Athletics: The one who got away; FIRST NIGHT: EUNICE BARBER

France's glorious gain highlights this country's loss.

EUNICE BARBER, for once, was stopped in her stride. "Marion Jones... the best all-round woman athlete in the world?" She pondered, halting as she caught the question put to her in one of the labyrinthine corridors in the Estadio Olimpico, Seville. "Marion Jones is the best in the 100m and the 200m. That's all. I'm the best in the heptathlon and she can't do the heptathlon. So, for me, she is not the best."

The tracksuited gentleman carrying Barber's tiny running spikes interjected on her behalf. "Maybe the general public don't know athletics and the heptathlon well enough," Francois Pepin, Barber's coach, said. "Eunice is the greatest all-round female athlete in the world, not Marion Jones. There can be no doubt about that."

Indeed, there cannot. Jones may have arrived for the World Championships in Andalucia as the supposed superwoman of track and field but her deeds - a 100m win, a third place in the long jump and a DNF in the semi-finals of the 200m - have been positively one-dimensional when set against those of the multifariously gifted Barber. Over the seven events of the heptathlon the 24-year-old was more than just a headline in the making - a Barber in Seville, a cut above the rest. She was, as Denise Lewis duly conceded, "simply awesome".

Barber's time in the 100m hurdles, 12.89sec, was world class (Angie Thorp's British record is 12.80). Her high jump, 1.93m, missed the French record by only three centimetres. And her long jump, 6.86m, while a disappointing 15cm less than Barber's own French record, was still three centimetres better than the jump that earned Jones a bronze medal behind Niurka Montalvo and Fiona May in the individual competition. With 6,861 points, Barber climbed from 42nd to seventh place on the world all-time ranking list for the heptathlon. She did so wearing the red, white and blue of France in a major championship for the first time. Instead, she might have been glorying in the red, white and blue of a Great Britain vest.

When Barber and her sister fled from the civil war in Sierra Leone eight years ago, Amelia Barber settled in England. Eunice lived with her for much of 1997 among the large Sierra Leonean community that has settled in London. At that stage she considered switching her allegiance as an international athlete from Sierra Leone to Great Britain. "Why didn't I?" she said. "Because nobody ever approached me. That's why."

And so, like May, who collected her silver medal in the blue of the Italian azzurri, another one got away. Barber still travels to London. She trains with Dean Macey and his coach Greg Richards at Crystal Palace when she visits her sister. But she has settled in France. She became a French citizen last December. Hence, last Sunday, instead of following in the footsteps of Daley Thompson, Steve Cram and company, she became only the third French athlete to win a World Championship gold medal - emulating Marie-Jose Perec, winner of the 400m in Tokyo in 1991 and in Gothenburg in 1995, and Stephane Diagana, who won the 400m hurdles in Athens two years ago.

All week, since she crossed the line at the end of the final event, the 800m, and cloaked herself in a Tricolore, Barber has been feted as the new first lady of French sport. She was already a popular figure in her adopted country. A naturally effusive, genial character, she was appointed captain of the French women's team on the eve of the European Cup in Paris in June. "Eunice teaches the French athletes to be happy on the track," Pepin said. "In France the athletes are always moaning about something - the food, the weather, the track, their health. Eunice helps them a lot in that respect. She is by nature a very happy, outgoing, positive character."

There is one subject, however, which instantly darkens Barber's mood: the continuing conflict in Sierra Leone, or "my country", as she still instinctively calls her homeland. Although a peace agreement has been nominally reached in one of Africa's most brutal civil wars between the government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, the killings and mutilations have continued. At least half of the country remains under the control of the rebels, including most of the diamond mines, the source from which the RUF has bought an endless supply of arms and ammunition. The football pitches of Freetown, on which the 14-year-old Barber first showed sporting promise as a flying right- winger, are refuge camps for amputees - victims of the rebels' campaign to leave living, limbless symbols of their savage power.

"It is madness, what is going on in Sierra Leone," Barber said. "Young people just want to be warriors. They can't stop fighting. And selling arms and diamonds brings in more money than anything else in the country.

"I find it very sad. I wish people in European countries would take more interest in what goes on there. I don't know if I can help in any small way, but I'd like to show the people in my country that you can live without killing each other."

It was to escape another form of subjugation that Barber's forebears came to Sierra Leone. They were slaves freed from the Antilles by the Royal Navy after abolition and re-settled in the crown colony on the west coast of Africa. Barber made her escape to France because of a Gallic connection forged through athletics.

Dominique Dufour, a linguistic attache to the French embassy in Sierra Leone, happened to be teaching at her school in Freetown when he spotted her running in the playground. A track-and-field enthusiast, he encouraged her to give up football for athletics and, through contacts in the French athletics federation, he arranged for her to train in Lyon with Christian Plaziat, Daley Thompson's successor as European decathlon champion.

Since 1992, apart from her temporary stay in London, Barber has lived in Reims, in the heart of champagne country. And under the direction of Pepin, the coach who guided Perec through her early career, she has emerged as an athlete of sparkling quality.

Had she benefited from the kind of convenient timetable rescheduling which helped Jones, Barber might have taken two Spanish golds. "I think Eunice would have won the long jump if the qualifying round had not clashed with the high jump in the heptathlon," Pepin maintained - and not without reason. Barber, who bowed out at the quarter-final stage of the individual 100m hurdles on Thursday, was too good for the long-jump specialists she encountered at the Golden League meeting in Paris last month, jumping her 7.01m French record and defeating two former world champions, May and Heike Drechsler, as well as the Olympic champion, Chioma Ajunwa.

It is as an all-rounder, though, that Barber has found her natural niche. There has not been a woman with talent like hers since Jackie Joyner-Kersee, whom Pepin had on his mind as he left the Estadio Olimpico with his golden girl. Having reeled off the heptathlon marks he thought Barber could ultimately reach - "12.50sec for the 100m hurdles, 2m for the high jump, 14m for the shot, 22.75 for the 200m, 7.30m for long jump, 55m for the javelin and 2:05 for the 800m" - he was invited to compare them with the performances Joyner-Kersee achieved en route to her world record at the Seoul Olympics 11 years ago.

He just scanned the list and smiled. "You can work it out yourself," he said and departed smiling, as well he might. The sum totals were 7,291 points for Joyner-Kersee and 7,609 points for Barber, which could add up to trouble for Denise Lewis in Sydney a year from now.

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