The Tuscan sun was so hot yesterday poor Mark Lewis-Francis almost didn't make it from the warm-up track to the main arena in the Stadio Luigi Ridolfo. "I very nearly passed out," he said. "I had to lie down. I felt light-headed. It's just crazy hot." The temperature was well into the 90s on the opening day of the European Cup, but, fortunately for the Great Britain men's team, their young speed merchant was able to cope with the heat of battle once he got out on the track.
The pace was far from scorching in the 100m, though in pulling comfortably clear of the field to win in 10.22sec Lewis- Francis notched another notable achievement in his embryonic sprinting career. At the age of 20, the Birchfield Harrier became only the third man to win the 100m at the European Cup on more than one occasion. A winner in Bremen two years ago, he followed in the footsteps of Linford Christie and Dwain Chambers, Europe's joint-fastest men of all time. He also eclipsed such sprinting greats as Valeriy Borzov and Allan Wells, who achieved just one European Cup 100m win in their illustrious careers.
Borzov, Wells and Christie all won the blue riband of the sprint game, the Olympic 100m crown, and Lewis- Francis has his sights on the same glittering prize. Indeed, he had it in his mind's eye yesterday as he battled to overcome the kind of oppressive conditions he can expect to encounter in Greece next year. "It gives you more of a focus for the Olympics in Athens," he said.
Lewis-Francis gave the British men a valuable eight points as they strove to hold on to the trophy they won in Annecy 12 months ago. The defending champions led overnight with 52 points, one point ahead of France, but they are unlikely to score so freely today. The old guard will be missing: the retired Colin Jackson, the resting Jonathan Edwards and the recuperating Steve Backley.
Still, they got off to a flying start, after Sebastian Coe had opened the newly built stadium, which stands directly opposite the Stadio Comunale, where he broke his 800m world record in 1981. It was not as prettily executed as the 1min 41.73sec Coe recorded in his customary smooth style, but Chris Rawlinson's success in the 400m hurdles was emphatic enough.
Blasting out hard from the start, the former Gladiators contestant finished a clear winner in 48.45sec, just 0.31sec shy of his personal best. It was his second European Cup win, following his victory at Gateshead three years ago, but a turn-around in form, after he had finished eighth and last in Ostrave 10 days ago. "I've had some problems in my love life at home," he confided. "It's sorted now."
Carl Myerscough has had his problems too - a two-year ban after testing positive for a cocktail of steroids in 1999 - but the man they call "the Blackpool Tower" is starting to make his presence felt on the international stage. Nine days ago the 6ft 10in Lancastrian broke Geoff Capes' 23-year-old British shot-put record, throwing a mighty 21.92m at the American collegiate championships in Sacramento. Yesterday he came close to emulating Capes' European Cup win in Nice in 1975, as his best effort, 20.72m, placed him second to a 21.08m put by Spain's Manuel Martinez.
It was all the more impressive considering Myerscough was suffering from jet lag. "I only flew in from America yesterday," he said. "It definitely took the edge off my performance."
Capes, now a breeder of budgerigars, believes Myerscough can strike Olympic gold. The 23-year-old has risen to second place on the world rankings, though whether he will compete in the Greek capital next year remains to be seen. Athletes who have failed drugs tests are barred from British Olympic teams, but they can appeal to the British Olympic Association, and UK Athletics will support Mysercough's case. "We respect why the BOA have the rule," David Moorcroft, chief executive of the domestic governing body, said, "but Carl has served his suspension and we feel that if he can compete for Britain in the European Cup he should be allowed to compete for Britain in the Olympic Games."
Myerscough competes for Britain again today in the discus. A student of art at the University of Nebraska, he will have no time to savour the artistic treasures of Florence. He jets back to the United States tomorrow to marry Melissa Price, the newly crowned US hammer champion.
Other spirited performances from the British squad included Iwan Thomas finishing third in the 400m (in 45.58sec, his fastest time for four years), Mike East placing third in the 1500m and Andy Graffin finishing fourth in the 5,000m.
There were no British winners in the women's competition yesterday, but Hayley Tullett, Lee McConnell and Natasha Danvers all performed with distinction. Tullett took second in the 3,000m, behind Olga Yegorova, the Russian who escaped a drugs ban on a technicality. McConnell was runner-up in the 400m, behind Svetlana Pospelova, a Russian who is returning from a drugs ban. Danvers was second in the 400m hurdles, just 0.07sec short of her personal best in 55.01sec. Even without their biggest hitters - Paula Radcliffe, Ashia Hansen and Kelly Holmes - the British women might still beat the threat of relegation. They stood a promising fifth overnight.