Athletics: Gardener ready to turn on power in Birmingham

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The Independent Online

While Dwain Chambers' high-profile disciplinary hearing exemplifies everything athletics should not be about, tonight's Norwich Union Grand Prix in Birmingham offers a rich variety of reasons to remind people why the sport is still worth following.

The high point of the domestic indoor season will see appearances from numerous British athletes seeking to turn form into medals at next month's World Indoor Championships in Budapest, not least the 60 metres sprinter, Jason Gardener, while the presence of towering talents such as Haile Gebrselassie, running his last ever indoor race in this country, and the triple Olympic gold medallist Marion Jones, who is making her second and final indoor appearance of the season before beginning her training for Athens.

Jones faces a huge challenge in the first of her events in the National Indoor Arena, the 60m, where she faces Zhanna Block, the Ukrainian who beat her in the last 100m World Championship race she contested in 2001. While the American has rarely run the short sprint, Block is the reigning world indoor champion.

"My strength in the 100m is the second half and in the past I've been most challenged over the first 60m," said Jones, who won the 60m at New York's Millrose Games a fortnight ago in what was her first race after maternity leave. "By running these 60m I'm having to focus on the start."

But the 28-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina, also wants to test the new long jump technique she has picked up since appointing her new coach, Dan Pfaff, last year. This will be Jones's first competitive appearance in the event since she won the bronze at the Sydney Olympics.

"I've learned more about the event in the time I have spent with Dan than I have in seven years on the circuit," she said. "In the past I relied solely on my speed on the approach run. Now I take a more controlled run and get my body into angles it has never been in before. I've improved my landings too - they are not such a thud."

Should Gardener fail to win the 60m after equalling his own European record of 6.46sec in Karlsruhe last Sunday, the fall to earth will create an almighty thud. But the 28-year-old Bath athlete has been in such consistent form during an unbeaten run in which he has recorded the eight fastest times this season that such an event looks unlikely.

Any mistakes, however, in a notoriously unforgiving event, are likely to be exploited by Gardener's domestic rivals, Mark Lewis-Francis, making his first international appearance of the season, and Darren Campbell, for whom this will be the one and only indoor outing this year.

But the Briton most in need of a promising performance tonight is the local athlete Ashia Hansen, who won the world indoor title in this arena last March before undergoing an operation on her foot which has prevented her from competing until tonight.

Meanwhile, Kelly Holmes, the world indoor 1500m silver medallist, faces the woman with whom she shares a house, a coach and training facilities in South Africa over 1000m - the world and Olympic 800m champion Maria Mutola of Mozambique. The two friends meet over middle ground in a race that also includes Britain's Jo Fenn, who set the British 1000m record at this meeting last year.

The competitive nature of this race is likely to be matched by the women's 3,000 metres, which includes the world indoor record holder, Berhane Adere of Ethiopia, who won the 10,000m at the last World Championship in the absence of Paula Radcliffe, the Olympic 5,000m champion, Gabriela Szabo of Romania, and the world 5,000m champion, Tirunesh Dibaba.

Two other great rivals steer separate courses in the men's middle distance events, where Gebrselassie, who will concentrate on marathon running next year, has promised to attack the two miles world record of 8min 04.69sec he set in Birmingham last year while his young Ethiopian colleague, Kenenisa Bekele, who beat him to the world 10,000m title last year, will contest the 5,000m.

"I'm not getting old," said the 30-year-old double Olympic champion. "But I am losing speed."

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