After the doom of a winless World Championships in Paris last summer and the gloom of the Dwain Chambers drugs case, British athletics is about to get a welcome glimpse of gold as the Athens Olympic Games loom on the horizon.
At San Juan in Puerto Rico today the golden girl of the sport in these shores begins her competitive countdown to her moment of Olympic destiny on the road from Mara-thon to Athens on 22 August. The World's Best 10km is Paula Radcliffe's first race of 2004. A year ago she made sure the event lived up to its billing, clocking 30min 21sec - a world best at the time, though now, following full recognition of road-race performances, a world record.
Next weekend there could be the sight of British gold much closer to home. The World Indoor Championships open in Budapest on Friday, running through to Sunday, and Jason Gardener (60m) and Kelly Holmes (1500m) will head for the Hungarian capital as favourites.
For Holmes, it will be an opportunity to christen a golden age of British women's middle-distance running. It is already a silver and bronze age, thanks to Holmes and Hayley Tullett, who accounted for half of the British medals won in Paris last August, with - respectively - silver in the 800m and bronze in the 1500m. And that healthy state of affairs looks set to continue, whether or not Holmes makes it to the top of the medal rostrum in Budapest as the first female British athlete to win a global title in any track event since Sally Gunnell hurdled to victory in world-record time at the World Championships in Stuttgart in 1993.
Jo Fenn has an outside chance of a medal in the 800m, and in the 3,000m Tullett, who heads the world rankings in the mile this year, will be joined in the hunt for a top-three placing by the British revelation of the indoor season.
In her first-ever race on the boards, Jo Pavey broke the AAA Indoor Championship record for 3,000m in Sheffield three weeks ago, clocking 8min 43.23sec. In her second indoor race, the 3,000m at the Norwich Union Grand Prix in Birmingham nine days ago, the 30-year-old Devonian improved by almost nine seconds with a time of 8:34.55, breaking the British record Liz McColgan set as runner-up to Elly van Hulst at the 1989 World Indoor Championships in Budapest.
"To get a record that was held by Liz is such a great honour because she was such a great athlete," Pavey reflected. "She's always been a big heroine of mine. She's such a gutsy runner, someone I really, really respect. She's always been such a tough athlete and worked really hard."
Now the chairwoman of Scottish Athletics, McColgan worked really hard at the Scottish Cross Country Championships in Perth last weekend. The former world 10,000m champion won the women's title for the first time, three months short of her 40th birthday, though yesterday she was forced to hang up her racing shoes for good having been told she could never run again because of a fractured foot-bone.
As someone with a professional interest in the development of her sport in Britain, McColgan will have been greatly heartened by the sight of Pavey making the breakthrough to world élite level in Birmingham with a gritty, attacking run that might have been drawn directly from the McColgan Manual.
With four laps remaining, Pavey surged past Berhane Adere, the holder of the World Championship 10,000m crown, and stretched the best fieldat Britain's annual showpiece indoor meeting. She was overtaken on the last lap by Meseret Defar, the Ethio-pian who won a 3,000m bronze medal at last year's World Indoor Championships, and by Tirunesh Dibaba, the 19-year-old Ethio-pian who won the 5,000m at last summer's outdoor World Championships.
In finishing a close third, though, Pavey claimed the prized scalps of Adere - the only athlete to have won world titles outdoors, indoors, at cross country and on the road - and Gabriela Szabo, the Olympic 5,000m champion, who found the pace too hot to handle and failed to finish.
It was a significant step up in status for the pride of Exeter Harriers, 16 years after she showed her first hint of future world-class potential. As Jo Davis, she set a British Under-15 record for 1500m at the English Schools' Championships in Yeovil, winning in 4min 27.9sec - 13 seconds and eight places ahead of a young Bedfordshire girl by the name of Paula Radcliffe.
It took Pavey until 1997 to reach international grade as a senior athlete, and though she proceeded to progress to major championship finals (12th in the 5,000m at the Sydney Olympics in 2000; 11th in the 5,000m final at the 2001 World Championships; fifth in the 5,000m at the Commonwealth Games and European Championships in 2002; and 10th in the 1500m at last summer's World Championships) only now has the West Country woman made her mark at the sharp end of world-class competition.
A medal-winning mark in Budapest has to be a strong possibility for Pavey, who is guided by her coach and husband, Gavin Pavey. Not that she is shouting the odds. "I don't want to say I'm going to do this, that, and the other," she said. "You've just got to do the best you can when you're there. Obviously, you hope to try and go for a medal. That's what you always aim for. Doing it is a different matter, isn't it?"
It is indeed. But, judging by her brilliant run in Birmingham, Pavey has what it takes to become one of Britain's bronzed or silvered middle- distance women, if not a 24-carat golden girl.
Best of Britain Four with a golden chance
Jason Gardener (60m)
The Bath Bullet sadly misfired at the Norwich Union Grand Prix in Birmingham nine days ago, getting caught sleeping in his blocks in his heat and failing to make the final. It was his first defeat in 12 races this season and not the confidence-booster he was looking for in his last competition before Budapest. He still holds the fastest time in the world this year, a European-record-equalling 6.46sec, but in Chemnitz on Friday the 19-year-old Nigerian Olusa Fasiba clocked 6.50, and in Boston today Maurice Greene makes his season's debut. A first British success in the 60m is no foregone conclusion.
Kelly Holmes (1500m)
Twice a Commonwealth champion at 1500m, and a multi-medallist in other championships, the former Army judo champion has yet to strike a winning blow in a global competition. Last year she won two silvers at world championships, indoors at 1500m (which may yet be upgraded to gold, depending on any action taken against Regina Jacobs in the wake of her positive test for THG) and outdoors at 800m. On the strength of her European-record 1,000m run in Birmingham, Holmes should be the woman to beat in Budapest, where her training partner, Maria Mutola, will be sticking to 800m.
Mike East (1500m)
It is two years since the pride of Pompey started his one-man revival of men's British middle-distance running, finishing strongly to take the 1500m bronze at the European Indoor Championships in Vienna. In 2002 his crusade gathered momentum with his brilliant victory in the Commonwealth Games 1500m in Manchester. Failing to reach the metric-mile final at the World Championships last summer was a setback, but in Birmingham nine days ago East took another encouraging step forward, finishing third in a high-class race in 3min 36.42sec, the fifth-fastest time in the world this year.
Carl Myerscough (Shot put)
Budapest will be an opportunity for the "Blackpool Tower" to restore pride after crashing out in the qualifying rounds at the outdoor World Championships in Paris last August. The meeting will also be his only chance this year to make a mark on the global stage unless he succeeds in his High Court battle against the lifetime ban imposed by the British Olympic Association following his test for anabolic steroids in 1999. Myerscough's wife, hammer thrower Melissa Price, is one of five US athletes facing punishment after testing positive for designer steroid THG.Reuse content