Athletics: Pickering blazes a trail of optimism

Gardener eclipsed as his 20-year-old training partner blows away Britain's cloud of despond
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The Independent Online

It might be a little too much to hope that lightning could strike for a second time. Still, as Craig Pickering demonstrated in a blinding flash in the centre of the Kelvin Hall arena yesterday, he happens to be blessed with lightning speed.

Running as a guest in the Norwich Union International, it took the 20-year-old from Milton Keynes just 6.55sec to lift the air of doom and gloom that has been shrouding British athletics of late. With no individual European champion for the first time in history and no athlete ranked in the world's top six last summer, the picture has not been so bleak for track and field in these shores since the British team returned from the Montreal Olympics in 1976 with just a bronze medal, courtesy of Brendan Foster in the 10,000m. Back then, the indoor season that followed unearthed a brand new star, a 20-year-old university student who smashed the British record en route to the European Indoor 800m title in San Sebastian.

Thirty years on, it remains to be seen whether Pickering will prove to be another gem quite as precious as Sebastian Coe; there are, after all, 2,007 days remaining before the Olympic Games that Lord Coe secured for his country are scheduled to open in London's East End. None the less, with 33 days to go before the European Indoor Championships begin in Birmingham, British athletics has another 20-year-old student with a glint of golden promise in his stride.

It was not just the fact that Pickering, a sports science undergraduate at the University of Bath, emerged victorious from the showpiece men's 60m in the traditional curtain-raiser to the British indoor season (a five-nation contest that finished in a tie between Britain and a third-string US team). With a 6.56sec clocking from the South of England Indoor Championships last weekend, he was already a rising force: top of the embryonic world rankings for the new indoor season. It was the manner in which Pickering obliterated his rivals that sprinkled his performance with the unmistakable sheen of stardust.

Jason Gardener - Pickering's training partner - might have shown signs of rust in his first race for 10 months, but seldom before has the "Bath Bullet" stared down the barrel of such a comprehensive pistol-whipping in an indoor 60m race.

In six previous appearances at the Kelvin Hall meeting, Gardener had been untouchable. Yesterday, his young protégé left him well beaten - a stride and 0.15sec down, a veritable street in sprinting terms. Gardener, the official Great Britain representative in the race, clocked 6.70sec as runner-up. Mark Lewis-Francis, representing the Commonwealth Select team, finished fourth in 6.76sec.

Of course, both Gardener and Lewis-Francis are Olympic gold medallists, having started and finished Britain's victorious 4 x100m relay run in Athens three years ago. "Yes, I've seen Jason's medal," Pickering said. "He's brought it down to the training track. It's amazing. I hope to win an Olympic gold medal, but I've got a lot of work to do. I'm not thinking about 2012. This is 2007. There's Beijing first."

It was more than a touch ironic for a British athlete to be fielding questions about the possibility of striking gold in 2012, at the end of a week in which Colin Jackson suggested it would take "a miracle" for a home runner, jumper or thrower to produce a Midas touch on home ground - all the more so considering Pickering happens to be coached by Malcolm Arnold, who moulded Jackson.

"I don't make predictions," Arnold said, when asked about the future potential of the former European junior 100m champion who trains under his direction, alongside Gardener, in Bath. "But Craig has all the attributes in his locker."

Gardener concurred. "Craig is a bright guy and a total professional," the runner-up said. "You won't find him out drinking in pubs and clubs."

Which is just as well. Gardener will be among those chasing Pickering's scalp on the European circuit in Stuttgart next Saturday.