Athletics: Ayhan's stunning rise adds spice to Great North rivalry

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The Independent Online

Kelly Holmes and Jolanda Ceplak are due to meet outside the new law courts on Newcastle's Quayside on Saturday lunchtime. At one time, in the aftermath of the women's 800m final at the European Championships in Munich in August, it seemed they might meet inside a court of law somewhere.

But that was before Ceplak accepted Holmes' insistence that the post-race comments the British athlete made in Olympiastadion – about having achieved her medal "cleanly" and implying that others might not have – were not specifically directed towards the bottle-blonde bombshell of a runner from Slovenia.

And so, having kissed and made up at a Croydon hotel on the eve of the British Grand Prix meeting at Crystal Palace last month, Holmes and Ceplak line up as strictly friendly rivals in a first-class field assembled by Peter Ell-iott for the women's event in the Bupa Great North Miles, a series of one-mile races starting and finishing outside the law courts in Newcastle on Saturday as an hors d'oeuvre to the following day's Great North Run half-marathon.

The irony is that their own particular duel, in their first competitive meeting since Ceplak struck gold and Holmes took bronze in Munich, is likely to be overshadowed by the presence of the female middle-distance runner whose emergence has raised even more eyebrows than that of the Slovenian European 800m champion.

At least Ceplak's progress can be traced back through her world-record run at the European Indoor Championships in Vienna in March to a change of coach and of training programmes to her days as a teenage prodigy. Sureyya Ayhan's stunning and wholly unexpected success in the women's 1500m final in Munich could be traced back to nothing more than her one previous appearance in a major championship final. She finished eighth in the 1500m at the World Championships in Edmonton last year. Apart from her run in the heats in Munich, it had been her most recent race. She crossed the line in Edmonton in 4min 08.17sec. Gabriela Szabo won in 4:00.57.

In the Munich final, Ayhan led from the start to the finish with a devastating front-running display, resisting Szabo's renowned kick in a shoulder-to-shoulder sprint for the line that lasted the length of the home straight. The virtually unknown Turk prevailed by a margin of 0.02sec, clocking 3:58.69, a staggering improvement of 4.33sec on the national record she set on the eve of her semi-final appearance at the Sydney Olympics. Szabo, the 5,000m winner in Sydney, left the track in Munich in a tearful state of shock.

"Yes, it was a big surprise," the Romanian later confessed. "The last time I saw the Turkish girl was in Edmonton." And back then the rest of the world's middle-distance women had little reason to know the name of "the Turkish girl". Ayhan did, after all, finish 2001 ranked 37th in the world at 1500m, 23 places and 3.43sec behind Britain's Hayley Tullett.

Twelve months on, the Turk is the undisputed world No 1 at 1500m. She tops the world rankings for 2002 and boasts an unbeaten record, having followed her Munich triumph with impressive victories at the Golden League meetings in Brussels (3:57.75) and Berlin (3:58.43) and at the World Cup in Madrid last weekend (4:02.57). Ceplak, by contrast, has run the world's fastest time at 800m, 1:55.19sec, but has lost to Maria Mutola at Zurich, Stockholm, Crystal Palace and Madrid.

The distance on Tyneside will also favour Ayhan, who turned 24 three weeks ago, and who attributes her big breakthrough to the hard work she has undergone at a training camp in Ezurum, 2,200m above sea level, with her coach Yucel Kop, a former cross-country skier.

"I prepared myself well in training camps," she said. "I had two years of injury problems and I didn't run any races because I was afraid of getting injured again."

Now Ayhan's biggest fear is her fame, as the first golden girl of Turkish athletics. Her victory in the Olympiastadion was in fact the first by a Turkish athlete in the history of the European Championships.

"I was known in Turkey before Munich," she said. "But now it is unbelievable."