Christie's record return

Sprint champion shows Olympic form as Gunnell overcomes nervous start to take victory in 400m hurdles
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The Independent Online
Britain's Olympic champions Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell gave Britain a morale- boosting start to this weekend's European Cup. But despite further maximum points from Ashia Hansen in the triple jump, some of the British impetus was lost on a first day that was ultimately dominated by Germany.

Germany, the defenders of the men's and women's titles, established an overnight lead in both events. Britain's women go into today's competition in fifth place, while the men are in third on 58 points, 13 points adrift of Germany. The gap widened after Germany's Rudiger Stenzel was reinstated to second place in the 1500m on appeal after being disqualified for pushing.

Christie's 100m victory, in a Cup record of 10.04sec, came 10 years to the week after he had first broken Allan Wells' 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," said the British men's captain after his win. "I was very nervy before the start. That was the first time I have let myself go all season." As a precautionary measure, however, he chose not to run in the sprint relay which concluded the day, preferring not to risk aggravating what was reported as a tight hamstring before running the 200m today.

Despite predictions to the contrary from within the British camp, the team was not able to win in his absence, finishing third behind Ukraine and Italy after being anchored home by Christie's protege, Darren Campbell.

Like Britain's other captain, 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 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. "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 get into the Olympic team."

A last-round effort of 14.57 extended Hansen's first-round triple-jump lead over a field which included Bulgaria's world silver medallist, Iva Prandjeva.

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 3,000 spectators populated the main grandstand of a stadium bounded on all but the home straight with deserted grassy banks.

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

But Du'Aine Ladejo's second place in the 400m, where he ran 45.72sec to 45.64 by Germany's Uwe Jahn, was a relative disappointment, raising the question of whether Britain should have chosen Mark Richardson, last year's winner and a relay member here, instead.