European stage for pretenders

Norman Fox says that British victories are likely to be rare in Lille
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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S hopes that next weekend's athletics European Cup in Lille would provide a springboard for the World Championships in Gothenburg in August are in disarray. There are doubts about the appearance of Linford Christie, who is the competition's all-time highest points scorer, and without Sally Gunnell, who inspired the women's team to second place in Birmingham last year, a lot depends on comparatively inexperienced athletes.

Preparation has become a catalogue of adversity. Christie has announced his retirement as of the end of this season but also had his mental readiness affected by the death of his mother. Gunnell is unavailable because of a recurring Achilles injury. Roger Black is restricting himself to the 4 x 400 relay. Katharine Merry's knee injury confines her to the 4 x 100 relay, and a host of potential points winners have decided not to interrupt their training.

At best the situation offers some opportunities to the emerging generation, people like the 400m runner Mark Richardson who missed the whole of last season through injury, and the promising Gary Jennings in the 400 metres hurdles. But British victories are likely to be rare with even the hitherto ever reliable Colin Jackson perhaps not a guaranteed winner. He had a cold and was not in the best frame of mind on Thursday after he had been with Christie when news of the Olympic champion's mother's death arrived in Nuremburg. Ominously, though, his subsequent 110m defeat (his first in 30 outdoor races) came at the hands of two Europeans.

Britain will be looking to the women for the greater share of success, which makes it even more disappointing that Gunnell will not be there to guarantee top points in the 400m hurdles. Curiously, her place in the 4 x 400 relay could be taken by Sharon Tunaley, who only recently returned to athletics after six years.

Kelly Holmes (800m) has started her season well enough to think that the Achilles injury that nagged her all last summer is finally repaired, so the great gamble for the women is the 10,000m appearance of Liz McColgan, a past world and Commonwealth Games champion who has not made a track appearance since the 1992 Olympics. Britain's No 1 male runner over the distance, Paul Evans, refused to compete, leaving the comparatively unknown Justin Hobbs to take his place while in the 5,000m the absence of Rob Denmark has become all the more significant since in Nuremburg he beat good quality opposition to win in 13min 13.77sec, the best time by a Briton this year. At least his replacement, John Nuttall, proved his fitness with a solid 13:17.25 in Rome a fortnight ago.

In spite of his recent defeats, Christie remains the fastest European sprinter and ought to win at least the 100m but, should he withdraw, the strange situation concerning John Regis becomes more relevant. Regis was not chosen for Lille through injury, the British Athletic Federation asking Christie to double up with the 200m. However, Regis ran in Nuremburg, albeit finishing only fifth in the 100m.

If the object of the European Cup exercise this time has to be building for the future, the performance of Melanie Neef, who this week ran a personal best 400m of 51.70sec, will be particularly relevant. Paula Radcliffe's recent noteworthy defeat of the Olympic champion Derartu Tulu might have given her hope of a 5,000m win but in the event Yvonne Murray had already been selected.

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