Athletics: Hansen welcomes threat posed by Aldama and relishes raised standards

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The Independent Online

There are some British athletes, female British athletes even, who might be vexed to see a potential rival squeeze into this year's Olympics under a flag of convenience.

But the news that the Cuban-born Yamile Aldama, having failed to earn a British passport in time, has earned competitive status this season in the colours of Sudan was greeted with generosity by Ashia Hansen, Britain's reigning Commonwealth, European and world indoor triple jump champion. Hansen is as Hansen does.

"I think it's brilliant she's found someone to compete for," the 32-year-old Shaftesbury Barnet Harrier said yesterday. "It's going to make the triple jump a hell of a lot more exciting this year. I expected her to be competing this season for some country - I never expected anything else, although Sudan is quite an unusual country."

Hansen, who is due to face the former Cuban in just over five weeks' time when she defends her world indoor title in Budapest, denied that she felt crowded by Aldama's attempts to obtain Home Office approval to speed up her application for British citizenship, a quest that was actively supported by UK Athletics.

"There wasn't much difference for me whether she jumped for Britain or not. There will be three Olympic places available in the event so that wouldn't have been a problem. At the end of the day we are all trying to compete, and she will be another competitor. We are all going to be there in Athens, injury permitting. That's why I'm quite happy."

She believes the competition in the event this year could be at a higher level than it has ever reached, with four or five athletes jumping more than 15 metres. The likeliest candidates are Aldama - who produced the third furthest jump ever, 15.29 metres, to lead last year's rankings - Russia's world champion, Tatyana Lebedeva, the Commonwealth silver medallist Françoise Mbango, Italy's Magdelin Martinez, and, naturally, herself.

It is 10 months since Hansen was last in competitive action, producing a last-round effort of 15.01m to set Birmingham's National Indoor Arena in uproar as she claimed the world indoor title in her home city. The result was her third consecutive victory in a major championship - the year before, she had earned her Commonwealth and European titles within the space of just over a week - but it came at a cost.

Hansen was only able to compete in Birmingham after having pain-killing injections in her heel, and required an operation the following month which, when it was compounded by an Achilles tendon injury, put paid to the rest of 2003.

"It was a calculated risk to compete at Birmingham, but it was worth it," she said. "Had I not decided to compete in the World Indoors and just had the operation straightaway, I still wouldn't have been able to compete in the outdoor World Championships. I had always wanted to be there in Birmingham for a global competition, and I wasn't ready to pass up the opportunity."

Training at Birmingham's High Performance Centre under the supervision of the former British international triple jumper Aston Moore, has gone smoothly since she resumed in October. Both were a part of the British jumping contingent that returned to the United Kingdom last Friday after enjoying a spell of warm-weather training in South Africa.

Hansen, however, is cautious about confirming that she is 100 per cent in shape as she goes into a season that will culminate in what is realistically her last chance of earning an Olympic medal. This, after all, is an athlete who had to learn to walk again in 2001 after requiring major surgery on a foot problem which had undermined her Olympic challenge in 2000.

"I don't think I'll ever be 100 per cent," she says with a giggle. "I'm always going to have some kind of niggle because I'm always on the edge of things in training." The main problem at the moment is the tail end of a virus, which she picked up in South Africa, but she is confident she will be fit to start her indoor season back in Birmingham on 20 February at the Norwich Union Grand Prix. She is trying not to think about what lies ahead in Athens eight months from now.

"I don't see why I can't win in Athens," she said. "It's just a matter of staying in one piece."

* The Olympic heptathlon champion, Denise Lewis, is unlikely to compete indoors this winter after spraining her ankle over Christmas.

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