Athletics: Gardener begins to feel benefits of new regime

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Jason Gardener got his indoor season off to a characteristically promising start here at the Kelvin Hall on Saturday. But he and his coach Malcolm Arnold are determined that this year, unlike previous ones, early promise will be fully realised.

Gardener's time in the Norwich Union International 60 metres, 6.54sec, was sufficient to defeat a field which included the American who beat him to the world indoor title three years, ago, Tim Harden.

It was not Gardener's fastest start to a season - he recorded 6.52 in his first outing of 2003. But, in the circumstances, it was at least as impressive, given that he got away cautiously after a false start by one of his rivals, which triggered the rule that would mean disqualification for any subsequent offender. He was also clearly easing down over the final five metres.

"Harden's record speaks for itself," Gardener said. "I knew I would have to be serious and knuckle down to produce a performance." Arnold, meanwhile, is preoccupied with ensuring that the sprinter with whom he began coaching last season continues to excel, whether indoors or out.

Gardener has perennially enjoyed a starring role on the boards, amassing two European titles, two World bronzes and the European record, only to find himself reduced to an understudy in the summer.

This season Arnold, who coached John Akii Bua to the 1972 Olympic 400m hurdles title and guided Colin Jackson to a long and glittering high hurdles career which ended last year, has an exacting set of targets for Gardener.

"I really want Jason to set a new European record, get a medal better than he has ever got in the World Indoors, and then to reach the Olympic final," Arnold said. "I think there is no reason why he shouldn't do it, especially outdoors, if he can work at the back end of his race."

To that end, the 28-year-old Bath athlete has been working harder than ever before in his life, and over longer distances. It was a culture shock for him last year, but now he feels his body has begun to adapt.

Arnold is a hard taskmaster, but he is highly satisfied with Gardener's progress and attitude. The former national coach, however, offered a swift reminder of the stringency which kept Jackson up to the mark for the last 15 years when he assessed the current climate within UK athletics.

"The most disappointing thing for me since Lottery funding began is the number of athletes who think achieving Lottery status means they have arrived," he said. "It should be just a beginning, but too many regard it as an Olympic gold medal. It's about time a lot of athletes pulled their finger out. They are letting their country down, taking what the country offers and giving nothing back." Arnold's criticism was partly aimed at athletes who have regularly failed to appear for events such as the AAA indoor and outdoor trials or the European Cup.

"How many times did you see Colin Jackson or Linford Christie, real athletes, miss those kind of occasions?" he asked.

Arnold's comments came at the end of a day in which a patchy British team put together at a time when many athletes are away warm-weather training could only manage third place in a five-way challenge against Italy, Sweden, Russia and a World Select.

There were only two other British victories besides Gardener's - Kelly Holmes easily won the 1500m, and Helen Karagounis produced a 400m personal best of 53.31sec, beating the qualifying mark for the World Indoor Championships, which start in Budapest on 5 March. Abi Oyepitan was another British winner, also achieving a qualifying mark in winning the 60m in a personal best of 7.27sec, but she was running for the World Select.

Following the unwillingness of UK Athletics to build appearances into athletes' contracts, meeting promoters FastTrack have taken matters into their own hands, announcing that any athlete who runs for money from Glasgow and the forthcoming Grand Prix at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena will forfeit 25 per cent of their earnings if they fail to show up at the AAA Championships and World Trials in Sheffield on Feb 7-8.

The position was reiterated to athletes on the eve of Saturday's competition by FastTrack's Jon Ridgeon, who acknowledged that the ultimate pressure in the matter was coming from the BBC, which has just begun a new five-year contract with the domestic sport.

"We have to be focused this year on staging seven world class meets," Ridgeon said. "Making sure that they are world class."

The Glasgow meeting lived up to Ridgeon's target in the women's 800 metres, where Olympic and world champion Maria Mutola won as she pleased in 1min 58.94sec, which marked her fastest start to a season.

Top class performances were also produced in the women's pole vault where the Russian Yelena Isinbayeva, who holds the world outdoor record holder with a jump of 4.82m, registered the third best effort indoors by winning with 4.76 ahead of her bitter domestic rival Svetlana Feofanova, the world indoor and outdoor champion.

The two are so averse to each other that they deliberately took separate flights out of Moscow this week, with Isinbayeva arriving a day later. Feofanova was so put out by the reverse that she spent half an hour afterwards sitting on a bench in the infield talking the competition through with her coach. Now there was an athlete who cared.