Athletics / World Triathlon Championships: Hats off to Smith's enduring triumph: Briton's gold after helmet controversy. Adrian Holloway reports

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AFTER the sort of technical controversy that only this sport can create, Spencer Smith, a 20-year-old from west London, was confirmed as the new world champion in Manchester yesterday.

Smith came through the finish line first, 1min 42sec ahead of another Briton, Simon Lessing, who won last year's world championships in Canada. The result was put in doubt when a marshal said that Smith had infringed the rules in the transition from the 40 kilometre cycle ride to the 10km run. While dashing past the bike stands outside the town hall, Smith had flicked off his helmet, failing to leave it in the designated box.

With the city centre decked out in Manchester 2000 regalia to impress the visiting members of the International Olympic Committee, the confusion was just what the race organisers could have done without.

Smith's father, Bill, a former Queen's Park Rangers and Brentford footballer, scurried around anxiously from one official to another. The judicial committee was summoned, but to Smith's relief, the complaint never reached them because Didier Lehanoff, the referee, threw it out.

'It was a dream performance for me,' Smith, the 1992 world junior champion, said. 'Then I heard that there was a small problem about my helmet. I tried to put that out of my mind. Thankfully, the result stood.'

With the triathlon lobby pushing hard for Olympic status at the 2000 Games, Smith was able to toy with the idea of repeating his Manchester success. 'I'm still young, and there's a very good possibility I could be back here in seven years' time going for Olympic gold,' he said.

This is the kind of talk which would have appeared ludicrous only a decade ago when the sport was largely unheard of, but triathlon has benefitted from the fitness drives of the 1980s, which provided a surplus of healthy bodies seeking challenges.

It is the next step up for a generation who have already progressed from jogging into serious running. It also commends itself to those who have never lost the childhood desire to race down a beach into the sea and then swim as far as the eye can see.

Yesterday's mass starts at the Lower Rivington Reservoir, north of Bolton, were such a spectacle. The wet-suited elite men jostled for position, rather incongruously, on the northern bank of the lake, which normally contents itself with providing water for the people of Wigan.

Earlier, as the IOC's officials approached the water's edge, the starter had ordered all the stewards to put their cigarettes out. 'This is our chance to impress,' he barked over his radio. 'There's no smoking or drinking while the IOC are here.'

The women's race was won for the second year running by Michellie Jones, of Australia. Like Smith, she had a superb ride down from Rivington to the city centre, finishing 15 minutes behind the leading men in a time of 2hr 7min.

The 23-year-old Jones beat Karen Smyers, of the United States, in a sprint finish, despite having her preparations for the defence of her title hampered by a severe cold during the week.

TRIATHLON WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS (Manchester: swim: 1.5km, 0.9 miles swim; cycle race: 40 km, 24.9 miles; run: 10km, 6.2 miles): MEN: 1 S Smith (GB) 1hr 51min 20sec; 2 S Lessing (GB) 1:53:02; 3 H Carter (NZ) 1:53:29; 4 B Bevan (Aus) 1:53:55; 5 B Bright (Aus) 1:54:20. WOMEN: 1 M Jones (Aus) 2:07:41; 2 K Smyers (US) 2:07:43; 3 J-A Ritchie (Can) 2:08:46; 4 S Krolik (Ger) 2:09:21; 5 S Nielsen (Den) 2:09:26.

(Photograph omitted)