Champions put Britain on track

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The Independent Online
Britain's Olympic champions, Sally Gunnell and Linford Christie, rose to the occasion as so often before here yesterday to give Britain a morale-boosting start to this weekend's European Cup.

Christie's 100 metres victory, in a Cup record of 10.04sec, came 10 years to the week after he had first broken Allan Wells's British record in the same city.

Although he would still not be drawn on whether he will defend his Olympic title in Atlanta, he was clearly satisfied with his seventh consecutive victory in this event, which stretched his unmatched record of individual European Cup wins to 14. "I was very happy with that," he said. "I was very nervy before the start. That was the first time I have let myself go all season."

Gunnell was equally nervy before her race, and perhaps with more reason. After a ragged performance in Jena last Saturday in what was her first 400m hurdles race since September 1994, she was still full of doubts about whether she could regain her competitive tempo in time to make a strong defence of her Olympic title.

Experience, Gunnell believed, was the key to her win. Two hours before her race she had paced out her stride pattern, but when a warm, gusty wind got up she realised that such considerations would have to be put to one side.

"Those were the most difficult conditions to run in," she said. "It felt like there was a headwind all the way round. There was no way I could stick to a stride pattern. It was all about making quick decisions, and that was something I was worried I might have forgotten after my time out."

Gunnell, who stuttered several times on the way round, was trailing at the final hurdle, but she pulled away to finish clear of Germany's Silvia Rieger, who had beaten her in Jena. Although her winning time of 56.84 was exactly a second slower than she had run the previous week, she was happy. "That was a 50 per cent improvement on Jena," she said. If she keeps on improving at that rate, the Americans had better beware in Atlanta.

Her counterpart in the men's 400m hurdles, Jon Ridgeon, ran a courageous race from out in lane nine, only being caught in the final 50 metres by Italy's Fabio Mori, who won in 49.45sec. Despite the conditions, Ridgeon, making his third comeback after four operations on his Achilles tendons, recorded 49.84 in second place, his best time this season.

"My coach, Mike Whittingham, told me to take it out, and it was just a case of hanging on, which I think I did pretty well," Ridgeon said. "I have beaten some guys out there who have run 48s, and it's still looking good. It was a great feeling to pull on an international vest after four years. I don't think you will find a prouder member of the team. Now I've just got to go one better now and get to the Olympic team."

Ashia Hansen provided Britain with another win in the triple jump. With the first competitive flourish of the whole event, she reached 14.54m, a distance only she had beaten this year. She extended her lead with 14.57 in the last round to record a victory which bodes extremely well for her Olympic prospects.

The atmosphere in the Estadio de la Comunidad, built 2,000 feet above sea level on the city outskirts, was a curious mixture of international interest and local apathy. Despite a television audience of millions, no more than 2,000 spectators - many from Britain - populated the main grandstand of a stadium bounded on all but the home straight with deserted grassy banks.

Kelly Holmes earned more valuable points for the women's team by finishing second in the 800m behind Svetlana Masterkova of Russia, who recorded 1min 57.87. Holmes's time of 1min 58.20sec was her best of the year.

Britain's men gained an unexpected bonus in the 1500m, where Germany, the defending champions, lost all their points. Britain's Anthony Whiteman moved up to second place behind the home winner, Fermin Cacho, after Germany's Rudiger Stenzel was disqualified.

As a group of four runners came around the final bend, Stenzel barged Gennaro Di Napoli off the track and also appeared to push Whiteman. It looked as if it might prove a crucial switch of fortune. However, the impetus was lost soon afterwards in the 3,000m, where Britain's Gary Lough finished a distraught last.

Du'Aine Ladejo looked as if he might tilt the balance back in the 400m where he went out purposefully into an early lead, but he began to labour in the finishing straight and allowed Germany's Uwe Jahn to come past him in the final 20 metres and win in a time of 45.64sec. It was a good effort from Ladejo, but a question remained whether it was the right decision to pick him ahead of last year's winner for Britain, Mark Richardson.