Athletics: Britons in slow lane at start of gold rush

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The Independent Online

Four years ago, in Munich's Olympic Stadium, Britain secured 14 European Championships medals, seven of them gold. Four years on, as the team prepares for the 19th European Championships, which get under way in Gothenburg on Monday, the aspirations have been lowered. Dave Collins, performance director for UK Athletics, has predicted 10 medals. The need for success, however, has never been greater.

The next six years, according to Collins and the UK Athletics chief executive Dave Moorcroft, are the most crucial the sport has ever faced. With the Beijing Olympics just two years down the road and a home showcase four years after that, Britain has to get athletics, the main Olympic sport, back on track.

The Commonwealth Games and European Championships traditionally offer British athletes opportunities to fill their boots before subsequent World Championships and Olympic cycles.

The Commonwealth Games in Melbourne five months ago proved hugely encouraging for a few athletes, including the heptathlon gold and bronze medallists Kelly Sotherton and Jessica Ennis, decathlon winner Dean Macey, triple jump winner Phillips Idowu and 400m winner Christine Ohuruogu. But there were far fewer medals than the previous Games in Manchester had provided. Gothenburg is likely to offer a similarly diminished yield. And, crucially, it is hard to find a single gold medal favourite.

Of Britain's five individual champions in Munich, Colin Jackson (110m hurdles) and Steve Backley (javelin) have retired, Ashia Hansen (triple jump) is not sufficiently recovered from the ghastly knee injury she suffered in 2004, Paula Radcliffe (10,000m) is absent due to pregnancy and Dwain Chambers - whose 100m title was stripped from him last month for doping infringements - appears to be struggling for fitness because of a thigh injury.

The two other golds - from the men's 100m and 400m relays - do not look likely to be defended, given the parlous state of British sprinting and the absence of Martyn Rooney from the 4x400m because he is concentrating on the World Junior Championships, which start in Beijing shortly after the Europeans.

Collins' prediction appears optimistic. But it is the absence of winners which tells at major championships, no matter the totals of medals gained, and while there are a number of British athletes who are on an upward curve, no one announces themselves in the manner of Radcliffe or Jackson four years ago.

Christian Malcolm could have replicated the 200m victory he earned in June's European Cup, but the hamstring injury he sustained at the trials keeps him out. In his absence, the double trials winner Marlon Devonish looks capable of a medal of some kind.

At 400m, Tim Benjamin has laboured to regain full fitness after a hip problem caused him to miss the Commonwealths. His performance at Crystal Palace, where he ran a season's best of 45.38sec, was written off by the athlete himself as "rubbish". It may have been a far cry from his Palace run a year earlier, where he achieved his first sub-45 second time in beating the Olympic champion Jeremy Wariner, but it indicated that he is slowly getting to where he needs to be. His track record of improving between rounds offers him hopes of a medal and maybe even a glimpse of gold in competition with the two French runners who head this year's European rankings, Leslie Djhone and Marc Raquil.

The French pair's times - respectively 44.91sec and 45.01 - are well within reach for a fully fit Benjamin. One person who believes he can win is his mentor Roger Black, who knows plenty about returning from injury to secure titles, something he managed to startling effect at the European Championships of 1990.

Mo Farah's breakthrough at 5,000m last month, when he took nearly 20 seconds off his personal best to record 13min 9.40sec, puts him second in the European rankings behind Ireland's Alistair Cragg, who has run 13.08.97. Given that most European finals are slowish affairs with a swift finish, Farah looks well placed, as he demonstrated at Crystal Palace as the first Briton home in the 1500m.

Michael Rimmer, the 800m trials winner, produced another good run in Helsinki and at 20 appears to have the attitude and ability to break through, as do hurdlers Andy Turner (110m) and Rhys Williams (400m), and indeed the 19-year-old long-jumper Greg Rutherford, whose embarrassing failure in the European Cup is likely to be eradicated by a performance like the one he produced in the trials, where his winning distance of 8.26m was only a centimetre off Chris Tomlinson's British record.

The presence of Rutherford, Tomlinson and the former Commonwealth champion Nathan Morgan should ensure at least one podium place, and the same could happen in the triple jump if Idowu has a good day, although Sweden's Christian Olsson appears almost certain to win gold.

While Ohuruogu is aiming to get her season back in order, Nicola Sanders, who ran a 400m personal best of 50.68sec at Crystal Palace, could profit from any slip by the three leading Russians.

Sotherton's winning heptathlon total from Melbourne of 6,396 points leaves her sixth in the European rankings, but with a half-decent javelin throw the Olympic bronze medallist could earn a medal. However, a recurrence of her back injury could leave her struggling.

Jo Pavey is very likely to earn a medal in the 5,000m to go with the silver she won in Melbourne and Becky Lyne, who has had a fine season at 800m, could also make the podium.

A couple of golds could change the aspect for Britain - but what there has to be at the end of the eight days of competition is a sense of where the future champions are.

Great Britain's European record

1986
Gold: 8
Silver: 2
Bronze: 5
Total: 15

1990
Gold: 9
Silver: 5
Bronze: 4
Total: 18

1994
Gold: 6
Silver: 5
Bronze: 2
Total: 13

1998
Gold: 9
Silver: 4
ronze: 3
Total: B16

2002
Gold: 7*
Silver: 1
Bronze: 6
Total: 14

* includes Dwain Chambers winning the 100 metres title until his gold medal was withdrawn.

Euro stars: Three athletes ready to seize glory in Gothenburg

* CHRISTIAN OLSSON

(Sweden, triple jump) Eleven years ago, Olsson was selling programmes as the Ullevi Stadium hosted the World Championships. He watched Jonathan Edwards set a world triple jump record of 18.29m that still stands. Since then, the Swede has taken over at the top of the event, winning world and Olympic titles, but he will want to win in front of his home crowd more than anything.

* CAROLINA KLUFT (Sweden, heptathlon)

While the Swedes have high hopes for Olsson and the high-jumpers Stefan Holm and Kajsa Bergqvist, Kluft offers the home spectators an all-round spectacle of effortless interactive entertainment. Since winning the European heptathlon title four years ago, Kluft has taken all the other golds going, so she will be determined to finish the cycle positively on home ground.

* KIM GEVAERT (Belgium, 100m & 200m)

The Belgian has been an indoor specialist for years, but her form this year has taken her to the top of the European rankings at both 100m and 200m, ahead of a slew of Russian sprinters. Gothenburg offers this 28-year-old award-winning classical pianist the opportunity to bring her season to a fortissimo closing, four years after she had to settle for silver medals in both events in Munich.

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