Athletics: May takes first steps on the long road to Athens

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The World Championships start to come into focus for Britain's athletes next weekend, with the first event of the summer season to be screened on network television. Not that Britain's one reigning world champion will be in view when the European Cup takes place in Florence on Saturday and Sunday; Jonathan Edwards is still recharging his batteries after the indoor season.

There does, however, happen to be another world champion who hails from Britain - and she will be the centre of home attention in the brand-new Stadio Luigi Ridolfi.

For Fiona May, the occasion will be rather like David Beckham leading out the England football team at Old Trafford. She was born in Slough, raised in Derby and educated at Leeds University, but the world long-jump champion has been a Florentine resident for nine years now. She has also become the leading lady of Italian athletics, and will captain the female track-and-field azzurri in her adopted home city.

"I'm really looking forward to it," she said. "It means a lot to me."

As indeed it might. Like Lucy Honeychurch in EM Forster's A Room With A View, May has found Florentine life to be truly transforming. In her latter years in her native land, she was the great unfulfilled talent of British athletics. A world junior champion in 1988 and a sixth-placed finisher in the Olympic final in the same year (at the age of 18), she decided to do something about her stuttering career when she failed to survive the qualifying round at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart. She asked the British Athletic Federation for support. They offered her £500. She accepted an offer of marriage instead, and moved to Florence.

May had met Gianni Iapichino on the dance floor at those world junior championships - in Sudbury, Canada - in 1988. She had been Britain's only gold-medal winner. He had finished fourth in the pole vault. Iapichino was not the only one who welcomed her to Italy with open arms. The Italian athletics federation, the Federazione Italiana di Atletica Leggera, invited her to the national training camp in Formia and gave her a healthy seven-figure salary as a squad member. They also gave her all the coaching and technical support she needed, and turned her into a world-beating senior athlete.

She won the world title in Gothenburg in 1995, and again in Edmonton in 2001. Edwards and Colin Jackson are the only other British-born athletes to have won two individual world championships. May also finished on the podium at the World Championships of 1997 and 1999, and at the Olympic Games in 1996 and 2000. It is a remarkable record of consistency: six medals from the last six championships at global level outdoors. Only Edwards, among members of the British team, can match it.

"I don't think I would have achieved what I have if I had stayed in Britain," May reflected. "It would have been a miracle if I had. The main reason I came to Italy was because I was engaged to Gianni, but I definitely needed to do something about my athletics. Coming over here has given me a different mentality as an athlete. It has really toughened me up."

And May needs all of her toughness right now. At 33, she is on the comeback trail after giving birth to a daughter, Larissa, in July last year. She has yet to approach the form that took her to her second world title with a wind-assisted 7.02m in Edmonton two years ago.

She returned to action with a windy 6.34m jump in Pavia on 4 May and has since improved to 6.55m, which earned her third place behind Maurren Maggi of Brazil and Olga Rublyova of Russia in the Milan Grand Prix II meeting on 3 June. The world champion, however, stands 23rd on the current world rankings.

Of the eight jumpers entered for the European Cup, May is ranked sixth - behind Jade Johnson, the 23-year-old Briton who won silver medals last summer at the Commonwealth Games and European Championships. "I know it's going to be tough getting back," May said. "It's been a long time since I have been in competitions and I have to get used to jumping in a competitive way again. This is very much a transitional season for me. My real goal is the Olympic Games in Athens next year, rather than the World Championships in Paris in August."

A British Olympian in Barcelona in 1992 as well as in Seoul in 1988, May has twice had a Games title snatched from her grasp as an Italian Olympian. She was left with the silver in Atlanta in 1996 after the Nigerian Chioma Ajunwa emerged from a drugs ban in invincible form, and she was the runner-up again in Sydney in 2000 when Heike Drechsler suddenly recaptured her Midas touch.

If she strikes gold in Athens next summer, the former pride of Derby Ladies' Athletics Club will be an icon in Italy, although La Pantera Nera (The Black Panther, as she is affectionately known) is already regarded as something of a national treasure.

"I'm very lucky that the Italians have accepted me," May said. "When I compete as an Italian, it's very important to me. I worked hard to learn the language, the culture, everything. Now I think in Italian, dream in Italian, even swear in Italian." Unfortunately for Britain, she does her winning in Italian too.