Athletics: Graf lost in Ceplak's new world

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The Independent Online

The sheet of paper handed to journalists departing the Ferry Dusika Hallenstadion on Sunday night was headed "Broken records". "Broken hearts" would have been more appropriate, given Steffi Graf's dramatic dethronement on home ground on the third and final day of the European Indoor Championships.

The discarded Austrian paper flags were being swept up, and stewards were tearing down posters bearing the face of the woman who was supposed to have been the star of the Viennese show. Graf had already left with her 800 metres silver medal, and her forced smile, to pick up the pieces of her broken dream with her new manager, Jos Hermens.

Jolanda Ceplak, meanwhile, was coming to terms with her status as the new sensation of the athletics world. Only six months ago in Edmonton she was a semi-final also-ran at the World Championships, failing to make the final with a time of 2mins 2.65sec. On Sunday, the 25-year-old Slovenian ran four laps of the Vienna track like a bottle-blonde bombshell, detonating Graf's golden hopes and shattering the world indoor record in the process.

It was a run of momentous significance: the first to eclipse a women's middle-distance record from Eastern Bloc days. It had been held for 14 years by Christine Wachtel, one of the world-beating women who emerged from an East German track and field regime subsequently revealed from secret-police files to have been fuelled by the systematic administration of performance-enhancing drugs.

Having long been considered out of reach, in these days of tightened drug testing, the fall of an Eastern Bloc landmark has prompted inevitable suspicion. Ceplak had hardly crossed the line, 0.58sec inside Wachtel's record with a time of 1min 55.82sec, when questions were being asked about the huge leap she has taken with an improvement of four seconds on her personal best this year.

Graf was one of those doing the asking, albeit in cryptic fashion. Having herself finished inside the old record, in 1:55.85, it was put to her that she could possibly consider attacking the outdoor world record, the 1:53.28 clocked by the Czechoslovakian hulk Jarmila Kratochvilova 19 years ago. "It is not possible – you cannot improve by four seconds in one year," Graf replied, more than pointedly.

When it was mentioned that Ceplak had done just that, Graf raised her eyebrows and said: "Well, she must be making an improvement my coach has not thought of." The Austrian's coach, Helmut Stechemesser, is a former East German middle-distance runner and a doctor. He runs Austria's leading sports medical centre.

Ceplak attributed her improvement to the internet. "Two years ago I got a new coach," she said. "He's in America. I get my training programmes by e-mail. What I do different now is sprint work and weight training. I train like a 400m runner."

The good news for Graf – having lived so long in the shadow of Maria Mutola on the world stage and now put in the Continental shade, three days after receiving the European athlete of the year award – is that Ceplak will be contesting the 1500m in the Norwich Union International meeting in Glasgow on Saturday with a view to moving up to the longer distance next year.

Not that Graf – who runs in the 800m at the Kelvin Hall – was in the mood for consolation. The perfunctory handshake between them, as they met on laps of honour taken in opposite directions, preceded Graf's announcement that she was splitting with her manager, Robert Wagner, because of the close personal relationship he had developed with Ceplak. "Things have been going on behind my back," she said.

Wagner, a Viennese member of the championship organising committee, was the only local celebrating on Sunday. In his role as an agent, he had hit the jackpot with the new golden girl of middle-distance running.

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