Athletics: Gardener sees a glint at last

British trials
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The Independent Online

"The Last Night of the Poms," the Australian press called it, when the English athletes finished with a golden flourish to top the track and field medal table at the Commonwealth Games two years ago. The strains of "Land of Hope and Glory" that rang round the City of Manchester Stadium have long since faded, though. As Britain's athletes gathered to contest their Olympic trials in the Manchester Regional Arena yesterday, the former warm-up track in the shadow of the Commonwealth venue, hope and glory had given way to an altogether more Micawberish mood. Some glimmer of hope for Athens might just turn up in the course of the two-day meeting.

Malachi Davis turned up with a British passport from California, to offer some promise of an outside medal shot in the men's 4 x 400m relay in Athens. After the Commonwealth gold rush of two years ago, though, only Paula Radcliffe is on course for Olympic glory next month. And the women's marathon aside, there is not a great deal of hope of even British silver or bronze in other events. The men's 100m could prove to be one of the few exceptions.

Britain's top speed merchants have yet to hit top gear this summer but in the wind and cold on day one of the Norwich Union Olympic Trials and AAA Championships they were shifting into encouraging form. Jason Gardener emerged victorious from the final, edging marginally in front in the last few strides to take his third AAA title in 10.22sec, 0.01sec ahead of Darren Campbell, the Mancunian who took the bronze medal in last year's World Championships - and 0.02sec ahead of Mark Lewis-Francis. Only the first two were guaranteed automatic selection for Athens, but Lewis-Francis, who leads the British rankings with 10.17sec, can expect to go to the Greek capital on the strength of his third-placed finish.

For Gardener, it was a triumph in more ways than one. Last summer the "Bath bullet" failed to hit the selection target. After finishing fourth in the AAA Championships, he watched the World Championships from the Eurosport television studios in west London. He also booked a BBC training course for the autumn of 2004 with a view to a possible career change should his sprinting ambitions continue to stall in Olympic year.

His fears have proved unfounded. After linking up with Malcolm Arnold, the coach who guided Colin Jackson to the 110m hurdles world record and John Akii Bua to Olympic 400m hurdles gold, the 28-year-old established himself as a global sprinting force in the indoor season. Indeed, he established himself as the leading global force, winning the world indoor 60m title in Budapest in March.

Such is his fortune, though, Gardener was subsequently obliged to undergo a double hernia operation. And, such is his character and his talent, he has battled back to fitness and form to qualify for Athens as British number one. "It has been a real uphill struggle," he confessed. "But this is a massive win for me. It's my time now."

It was Denise Lewis's time in 2000, though four years on from her heptathlon triumph in Sydney, Britain's only competing track and field Olympic champion did a good job of turning back the clock yesterday. In fact, the 31-year-old was better than ever in the javelin, taking fourth place in a high-class competition with a throw of 51.48m, the first personal best she has registered in any event since Sydney. "I'm delighted with that," she said. "The old bird can still get PBs."

Her solid performance tempered the disappointment of being 0.69sec down on her best with a time of 13.82sec in the heats of the 100m hurdles earlier in the day. It also coincided with outstanding performances in the javelin by Kelly Morgan, who threw 58.98m for second place in only her second competition since returning after a shoulder operation, and Goldie Sayers, who won with 60.85m, 35cm inside the Olympic A standard qualifying distance.

The A standard for the men's long jump, an anomalously high 8.19m, continued to elude Chris Tomlinson. The young Teessider won yesterday with 7.84m, but still looks like he will make it to Athens. The British selectors can take one athlete in each event with a B standard and, though Nathan Morgan has a valid A standard from last summer, he needed to finish in the top two yesterday to qualify automatically. He was third, behind Tomlinson and Darren Ritchie.

Having won so impressively at the European Cup last month, with a wind-assisted 8.28m, and finished sixth in the World Indoor Championships in March, Tomlinson has an outside chance of making it on to the Olympic medal rostrum next month. The selectors can ill afford to leave someone of that potential outside of Athens altogether.