Athletics: Dashing Abi sprints towards role-model status

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the end, everybody went home happy. The post-Olympic party had been in serious danger of falling flat when Hicham El Guerrouj grabbed the in-field microphone and explained he would not be running in the 3,000 metres, let alone chasing a world record, in the Van Damme Memorial meet on Friday night because he had "thrown up" while warming up.

In the end, everybody went home happy. The post-Olympic party had been in serious danger of falling flat when Hicham El Guerrouj grabbed the in-field microphone and explained he would not be running in the 3,000 metres, let alone chasing a world record, in the Van Damme Memorial meet on Friday night because he had "thrown up" while warming up.

But then the 3,000m steeplechase threw up a world record for Saif Saaeed Shaheen, the Qatari steeplechasing artist formerly known (in his Kenyan days) as Stephen Cherono, and the women's pole vault produced another world record, the fifth of the summer, for the upwardly mobile Yelena Isinbayeva.

At the end of the evening, Isinbayeva stole the microphone, and the show, from the tenor Helmut Lotti, with a rousing rendition of the Russian national anthem.

It was fitting that such a young athlete should finish centre stage in a meeting held in honour of the late Ivo Van Damme. Isinbayeva is 22, the same age the big, bearded Belgian middle-distance runner happened to be when he was killed in a car crash in December 1976 - just five months after taking silver medals behind Alberto Juantorena (at 800m) and John Walker (at 1500m) in the Montreal Olympics. Had Van Damme lived, and continued to flourish on the track, Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe might never have ruled the global middle-distance waves for Britannia in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It was fitting that the capacity 47,125 crowd should have had a Belgian victory to celebrate, courtesy of Kim Gevaert in the women's 200m. And it was fitting, too, that one of the new Brits on the block should continue to make her global presence felt in the first meeting on the post-Olympic circuit.

The 34-year-old Kelly Holmes might have been the British star of the Olympic track-and field-show in Athens, but the supporting role played by the younger element among the twentysomething brigade was equally heartening for the domestic good of the sport. At the age of 20, Christine Ohuruogu took her running tally of improvement as a 400m runner this summer to 3.71 seconds with a time of 50.50sec to reach the semi-finals. And seven days short of his 22nd birthday yesterday, Mark Lewis-Francis, with his anchor leg in the 4 x 100m relay final, became the youngest British Olympic track-and-field gold medallist since Godfrey Brown anchored the 4 x 400m team to victory at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, aged 21 years and six months.

Both Lewis-Francis and Ohuruogu were too drained after their Olympian efforts to take their allotted places on the start line in the Stade Roi Baudouin on Friday night, but Abi Oyepitan was there and she made her presence felt. While the home crowd roared Gevaert to victory in the 200m, the 24-year-old Shaftesbury Barnet Harrier took the runner-up spot behind the world indoor 60m silver medallist in 22.74sec. It was another outstanding performance at global élite level by the young sprinter from Slough, following on from seven distinguished displays on the Olympic stage in Athens.

One place shy of making the final in the 100m, Oyepitan became the first Briton to reach the women's 200m final since Kathy Cook in 1984, finishing joint seventh after stumbling out of her starting blocks. She also moved to second on the UK all-time ranking list, behind Cook's British record 22.10sec, with a time of 22.50sec in her quarter-final race.

Having clocked 11.17sec for 100m at the Norwich Union International in Birmingham in July, missing Cook's British record in that event by just 0.07sec, the slightly built Oyepitan, one of the featherweight breed of speed merchants, is threatening to drag British women's sprinting out of the distant past and back to the future.

"I am pleased with what I've achieved this summer," she reflected as she waited for the awards presentation for her event on Friday night. "I just want to build on it for next year. I need to get stronger and I also need to run the bend better in the 200m. I'm hanging back too much. I'm too scared of getting tired in the home straight."

The room for further improvement merely underlines the depth of Oyepitan's talent - talent that earned her the World Student Games 100m title in Beijing in 2001. After four more years under the direction of Tony Lester at the Thames Valley Athletics Centre in Eton - training in the company of Marlon Devonish, the third-leg runner in the Olympic champion 4 x 100m relay team, and Tim Benjamin, who reached the 400m semi-finals in Athens - she could well return to the Chinese capital as an Olympic medal contender in the summer of 2008.

"Abi has really upped her game this year," Max Jones, the performance director of UK Athletics, said on Friday. "Now she knows what it's like to make an Olympic final and I think her performances will step up again between now and Beijing. She's shown the other girls that a British woman can reach an Olympic sprint final. Like Kelly Holmes in the middle distances and Paula Radcliffe in the longer distances, she can be a role model."

She can indeed. And not just on the track. Oyepitan's graduation to global heights has coincided with the successful completion of a masters degree in Human Rights and Social Change at Brunel University. "Long-term, I'd like to work in human rights, to help the poor and disadvantaged," she said. In the meantime, helping British athletics build on the success of Athens is a secondary noble cause.

Comments