Britain's trial by comparison

Norman Fox measures national track hopes against American standards
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The Independent Online
Every day since the core of Britain's Olympic athletics team was announced, news has been arriving from across the Atlantic of performances that have put the Olympic challenge into perspective. Most of the achievements by Britons at last weekend's trials in Birmingham have been bettered either by Americans at their own trials in Atlanta or by athletes from other parts of the world who are certain to be at the Games.

While some of the British team, notably Sally Gunnell, are improv- ing by the week, the early-season showings by athletes from other countries emphasise that Atlanta is going to be a huge test: intense competition in intense conditions. British athletes rank in the top half-dozen of the confirmed entries in the men's 400m, 110m hurdles, triple jump and the women's 800 and 1,500m, 400m hurdles, marathon and heptathlon. On the face of it not a bad proportion, but serious medal hopes look scarce.

Whether Linford Christie decides to defend his 100m title depends, he says, on how he thinks his form will stand up against his challengers. For the moment, his season's best time, 10.04sec, ranks him behind Ato Boldon (Trinidad, 9.92); Dennis Mitchell (United States), who won the US trials in 9.92, Mike Marsh (US, 9.95), Frankie Fredericks (Namibia, 9.95), Jon Drummond (US, 9.98) and Olapade Adeniken (Nigeria, 10.03). Admittedly with Christie, time is not necessarily a relevant factor since he is so competitive that quicker runners are intimidat- ed. However, seeing that three Americans are already below 10sec and that they are going to be on home ground could persu- ade him that the competition is getting too hot. His decision is likely to be announced in Gateshead, where he runs next Sunday and where the selectors meet to add to the team already announced.

It will also be in Gateshead that Britain's only favourite for a gold medal, Jonathan Edwards, will have to perform well to confirm his availability. His heel injury has improved and he says he thinks he has overcome the feeling that no- thing less than 18 metres matters. Even so, he is not encouraged by the fact that Kenny Harrison, of the US, has cleared 18.01m, albeit in windy conditions. A good win in Helsinki on Tuesday would greatly help Edwards's confidence.

Roger Black, now 30, was highly praised for his 400m victory in the British trials. His British record time of 44.39sec should see him among the medals in Atlanta, but gold is a distant hope since Mi- chael Johnson remains unchalleng- ed, having set the four fastest times in the world in 1995 and looking no less formidable this year. Johnson's time in the American trials was 43.44sec, which he called modestly "satisfying". Butch Rey- nolds also ran an impressive 43.91.

If Colin Jackson wants gold in the 110m hurdles, he must expect to get close to his world record of 12.91sec. His Birmingham win, after four successive defeats, was all the better for knowing that he had tendon inflammation. His time of 13.13sec was the second-fastest of the year, behind Florian Schwart- hoff of Germany, while the world champion, Allen Johnson, of the US, has an identical season's best time to that of Jackson.

As for the British men's field event competitors, the best hope apart from Edwards should remain Steve Backley in the javelin, but he has yet to make a competitive appearance this season after an operation to clean up the scar tissue from Achilles tendon surgery. Meanwhile, Jan Zelezny, of the Czech Republic, has been threatening to hurl the javelin clean out of a few stadiums, having increa- sed his world record to 98.48m.

Steve Smith, Britain's record-holder in the high jump at 2.37m, is capable of improving on that and looked in promising form in Birmingham when clearing 2.31m. Already this season, Charles Austin, of the US, has equalled Smith's personal best while the world rec- ord-holder, Javier Sotomayor, of Cuba, has not yet shown his hand.

With Sally Gunnell still almost two seconds slower than her best time of 52.74sec for the 400m hurdles, she has a lot to do in a short time but her determination is formidable. The world record-holder, Kim Batten, and Tonja Buford dipped below 54sec in the US trials. Kelly Holmes continues to look a potential gold winner at 1,500m though she is likely to reject that event if she accepts that Atlanta is no place for unnecessary heroics and that doubling up with the 800m could jeopardise both her chances.

Tessa Sanderson continues to amaze with her comeback at 40. She may need to think more of 70m than 60, yet is capable of something between the two. For surprises, look to Denise Lewis in the heptathlon while Liz McColgan is proving a shrewd and game marathon runner.

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