Athletics: Britain fear for now - and plan for then

Lewis-Francis in danger of being left behind but young sprinters in the wings suggest a brighter future

Had it not been for the small matter of London being unable to deliver the stadium it promised, the Norwich Union AAA Championships, which opened yesterday in the Manchester Regional Arena, would have been the trials for World Championships in England's capital just four weeks' hence. As it is, the 2005 national championships are qualifiers for World Championships that have been passed on to Helsinki - World Championships in which British athletes are unlikely to suffer altitude sickness from ascending the medal rostrum.

It is a sobering starting point on the long road to the London Olympics of 2012, never mind to the 2005 World Championships which open in Helsinki on 6 August, that Britain happens to have just two athletes ranked in the top six in the world in standard Olympic track and field events. Paula Radcliffe is the world No 1 for 2005 in the marathon and Kelly Sotherton is the world No 3 in the heptathlon. And even they are far from secure medal favourites.

Radcliffe's form and fitness were short of the mark at the European Cup First League meeting in Leiria, Portugal, last month, while the re-emergence of Eunice Barber and the emergence of young American Hyleas Fountain have provided Sotherton with more rivals to worry about than the two women who finished ahead of her at the Athens Olympics: Carolina Kluft and Austra Skujyte.

With Dame Kelly Holmes suffering from an Achilles problem and confessing she is "less and less likely" to place her reputation on the line in Helsinki, the only other Great British source of real hope for medals is the men's 4 x 100 metre relay team, although not the same four who memorably struck Olympic gold last summer. Individually, Jason Gardener, Darren Campbell, Marlon Devonish and Mark Lewis-Francis were showing no hints of a Midas touch a year ago, none of the four reached the finals of the 100m or 200m in Athens. In that respect, then, the prospects for Helsinki could be described as promising.

Gardener and Lewis-Francis are ranked joint 21st in the world this year, with identical clockings of 10.13sec. In the final yesterday Gardener prevailed in 10.26sec, with Lewis-Francis second in 10.30sec. Neither performance will have struck any fear into the hearts of the world's leading speed merchants, although Gardener was happy enough to add a fourth AAA 100m title to a collection that includes the world and European indoor 60m crowns. "In the right race, I'm capable of getting under ten seconds," he said.

The "Bath Bullet", who shot under the 10sec barrier in Lausanne six years ago, with a run of 9.98sec, might have to do so again if he is to reach the final in Helsinki. At least he has a place in the team, though. Campbell, short of fitness following a hip injury, bowed out in the semi-finals, clocking 10.48sec, a season's best. He then withdrew from the field for the 200m today. "I'll leave it to the youngsters to have the chance that they deserve," he said, "but I'm not finished yet."

Neither, by any means, is Devonish. The fastest qualifier of the final, with a semi-final time of 10.19sec, the Coventrian was disqualified for a false-start but has shown more than sufficient sharpness at the shorter distance to promise a memorable battle with the in-form Christian Malcolm at his principal distance, 200m, this afternoon. As for Lewis-Francis, he left the arena clutching his left hamstring. "I've been told it's a minor tear," he said.

The Birchfield Harrier will be 29 for the London Olympics, but his sprinting career has been stuck in neutral, if not reverse, since the night he lined up as co-favourite for the Commonwealth Games 100m final and finished a hamstrung seventh. That was three years ago in the City of Manchester Stadium across the way from the AAA Championships venue.

The danger for Lewis-Francis, unless he manages to regain momentum, is being overtaken in the race towards London 2012. Thankfully for Britain's long-term prospects, there is a wealth of sprinting talent in these shores. One Staffordshire household alone boasts 17-year-old Alex Nelson, a 10.31sec 100m runner who travels to Marrakesh this week as favourite for the world youth title, and 14-year-old Ashleigh Nelson, who ran a scorching 11.64sec for 100m at the English Schools' Championships in Birmingham on Friday.

The English Schools' Championships have long been a rich source of British Olympic track and field talent. Back in 1973, at the Bebington Oval, the intermediate boys' 3,000m final was won by a coltish Sebastian Coe. Seven years later he was a thoroughbred winner of the Olympic 1500m crown in Moscow. Seven years from now Britain's best athletes will be going for Olympic gold in the Games Lord Seb helped to win for London.