Gardener breaks new ground

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reports from Birmingham

Britain's new generation of competitors - significantly aided by the more experienced contributions of Judy Oakes and Dalton Grant - rose to a Russian challenge on Saturday. Although Britain lost overall in the opening indoor international of the season, there were enough good things on show to warm the domestic sport on a bitterly cold day.

No one glowed more promisingly than Jason Gardener, a 20-year-old from Bath who gave a smoothly proficient performance in winning the 60 metres.

Gardener's winning time - a personal best of 6.55sec - surprised both himself and his coach, David Lease. "If he had come out and run 6.63 or 6.62, I would have been delighted," Lease said. "But 6.55 is going to rattle a few cages. There are five hundredths of a second there that we didn't anticipate. It is a whole new ball game."

Saturday's performance has established him as a potential medallist at the European Indoor Championships two months hence, an event which, unlike one or two of his British rivals, he has planned to do. His next task, however, will be a meeting with Linford Christie and the world indoor champion, Bruny Surin, on the same track in a fortnight's time.

Gardener, a silver medallist at the 1994 world junior championships, managed the awkward first year of transition to the senior ranks last season with aplomb, running in the relay at the European Cup and the world championships.

"We sat down in 1995 and said 'This is a two-year project'," Lease said. "He has raced lightly, so he is able to do both an indoor and outdoor season. The person I would compare Jason to most is Colin Jackson. If you said to Colin, get sharp in 25 minutes, he'd do it because he is such a professional. This guy here has the same qualities - he's come straight off heavy weights and done this."

Judy Oakes, team captain for the day to mark her record 73rd Great Britain appearance, marked the occasion with a satisfying victory in the shot, where four of her six putts were longer than those of her nearest rival, the best of them being 18.63 metres.

In 1976, when Oakes made her international debut, she was, in her own phrase, "smashed" by the East German and Soviet Union competitors - so much so that she considered giving up. "If I was going to stop, it was then," she said.

What she did was more difficult. She accepted that the eastern bloc putters, for reasons legitimate and, in many cases, illegitimate, were always going to beat her. And she pressed on.

Twenty years, a record number of caps and two Commonwealth titles later, she is still enjoying the event, and may well go on after this year's Olympics, which will be her third.

In the course of her career, the introduction of random drug testing has resulted in a dramatic fall in the average distances recorded - although Oakes, significantly, has remained consistent.

"Seven or eight years ago, 19 metres would not have got you anywhere at Olympic level. But now it could be good enough for a bronze, and that is what I'm looking for."

When she finally does retire, though, she fears that she will leave a gap that does not seem likely to be filled. "I would hate to think that after all the years of trying to get the event in this country to world level, there would be nobody to follow me. But although we have got plenty of lads around in shot putting at the moment, there are no lasses on the horizon."

The prospects of this lass being present at the weekend were put in jeopardy a couple of weeks beforehand when she was hit on the head by a shot thrown during a training session. She was stunned but, true to form, she pressed on. Shaken but not deterred.

While Oakes can look forward to Atlanta, it remains a tantalising possibility for many of Britain's younger generation of competitors. Among those who gave themselves cause for realistic hope at Birmingham was Tony Whiteman, 24, who won the 1500m in a personal best of 3min 39.47sec and has an open invitation to train with Noureddine Morceli in the Atlas Mountains, which he now feels confident enough to take up.

Neil Caddy, a 20-year-old from Penzance making his international debut, maintained his promising start to the season with second place in the 3,000m.

Mark Hylton, the reigning European junior 400m champion, underlined his potential with victory in 46.96, with Guy Bullock, two years his senior, close behind.

And 22-year-old Neil Buckfield, who set a British pole vault record of 5.70m last summer, justified his decision to concentrate on the event full time by raising the national indoor record to 5.50, erasing the 15- year-old mark held by Brian Hooper.

Dalton Grant's form in his first major high jump of the year was so good that he surprised himself. Grant, recently returned from training in Australia, beat his British rival, Steve Smith, with 2.34m and went close to 2.40.

"I am aiming to jump 2.40 in the Olympic final, but here I am knocking on the door already," he said. The comforting news for British athletics was that his was not the only knock to be heard on the day.