Athletics: Gardener sends out warning to sprint rivals

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In recent years, by his own admission, Jason Gardener's sprint rivals have been able to rely upon him failing to carry his indoor form through to the outdoor season. Not this year, it seems.

The double European 60m champion opened his summer season at yesterday's international match here over a distance he has rarely run, the 200m, and the manner of his victory in a time of 20.81sec will have given Dwain Chambers and Mark Lewis-Francis, whom he is due to meet over 100m in Ostrava on Thursday, pause for serious thought.

Despite running in blustery conditions on an afternoon that earlier saw a thunderstorm, the 27-year-old finished with all the poise he has habitually displayed since emerging as one of Britain's fastest men eight years ago.

He was clearly delighted with a performance that reflected favourably upon the partnership he has established in the course of the last nine months with his new coach, Malcolm Arnold. "Today was a nice, refreshing change for me which will hopefully see rewards in my 100m running. This is a very exciting period for me because I am healthy,'' he said.

"I've really enjoyed myself in the training I've done with Malcolm. He felt I needed to be conditioned more, and we've found that I seem to have good strength endurance. Some of the athletes - athletes who have run better than me - run the 200m and it seems to help their 100m performance.''

Asked if he would consider running both sprints at the European Cup in Florence later this month, for which the main team will be announced this week, Gardener replied emphatically in the affirmative. But he accepts that if he and his two main 100m rivals get into the same race in Ostrava then that will be an effective run-off for the individual place in the shorter sprint.

Gardener's 200m best of 20.65 was set in similarly damp conditions in Inglestadt four years ago, and he believes it is no coincidence that it was in that year he also set his 100m best of 9.98sec.

At that time, the world champion, America's Maurice Greene, picked Gardener out as the most promising of his British rivals, but since then, despite indoor success, the quietly spoken Gardener has failed to deliver later in the year. It was his growing frustration with this state of affairs that caused him to break last September with the man who had guided his career from the start, Dave Lease. "That's why I had to make a change because I always seemed to be a little bit more unlucky than anyone else.''

He points out that the current arrangement has presented a new challenge to Arnold, who saw the man he had spent more than 15 years coaching, world 110m record- holder Colin Jackson, retire in March. "Malcolm likes to say that he's got a man now who can run 60m in 6.46 and 100m in 9.98 and he's got to improve on that. I hope he does.''

While Gardener left Loughborough in buoyant form, another hugely talented athlete who has recently made radical changes to his lie in pursuit of his full potential, Iwan Thomas, was left with a sinking feeling.

The former European and Commonwealth 400m champion, who still holds the British record of 44.36, laboured in the wind before finishing 0.03 behind 19-year-old Robert Tobin in a time of 48.03. As he pointed out with some bafflement, he has never run so slowly. "I don't know what happened out there,'' said Thomas, who now has regular use of the £5m High Performance Centre overlooking the home straight after relocating from Southampton.

"It was the weirdest race I think I've ever had. Last weekend in Norway I ran 45.9 and it was so easy.'' Following the time of 45.42 which Britain's No 1 at this distance, Daniel Caines, produced in Seville on Saturday, the Welshman accepts he is unlikely to earn an individual place at the European Cup. But he is confident, nevertheless, that his performance on the track was an aberration.

The match produced a British record in the hammer for Lorraine Shaw, who improved her best mark from 68.15m to 68.93 with her first throw of the competition.