Athletics: Aldama on the wrong side of the time line

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The Independent Online

When Yamile Aldama was heading for a lunchtime meeting with her coach, Frank Attoh, just the other week, she saw a poster alongside the escalator at Bank Underground station. It was an advertisement for Barclays Bank featuring Minnie Minoso, the Chicago White Sox baseball legend who was known as "The Cuban Comet". The pitch of the message was about "being in the right place at the right time".

At present ensconced in a training camp in South Africa, Aldama can afford to laugh at the irony. The Cuban-born triple jumper might have topped the world rankings for 2003, but as a resident of London's East End for two years and two months she found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. With another 10 months to wait before she fulfilled the three-year residency qualification for British citizenship, and no sign of the Government fast- tracking her application (unlike Zola Budd's, which was rubber-stamped in 13 days), the woman from Havana faced the prospect of losing out on another shot at a global title. Aldama missed the world outdoor and indoor championships last year and would have missed this summer's Olympics too, had she not sought nationality elsewhere and been granted a Sudanese passport last week.

Sudan's gain has been Britain's loss, for the want of advancing Aldama's citizenship qualification date from November to August. Despite appeals from UK Athletics, the Home Office repeatedly refused to expedite her case. Not that it was the only hardship she faced after moving to Limehouse as a recently-wed in November 2001. In May last year her husband, Scotsman Andrew Dodds, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for drug- trafficking offences. As well as coping with the trauma of the case, Aldama was left alone to raise the couple's two-year-old son, Amil.

"Yes, it was very difficult," she reflected. "But you have to get on with it. You have to go out and train. You have to think of the things that give you strength: my child, Amil. He was depending on me. You cannot say, 'I am going to give up'. That is not the way. You have to go out and keep on doing it."

What Aldama did in 2003, in the most trying of circumstances, was little short of remarkable. She achieved 10 jumps of 14.98m or better and topped the world rankings with a distance of 15.29m in Rome in July. She also enjoyed a 4-3 record on the summer circuit against Tatyana Lebedeva, the Russian who won the outdoor world title in Paris in the absence of the stateless Aldama and the injured Ashia Hansen.

Aldama credits her form last year to the guidance of Attoh, a former British international triple jumper who, as a former coach of Hansen, is uniquely placed to compare the Briton with the main rival she will face in the defence of her world indoor title in Budapest in March. "I think they're both fantastic athletes," Attoh said. "There really isn't much to choose between them. There are some similarities in character, and also I would say they both have the desire to win. I think with Yami perhaps having had the harsher background, coming from Cuba... that has made her more hungry.

"I'm not trying to belittle Ashia. She's proved herself over the years. She's a phenomenal athlete: world indoor champion, world indoor record-holder. But I think on balance - and I might sound biased - Yami has produced the big jumps. I think she's capable of doing a lot more. I see maybe another 30cm to 40cm on top of what she has already done. Her jump phase has been atrocious. If we can improve that it will make a world of difference."

Just how much difference a winter of training has made will become clear when Aldama opens her indoor season in Ghent a week today. The 31-year-old is still a member of a British club, Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers, and Attoh, who works for British Telecom in London, is still the principal guiding force in her track-and- field career. It remains to be seen, however, whether she will continue to be based in the English capital or take up permanent residence in Sudan.

During her time in London Aldama has acquired a love of English football, and of Arsenal. Now, though, so far as British athletics is concerned, the Gooner has sadly become a gonner.