Britons battle on for bronze

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The Independent Online
CROSS country, permanently under-funded and usually relegated to the periphery of British athletics, yesterday found its voice in a battling performance at the European Championships beneath the walls of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.

On a testing, undulating course that brought real meaning to this demanding sport, Britain gained two bronze medals, one for the team and one for the rapidly improving Andrew Pearson, who was eventually broken by the defending champion Paulo Guerra, of Portugal, and Spain's Alejandro Gomez. Until, on the last lap, Guerra lifted the pace cruelly to win again, it seemed possible that Pearson, or his permanent shadow, Keith Cullen, might even win.

British hopes of taking a team medal seemed to have slipped because although their best three, including Jon Brown, doggedly hauled themselves round, they needed a fairly high fourth place. Surprisingly David Taylor's 42nd sufficed. Because of the absence of several potential top-10 finishers, the depth of strength was not as good as it could have been but the result brought encouragement for world championship success in South Africa next March.

The leading Britons were involved in all of the early work at the front as the field split, leaving a group of 13 to ease away. Cullen, who only a few weeks ago was stabbed in the chest on a "boys' night out" but not seriously injured, said: "In the end it was every man for himself. I had Andrew on my shoulder and we knew the continental runners would finish fast. We ran tactically but if people like me could get more backing we could do a lot better."

Pearson, now a full-time athlete, could hardly be expected to do better. He has been leading Briton in both of the world championships in which he has competed and was 11th in the first European championship last year. Apart from in the crowded first lap, Pearson kept in close touch with every significant move. Indeed, after five of the nine kilometres he and Cullen appeared to be serious challengers for the title. Gomez set the pace but Pearson briefly took over the lead going into the last lap.

Guerra's impressive surge on the final climb was impossible to control, so the top British runners simply kept in touch with each other, with significantly positive team results. In spite of having to wait for some time for Taylor to arrive, it was Britain's best performance for years and badly needed encouragement.

Although Romanians packed the leading places in the early part of the women's race, Sara Wedlund, of Sweden, and Finland's Annemari Sandell pulled away from them on the second lap and were never again under threat as they climbed into the mist. Sandell is a phenomenally strong 18-year- old who is now both a world junior and European senior champion. She has time on her side, and confidence. She overcame Wedlund over the last kilometre and said afterwards: "I knew I was in good shape - it was easy." Easy is comparative, especially for Wedlund who earlier this year was still seriously ill with the after-effects of anorexia. According to a close friend, she was at death's door only three years ago.