Edwards leads Britain on to the runway

OLYMPIC GAMES: An intriguing athletics programme begins this afternoon on a super-fast track. Mike Rowbottom reports from Atlanta
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The Independent Online
The super-fast track of the Centennial Olympic stadium awaits the super-fast athletes of the world today. For many, as the track and field programme gets underway, it will be case of "let the Games begin in earnest."

At the end of a week in which British medal success has been almost embarrassingly scant, the most realistic prospect for athletics gold, Jonathan Edwards, summed up the attitude of every striving competitor at the biggest Games in history.

"Winning the Olympics would be the pinnacle of my career, by a long way," he said yesterday. "I know from the feelings inside me arriving here just how much bigger this is than anything else."

His chances of succeeding in that ambition are considerably better than they were a couple of months ago when, as he readily admitted, the pressures of having transformed himself from an ordinary to an extraordinary athlete in one season bore down heavily upon him.

He appeared relaxed and confident yesterday, but warned against the idea that the task he starts today would be as simple as it was in last year's World Championships, when he effectively ended the competition with world records in his first two jumps. "I think it could be a lot closer than that this year," he said.

Kenny Harrison, who won the US trials with a wind-assisted 18.01 metres, Mike Conley, the defending champion, and the Cuban pair of Yoelvis Quesada and Eliecer Urrutia are Edwards' main rivals. But, if he can remain in his current, positive state of mind, he should win.

That cannot be said for any other Briton. Sally Gunnell's chances of defending her 400m hurdles title appear slight following her heel injury at Lausanne this month. Although her training has since been going well, she has more than a second to make up on her American rivals, Tonja Buford- Bailey and Kim Batten. "I think I've got something I can turn on on the day," Gunnell said. She will have to find something extraordinary.

Linford Christie's chances of retaining his 100m title in tomorrow's final also appear unlikely. Now that his training partner, Frankie Fredericks, has chosen to do the 100 as well as the 200 metres, Christie, Ato Boldon and the world champion, Donovan Bailey, are left facing an enormous challenge.

Fredericks, who took silver in both sprints at the last Olympics, began the season planning to concentrate on the 200 metres but, after coming within 0.01sec of Leroy Burrell's world record of 9.85 earlier this month, he changed his mind. "I would have been stupid not to," he said.

The 36-year-old Christie, who has not won a grand prix event this year, appears to have shifted in his attitude to racing. "Since I have been training with Frankie, I'm a lot more laid back and relaxed. Winning isn't everything. Although if people say I'm so relaxed because I have accepted I'm going to lose, to those people I say - hey, you don't know me very well.''

Christie removed his sunglasses yesterday to reveal contact lenses bearing the logo of his shoe sponsor - an effort, presumably, to get around the International Olympic Committee rules on advertising in competition. He did not rule out the idea of wearing the lenses while running. Will they enable him to remain focused, one wonders?

Fredericks is one of a group of elite athletes seeking a golden double at these Games. Of the other contenders, Michael Johnson (200m and 400m), Haile Gebrselassie (5,000m and 10,000m), Sonia O'Sullivan (1500m and 5,000m) and Wang Junxia (5,000m and 10,000m), the best chances appear to lie with Johnson and Gebrselassie.

The Ethiopian, who set staggering world records at both his favoured events in 1995, may receive his strongest challenge in the 5,000m, where Salah Hissou of Algeria and Daniel Komen have this year run to within six and seven seconds respectively of the world record mark of 12min 44.39sec.

Johnson, for whom the athletics programme was shifted in order to increase his chances of success in both events, probably bears more pressure than any other athlete at these Games. He is expected to match his World Championship double of last season on home soil for God, America and prime-time TV. Not necessarily in that order.

In the circumstances, he is impressively relaxed. "Doing the 400 at the Olympic trials was probably a tougher race than I'll have at the Olympics," Johnson said. "Events may prove me wrong later, but I feel like we have the best 400 metres runners in the world and I had to race against seven of them at the US trials. In the 200 it's a different story, because two of the best runners come from outside the US."

He maintained that his defeat by Fredericks over 200m in Oslo earlier this month, which brought to an end an unbeaten sequence of 38 races, did not have any demoralising effect. "Hell, no," he said. "I came back two days later and ran 19.77. My second-fastest time this year is faster than Frankie Fredericks has ever run in his life." He added, with a slow grin: "Sounds like I'm bragging." If ever a man were entitled to brag, it is Johnson. But he will not forget how fortune can turn after having his last Olympics ruined by food poisoning.

At least three former Olympic champions have golden prospects in the field events - Sergei Bubka (pole vault), Jan Zelezny (javelin), and Carl Lewis, who is seeking his fourth long jump title.

The reigning champion, Hassiba Boulmerka, and Britain's Kelly Holmes - if her damaged leg holds out - will put pressure on O'Sullivan over 1500m, while Wang Junxia, the only Chinese woman runner of note here, appears formidable opposition in the 5,000.

Tessa Sanderson will do well to reach the final of the javelin, but Colin Jackson and Tony Jarret (110m hurdles) Britain's 400m relay team, their leading 400m runner Roger Black, Denise Lewis (heptathlon) and Liz McColgan (marathon), look capable of adding to the medals total.