 Decathlon High Jump Group A-B Men

1605 800m Wheelchair Women

1620 1500m Wheelchair Men

1630 Javelin Final Women

1715 400m Hurdles Semi-final Men

1735 100m Semi-final Men

1755 800m Semi-final Men

1800 Long Jump Final Men

1820 100m Semi-final Men

1840 400m Hurdles Semi-final Women

1845 Hammer Final Men

1900 100m Final Women

1915 10,000m Final Women

2000 Decathlon 400m Men

2035 100m Final Men

TV Coverage:

Eurosport 3-7.45pm

BBC2 4-8.30pm.

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