First-class Hylton checks in

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BRITAIN took a brave plunge into yesterday's first international athletics match of the season against Russia - thankfully indoors - at the National Arena. They threw in everyone from a 17-year-old novice to a 37-year-old veteran, but still lost the overall competition, leaving domestic focus where it will remain this season - the men's 400 metres, an event in which Britain has unusually deep strength but no real hope of Olympic gold.

With Linford Christie still teasing everyone about his real intentions this summer and Sally Gunnell struggling to overcome the loss of a season, Britain's Olympic athletics year began with hopes that their impressive bunch of 400m runners would step into the breach. That, of course, slightly overlooked the fact that last summer in the World Championships an American called Michael Johnson put everything into perspective by leaving Britain's best, Mark Richardson and Roger Black, in fifth and seventh places respectively. For the moment, serious Olympic hopes rest with Jonathan Edwards who amazed himself so many times last year with triple jump world records that he has a terrible feeling that he may soon awake from an unbelievable dream.

Yesterday's 400m saw Mark Hylton, the European junior champion, hold off the World Championship bronze medal winner, Dmitri Golovastov, in a tight, testing race that had Guy Bullock, the European junior champion in 1993, thrusting through at the finish to deprive the Russian of second place. Both British runners have it in them to take places in the British Olympic team, but the field of contenders also includes Richardson, Black, David Grindley, Du'aine Ladejo and the aspiring Jamie Baulch. The 400m is going to be the most competitive event in Britain this year. As Bullock said: "There are a few people I've got to bring down before I can think about the Olympics." All the prospective team members know that the biggest enemy of 400m runners is injury. Bullock is more aware than most since he forfeited a lot of last season after damaging a hamstring.

While Christie was still in Australia, where last week he won a 100m in an unofficial time of 10 seconds, a possible challenger for the Olympic place he may forgo presented himself in Birmingham with an outstanding 60 metres win in 6.55sec. Thus Jason Gardener became the sixth fastest Briton indoors. Having spent a few weeks training in Lanzarote, he plans a gentle approach to Olympic selection, but his finish yesterday was far from gentle and helped in Britain's need to bridge the gap between Christie and the rest.

Judy Oakes, the 37-year-old who had been competing internationally before several of yesterday's team were born, not only made a record 73rd appearance, but at the same time won the shot competition with 18.63m against a country which used to dominate field events. She says that given such good form so early she has high hopes for the European indoor championships, but is happy "merely to be alive" after being hit on the head by a shot while training a fortnight ago. The two British male shot putters, Shaun Pickering and Mark Proctor, relegated the Russians to third and fourth, something unheard of a few years ago.

Unusually, too, Britain now has two of the world's most proficient high jumpers in Dalton Grant and Steve Smith, who finished first and second yesterday with 2.34m and 2.30m respectively. The promising Neil Caddy marked his international debut with a respectable second place in the 3000m.

lHaile Gebreselassie broke the men's world indoor 5,000m record at Sindelfingen in Germany yesterday. The Ethiopian won in 13min 10.98 sec, beating the time of 13:20.4 set by Suleiman Nyambui of Tanzania, in New York in 1981.