Athletics: Agonising end to Hansen's dream

The burden of golden expectation will weigh all the heavier on Paula Radcliffe's slender shoulders when she lines up in the Zawiska Stadium this afternoon to start her competitive preparations for the Olympic marathon. The woman who has twice broken the world marathon record was always going to be the big British hope for athletics success in Athens in August. She would not have been the only hope, had Ashia Hansen made it to the triple jump runway in the Olympic Stadium in the rudest of health and in anything like her best form. Sadly for Hansen, and for British athletics, that prospect disappeared yesterday as the European and Commonwealth champion was left cruelly pole-axed here in northern Poland.

The burden of golden expectation will weigh all the heavier on Paula Radcliffe's slender shoulders when she lines up in the Zawiska Stadium this afternoon to start her competitive preparations for the Olympic marathon. The woman who has twice broken the world marathon record was always going to be the big British hope for athletics success in Athens in August. She would not have been the only hope, had Ashia Hansen made it to the triple jump runway in the Olympic Stadium in the rudest of health and in anything like her best form. Sadly for Hansen, and for British athletics, that prospect disappeared yesterday as the European and Commonwealth champion was left cruelly pole-axed here in northern Poland.

The scream of agony could be heard from the back of the main stand when Hansen's left leg buckled from under her as she landed on the step phase of her second-round attempt on the opening day of the European Cup. She collapsed into the sandpit, clutching her leg and shaking her head, and spent 10 minutes being attended to by Bryan English, the British team doctor, with Charles van Commenee, the technical director of jumps and combined events for UK Athletics, cradling her head in his arms. She was then borne from the arena by stretcher and taken to hospital.

Chris Rawlinson feared the worst for his stricken team-mate, having witnessed the incident at close hand as he walked past the sandpit on his way to the start of the 400 metres hurdles. "I saw her leg flex, heard her scream and she seemed to almost pass out," he said. "It looked to me like her patella tendon had gone. If that's right, that could be it for Ashia."

Rawlinson's prognosis proved to be correct. A ruptured patella tendon - knee-cap - was confirmed in hospital. Hansen will fly home today and have an operation early next week. "Her season is over but she intends to come back next year," a spokesperson for the British team said. "It's heartbreaking," Jonathan Edwards lamented, after finishing his stint in the BBC commentary box. "Ashia had a chance of an Olympic gold medal but unfortunately it is not going to be."

Despite Hansen's expressed hopes of making a return, the fear last night was that her career could possibly be over. At 32, she has a long history of fighting against injury. Indeed, yesterday's competition was her first outdoors since she overcame a heel operation and an Achilles tendon problem that wiped out her entire summer season last year. She did make a tentative comeback indoors in February, jumping 14.47m to win at the Norwich Union Grand Prix in Birmingham, but she looked short of form on her first attempt yesterday, struggling to reach 13.32m - a distance which placed her last of the eight competitors and well short of her Commonwealth record, 15.15m.

At her best, though, Hansen has few equals. In March last year she won the world indoor title in Birmingham, and in 2002 she was ranked number one in the world, striking gold at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester and at the European Championships in Munich. Her world indoor record was shattered in March by Tatyana Lebedeva, who set a new mark of 15.36m, but the Russian has been troubled by an ankle injury of late and has yet to take part in a triple jump competition this summer.

All of which leaves the battle for the women's triple jump gold in Athens wide open and Radcliffe facing the prospect of travelling to the Olympics as Britain's one big golden shot. First, though, she will be anxious to regain her Midas touch in the 5,000m today - her first race since losing to Lornah Kiplagat of the Netherlands in the World's Best 10km road race in Puerto Rico in February and since undergoing a hernia operation in March.

As captain of the British women's team here, Radcliffe will also be under pressure to gain maximum points from her event, although the fight to avoid relegation from the Super League section of the European Cup already looks to be a forlorn one. The British women were languishing in eighth and last place at the end of the first day. Apart from Susan Scott's run for third place in the 800m, it was disappointment all the way.

Their points tally, a meagre 31, was 13 short of sixth position, the mark they needed to reach to avoid losing their Super League status for the first time.

The British men's team, in contrast, were sitting pretty at the top of their table, on course for a sixth win in 15 years. They led by 4.5 points from Poland with 60.5 points, thanks to a sextet of victories - launched by Carl Myerscough, whose final-round put of 20.85m made him the first British winner of the shot since Geoff Capes in Nice in 1975.

Rawlinson also made his mark on the record book. The Rotherham man won the 400m hurdles for the third time, in an impressive 48.59sec, edging ahead of Alan Pascoe and Kriss Akabusi as Britain's most successful athlete in the event.

There were also wins for Tim Benjamin, who claimed the scalp of former world champion Ingo Schultz in the 400m; for Chris Tomlinson in the long jump, with a wind-assisted 8.28m; for John Mayock in the 5,000m; and for a 4x100m relay team anchored by Mark Lewis-Francis, whose disqualification for a false start in the 100m was an affordable if dubious luxury.

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