Athletics: Pavey a rare hope in the wilderness

The woman who once put Paula in her place may brighten a bleak Brit Awards

It was Paula Radcliffe who started the British goldrush at the last European Championships in Munich, causing such a scene of devastation in her high-speed wake in the 10,000m that it brought to mind the famous photograph of a nonchalant Daley Thompson leaving his rivals lying spent and strewn at his feet at the end of the decathlon at the 1982 Championships in Athens.

Both snapshots are likely to seem sepia memories by the end of the 2006 Championships in Gothenburg this week. In Munich, the British team finished with seven gold medals. Going into the start of the action in Gothenburg tomorrow the formbook shows not one British athlete at the top of the European rankings in any event.

Of the golden boys and girls of 2002, Radcliffe is pregnant, Steve Backley and Colin Jackson have retired to the commentary boxes, Ashia Hansen is on the comeback trail after injury, the two men's relay teams are not what they were, and neither is Dwain Chambers, whose winning feats of four years ago in the 100m and 4 x 100m relay have been retrospectively expunged from the record books following his admission that they were achieved with the assistance of anabolic steroids. This time there is hope of pinching a medal here or there, rather than great British expectation of gold across the board.

Seven of the 82 athletes in the British team rank second or third in their events, only one of them in the women's section. As it happens, that woman knows what it is like to reduce Radcliffe to a state of devastation on the track. Not that Jo Pavey, possibly the most self-effacing member of the British team, can be found basking in the glow of the day she left the future world marathon record holder trailing helplessly in her own record-breaking wake.

They were both 14-year-olds at the time, and Pavey was known as Joanne Davis. Running for Devon in the English Schools' Championships at Yeovil in 1988, she won the junior girls' 1500m in 4min 27.9sec, a British Under- 15s record. Radcliffe, representing Bedfordshire, was some 90 metres adrift. She finished eighth in 4:41.0.

"Yeah, Paula was in that race, but obviously she's gone on to great things," Pavey said, before packing her bags for Sweden. "It's funny, because I've seen a film of the race and you can see her in the background. It just shows that what you do at that age doesn't necessarily mean what you're going to do later. Look at what Paula's gone on to do: world record holder for the marathon, world champion. She's been awesome."

Pavey has not been quite so awesome. Which athletes have? At 32, though, the Exeter Harrier has been coming good as an international medal winner. After years of fighting injuries, it took her until 1997 to make it to international level as a senior. Since 2000, she has reached every final of every major championship contested, the only British track runner to do so. And in March this year she finally made the step up to the podium, running a characteristically gutsy race to take the 5,000m silver medal behind Isabella Ochichi of Kenya at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

There was further tangible evidence of a notch up in class at the European Cup in Malaga in June. Overtaken by Olesya Syreva with 200m remaining in the 3,000m, she hung on, dug deep, and kicked decisively past the Russian in the home straight. "A good friend of mine, Kelly Holmes, won two Olympic golds at the age of 34," Pavey said, reflecting on her maturing form. "I'm not saying I'm going to be able to do that, but it gives me hope that I can carry on and pro-duce some good performances."

Barring a late illness or injury, Pavey - a model of consistency under the astute guidance of her husband and coach, Gavin - can be relied on to produce a good performance in Gothenburg. Whether it will be good enough to get her on to the rostrum again, though, remains to be seen. The Devonian stands second in the European rankings at 5,000m, behind Susanne Wigene of Norway, but the entries also include Elvan Abeylegesse, the Ethiopian- born Turk who holds the world record at the distance, and Marta Dominguez of Spain, who won in Munich four years ago.

"You always go out to try to win at championships, but to pick up a medal would be lovely," Pavey said. "I'll do everything in my power to try to do that, but there are a lot of strong athletes - Abeylegesse, Dominguez, Wigene, and the Russians too. It's going to be a tough race."

For Pavey, a medal of any colour would be a notable achievement. The same could be said for the other British athletes placed in the top three in the rankings: Chambers (who stands second at 100m), Mo Farah (second at 5,000m), Rhys Williams (third in the 400m hurdles), Greg Rutherford (second in the long jump) and Phillips Idowu (third in the triple jump). Tim Benjamin (400m), Dean Macey (decathlon), Becky Lyne (800m), Kelly Sotherton (heptathlon) and Andy Turner (110m hurdlers) are likely to be contenders as well.

There is always the Micawberish hope that someone might turn up a gold medal somewhere. Overall, though, Britain's hand in Europe looks as weak as it was at world level in Helsinki a year ago - only this time there is no ace like Paula Radcliffe to play as a "Get Out of Jail Free" card.