Chance to heal running sores

Norman Fox says this week's world indoor championships can be a new beginning
Click to follow
The Independent Online
British athletics this week strikes out on the long road to recovery from its squabbles and scandals and steady decline in popularity. The first positive step was taken when the new British Athletes' Association had a say in the selection of the team for the world indoor championships which start in Paris on Friday. That helped overcome the usual bickering over controversial decisions, but the amicable arrangement cannot disguise the urgent need for new stars.

The team was originally considered so strong that it could afford to do without both an athlete who recently beat a world champion and another who was fourth in last year's Olympic Games, which serves to show the weight of confidence and reflects a healthy depth of talent. That certainly seemed to be the message sent out when Britain announced that their 400 metres entry was so powerful that Guy Bullock, who beat the world indoor champion, Darnell Hall, comfortably last week would only have a relay place. Until her appeal, Ashia Hansen was not even considered for the triple jump because she failed to appear in the trials. Fortunately for Hansen the British Athletic Federation yesterday reversed their decision and added her name to the team, after citing the "exceptional circumstances" that there was some doubt whether she had received the correspondence outlining the selection procedures.

But the theory put forward by some coaches that Britain is on the verge of producing a whole new generation of top-class athletes needs to be tested. Not that the team can do much worse than come home with the one silver and one bronze achieved in Barcelona two years ago. Above all, the newcomers are going to gain by the experience of international competition.

The largest British team ever to compete at this event (originally 40, but now without Diane Modahl who is suffering stress as a result of her on-going conflict with the BAF) may have had some input from their new own association, but the BAA are still concerned that the crisis-hit federation may yet refuse to let the influence of the athletes grow much further in the restructuring of the sport. A week after the world indoor championships, the BAF council meet to take the next step in replacing the executive chairman, Peter Radford. The BAA want their own director, Geoff Parsons, to be involved in the discussions. No promise is forthcoming.

Success in Paris would help the BAA's campaign for greater control over the elite athletes' affairs and do something to overcome what Parsons and Roger Black, founders of the BAA, believe was a false reaction to last summer's Olympic performance by Britain. The BAA view is that the media's obsession with gold medals rather than comparison with countries with similar numbers of athletes and facilities began the talk of a crisis, which grew alarmingly when Radford resigned and the chief national coach, Malcolm Arnold, threatened to do the same. The problem is that British performances will always been judged by the gold medal tally. Next weekend none is certain and, again, the number of world-class performances is likely to be satisfactory yet largely unsung.

Linford Christie is not involved but still refuses to give up the option of competing in the summer's world outdoor championships. Sally Gunnell is continually concerned that her Achilles problems may return, and Colin Jackson is coming back to top form but not yet arrived. So the only gold medal favourite is the hot-footed Jamie Baulch. No foreign athlete has got the better of him indoors this season

A measure of Baulch's current form is that his time of 45.39sec in the British trials cut the 12-year-old previous British best by 0.17sec. Todd Bennett's record was a world best at the time. Baulch's fine run also took him to fifth place in the world all-time list and would have won him the gold medal at the last world indoor championships. He is confident of winning a medal of some colour and thanks to a more aggressive style this season, it should be gold.

Britain's progress in the effort to find a successor to Christie will come under scrutiny for the first time in serious championship conditions. The choice of Jason Livingston following his drugs ban has been questioned by those who believe that suspensions should be for life, but most of his performances this season justify his place. Most, not all. Both he and Jason Gardner were recently outclassed by the Trinidadian Ato Boldon, who is the fastest in the world this year over both the 60m and 200m. If Boldon elects to run the short sprint in Paris, Bruny Surin, the holder, can say farewell to his title.

Ominously, Doug Turner saw some of the quality of his opposition in the 200m when last weekend he finished behind Boldon and Norway's, Geir Moen, but John Mayock's improvement this winter suggests that at last Britain may have a middle-distance athlete worthy of the nation's tradition. Like Hansen, he missed the trials but had the foresight to send a sick note.

Jackson has been straining to reach an early peak. Defeat by Cuba's Anier Garcia in the 60m hurdles last weekend did nothing for his confidence but he is still better than anyone else on time and has the experience to succeed on the day. He is also going to be invaluable in the back-up to a largely inexperienced team. The same can be said of the high-jumper Steve Smith who is definitely medal material since he heads the world's rankings.

No one in the team is more experienced than Sally Gunnell, but that may count for nothing if those well-worn hamstrings fail to take the strain over 400m. Given pain-free progress, she is still capable of taking a medal but the chances are she will again see Phylis Smith ahead of her. And should the injuries return, this could well be her last international appearance. Great courage and a box of medals may not be enough to ward off the strains and pains.

Two high hopes

Steve Smith

By beating the European high-jump champion, Steinar Hoen of Norway, in Birmingham, Smith took himself to the top of the world rankings and did himself a lot of good psychologically. The Commonwealth Games silver medallist went to the Olympics in Atlanta determined to exorcise the memory of Barcelona where he had gambled on a height that was beyond him. He returned from Atlanta with the bronze medal, having cleared 2.35m. With the world record holder, Javier Sotomayor, struggling last season, the high jump has become open, and Smith leads the European challenge.

Best this season: 2.34m

Debbi Marti

With the high jump often being a competition in which an over- optimistic attempt by a favourite or simple bad luck can open up opportunities for outsiders, Debbi Marti goes to Paris with the advantage that she is in form at the right time. Last weekend she improved Diana Davies's UK indoor record, which had lasted for 15 years and which Marti herself had equalled four years before. Recently she has been following a training pattern set by Steve Smith. She says the main advantage has been that she now bends her back in a more pronounced way, resulting in a few extra centimetres.

Best this season: 1.95m

Two fast risers

Jamie Baulch

Seeing the American world indoor champion, Darnell Hall, relegated to last place behind him in the 400m at the BUPA grand prix in Birmingham last weekend greatly added to the confidence of this already self-assured 23-year-old who has become the gold medal favourite. He set a UK record at the British trials, confirming a remarkable winter improvement. His refusal to be intimidated and ability to sustain his speed over the last 30 metres has elevated him to the top half-dozen in the world. He has even said that he could tackle Michael Johnson. Not this time, though - Johnson is not running in Paris.

Best this season: 45.39sec

Phylis Smith

Having Sally Gunnell compete against her this year has clearly provided the impetus Phylis Smith needed. Last weekend in Birmingham she took Gunnell's UK 400m record, with Gunnell in fourth place after a heavy cold and some remaining injury doubts. Not that Smith goes to Paris with false hopes. Charity Opara, of Nigeria, won that Birmingham race in 51.21sec, but Smith's bubbling confidence is getting stronger. She reached the Olympic final in Barcelona in 1992 but since then her ambitions have been curtailed by several hamstring injuries and knee problems.

Best this season: 51.69sec