Athletics: Barber's leap gives the faithful a golden evening

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The Independent Online

It took seven days, but the celebratory strains of "La Marseillaise" finally rang round the Stade de France last night. But it could have been so different. When Eunice Barber fled the civil war in Sierra Leone in 1991, her sister, Amelia, settled in England. Eunice lived with her for much of 1997, among the large Sierra Leonean community.

At the time, she considered switching her allegiance as an international athlete from Sierra Leone to Great Britain. "Why didn't I?" Barber said last night. "Because nobody approached me. That's why." And thus, for the want of asking, a golden girl slipped through the great British athletics net.

So it was in the blue, white and red of France that Barber snatched the World Championships long-jump title, launching impromptu bursts of the national anthem ahead of the medal ceremony today. She could hardly have clinched gold in more dramatic fashion, securing victory with a mighty leap of 6.99m in the sixth and final round, after occupying the silver-medal position behind the Russian Tatyana Kotova on countback.

As Kotova cried tears of despair, Barber wept in joy. The 28-year-old followed Marie-José Pérec, winner of the 400m in 1991 and 1995, as the second French athlete to achieve double World Championships gold. Four years ago, it was Barber in Seville who had the cutting edge in the heptathlon, at the expense of Britain's Denise Lewis. Last night she completed the first half of a famous French double, the host nation's women's 4 x 100m relay quartet edging out the United States half-an-hour later.

Ironically, Barber succeeded another golden girl who got away from Great Britain. The long-jump title was held by Fiona May, originally the Derby, who has won two world titles for Italy. The bona fide British No 1, Jade Johnson, was fourth with 6.63m, having lain third until the penultimate round.

Johnson is a long jumper with an allergy to sand and, with one day of competition remaining, the British team seem to suffer an allergy to gold. Unless Steve Backley strikes form in the javelin, the men's 4 x 100m relay is the last chance of avoiding the track- and-field equivalent of dis-aster in Paris. The one and only British victory in a global sprint relay final dates back to the Olympics in Stockholm in 1912, the year the Titanic sunk off the coast of Newfoundland. It has been all downhill since then ­ or down with the baton, perhaps.

It was with some relief, then, that the quartet of Christian Malcolm, Dwain Chambers, Marlon Devonish and Mark Lewis-Francis managed to negotiate the first-round heats without adding to the litany of cock-ups, clocking 38.24sec. The same four later combined to win their semi-final in 38.26sec. Watching nervously from the stands, Dave Moorcroft and Max Jones had reason to breathe a little more easily. Moorcroft, the chief executive of UK Athletics, and Jones, the performance director of the domestic governing body, have not enjoyed the best of times in Paris these past eight days.

Golden shots have come and gone, and the British team start the final day standing 26th in the medal table, with just one silver (Kelly Holmes in the 800m) and one bronze (Darren Campbell in the 100m). Barber alone boasts a more sparkling collection ­ silver from the heptathlon and gold from the long jump. Even then, it might have been different. The world long-jump champion was beaten in the heptathlon long-jump competition by Carolina Kluft, who, however, chose not to contest the individual event.

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