Athletics: Gevaert races past Jones and into the whirlwind lane

Surprise victory over America's golden girl catapults the graceful but unsung Belgian into world's view
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The Independent Online

As Kim Gevaert crossed the 60m finish line ahead of Marion Jones at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham on Friday night a look of sheer bewilderment was etched upon her face. It was much the same when she lost control of her car on the Brussels ring road two weeks ago.

"I had to avoid someone and I hit the railings," Gevaert reflected in the aftermath of her stunning success in the Norwich Union Grand Prix. "I lost control completely. My car overturned and that was really scary. It was like riding a rollercoaster. You don't know if you're going to get out OK. At the moment the car turned upside down, and I was lying there, I thought someone was going to hit me and I was going to die.

"I'm very lucky. I managed to get out safely. My back was a bit sore, but there was no real physical damage."

That much was evident on Friday in the fast lanes of the National Indoor Arena. The Belgian sprinter known in her homeland as La Gazelle de Kamoenhout, but little known outside track-and-field circles, sped to a famous victory, inflicting the first defeat in two years and five months on Jones, the supposed superwoman of world athletics. Jones might be on her way back from motherhood, but she willingly placed herself and her reputation as a triple Olympic gold medallist on the line in Birmingham and was unable to keep up with the woman who rode her luck on the Brussels périphérique and lived to tell the tale.

Gevaert is as eloquent in conversation as she is graceful in high-speed movement upon the track. She was an award-winning classical pianist before her older brother, Marlon, introduced her to athletics at the age of 15. She has a degree in speech therapy and speaks English with a fluency and erudition that would put many a native British sports star to shame.

At trackside on Friday, Gevaert's manager, Wilfred Meert, spoke of her own "superstar" status back home. "She's hugely popular in Belgium," he said. "She's intelligent. She's good looking. She's a popular guest on talk shows."

Gevaert herself blanched at the des-cription. "Superstar is not a word I would choose," she said. "Obviously, we are a small country. We do not have so many successful sports people, so when we have someone they get a lot of attention."

Gevaert became the centre of Belgian attention in 2002, when she won the 60m at the European Indoor Championships in Vienna and took silver medals over 100m and 200m at the outdoor European Championships in Munich.

Last summer she failed to venture beyond the semi-finals of the 100m and 200m at the World Championships in Paris. This winter, though, the 25-year-old is making a marked impression at global level.

Gevaert's winning time, 7.13sec, equalled the Belgian record she set in Karlsrühe last Sunday and, in addition to finishing 0.03sec ahead of Jones, she also took the scalp of the last woman to beat the American, Zhana Block of Ukraine. Block defends her 60m title at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest in a fortnight. Jones will not be there to challenge her, but Gevaert will.

The Belgian, who lives near Brussels airport, is unbeaten this winter. She stands second to Gail Devers on the world ranking list and, of course, she has her new-found status as the conqueror of the US golden girl. "For someone like me, it's a very scary thing to beat Marion Jones," Gevaert said, still shaking her head late on Friday night. "It was almost surreal to be ahead of her in the race. I'm just pleased that I managed to stay calm and not be too intimidated by her."

For that stability of temperament, Gevaert had Denise Lewis to thank. Lewis's partner, the Belgian sprinter Patrick Stevens, shares the same coach as Gevaert, Rudi Diels. The pair have become firm friends, and Gevaert visited the Birmingham-based heptathlete on Thursday after discovering with some trepidation that she had been drawn to run in the lane next to Jones. "Denise calmed me down," she said. But how precisely? "Oh, just by being her happy self," Gevaert elaborated.

Though blessed with an engagingly sunny disposition of her own, Gevaert was not amused when she finished behind Katerina Thanou in the European Championships 100m final two years ago, being quoted as saying the gold medal should have belonged to her, because she didn't think the Greek athlete was "clean". "I didn't really mean it to be that hard," Gevaert reflected on Friday. "It came out harder than I intended."

Track and field, of course, is being hit hard by the taint of drugs in the aftermath of the THG designer-steroid affair. "I just think it's sad that the sport has to be linked with that," Gevaert, who sits on the athletes' commission of the European Athletics Association, said. "It's sad that when people talk to you there's always a question about drugs."

It's a sad sign of the times, too, that Gevaert's manager should feel the need to pre-empt any questions about her. "There are not many athletes about whom you would put your hand in the fire and say, 'They're categorically clean'," Meert said. "With her, I would put two hands in the fire. She's clean." And showing Marion Jones a clean pair of heels, too.