Athletics: Radcliffe searches for stepping stone to Olympics

In Olympic year, more than any other, there is only one truly important event - and it is not the European Cup, which takes place over this weekend in the Polish city of Bydgoszcz.

In Olympic year, more than any other, there is only one truly important event - and it is not the European Cup, which takes place over this weekend in the Polish city of Bydgoszcz.

That said, this competition could provide an indicator of Britain's fortunes less than eight weeks from now in Athens, at least as far as historical precedent is concerned.

"If you look at 1998, 2000 and 2002, when we did win the European Cup, we ended up having great seasons in major championships," said Max Jones, performance director for UK Athletics. "It gives athletes a psychological lift individually, and it can lift athletics in general."

Forecasting the European Cup is a particularly awkward exercise, given the volatile nature of a points-scoring event where one dropped baton or clattered hurdle can radically affect the order of nations.

The British men's team, which has won this competition four times in the last seven years, appears strong enough in theory to challenge for another title, including as it does Mark Lewis-Francis in the 100 metres, his training partner Christian Malcolm in the 200m, Commonwealth champion Michael East at 1500m, Chris Rawlinson at 400m hurdles, Chris Tomlinson at long jump, Phillips Idowu at triple jump and Carl Myerscough doubling up for the discus and shot.

There is a world-class relay squad assembled too, including men's captain Darren Campbell, world indoor 60m champion Jason Gardener, Chris Lambert and former Commonwealth 200m champion Julian Golding. Which is just as well, given that Britain - deprived of all its times involving the now-banned Dwain Chambers - still needs to register some fast times before the deadline of 9 July to ensure qualification for the Olympics.

But Britain's women, who were at one stage expected to challenge for third place behind the probable leaders Germany and Russia, now look more likely to be struggling to maintain the European Super League status they have held since 1967, two years after the event began.

Late withdrawals by Commonwealth and European 400m medallist Lee McConnell, who has a hamstring pull, world indoor 800m bronze medallist Jo Fenn, who is unwell, world 1500m bronze medallist Hayley Tullett, who has a thigh injury, and 3,000m runner Jo Pavey, who has a calf problem, have led Jones to reduce his ambitions.

Although the women will field athletes such as Paula Radcliffe in the 5,000m - competing in her first track race since winning the European 10,000m title in Munich two years ago - and Commonwealth and European triple jump champion Ashia Hansen, making only her second competitive appearance since winning the world indoor title in Birmingham 15 months ago, the UK Athletics performance director believes they could be involved in another battle for survival.

"None of those who have pulled out have what you might call a terminal injury," he said. "But with the Olympic trials quickly approaching, I can understand them not wanting to put their life, so to speak, on the line.

"I thought with Paula in the 5,000m and the other women all making themselves available, we might be fighting for third place ... but being realistic, I think we might again, like last year, be fighting to stay out of the relegation zone."

In both the men's and women's competitions, the bottom two of the eight competing nations are relegated, although the host nation is always exempt from going down.

Radcliffe looks a safe bet to contribute a maximum eight points in her event, given that she has just completed a six-week block of training at her high altitude base in the Pyrenees to her own satisfaction.

"Training has gone really well," said Radcliffe, who added that she had suffered no serious setback by undergoing a hernia operation in April. "I am where I want to be right now. This will be a good stepping stone towards the Olympics, along with the 10,000 metres I'm running in Gateshead the weekend after.

"Obviously I will want to put in a good performance and provide the team with a win. The British women will have to do their best to stay up, but we have done it before and I'm sure we can do it again."

The men will be seeking at least to better their performance in Florence last year, when they finished third behind Germany and the winners, France.

As always, the result could turn upon the performance of lesser known team members, such as pole vaulter Tim Thomas, a late stand-in for Nick Buckfield, who injured himself vaulting in Cottbus earlier this month, or 21-year-old Kent athlete Jermain Mays, who goes in the 3,000m steeplechase.

Dalton Grant, 17 years Mays' senior, will compete in his fifth European Cup, having played a part in Britain's first win at Gateshead in 1989 by winning the high jump. Grant, who has retired at least twice by general consent, returned to winning ways at the Loughborough International meeting this month, recording 2.24, and will bring unmatched experience to bear on his event. It may be his last major appearance - although it may just as well not be.

EUROPEAN CUP SIX BRITONS TO WATCH IN BYDGOSZCZ

PAULA RADCLIFFE

British athletics' best hope of an Olympic title this year - almost certainly in the marathon rather than the 10,000 metres - she is back on track after having undergone a hernia operation early in April. Training has been going well, but there is no substitute for racing, and although the 5,000m opposition looks sketchy in what will be her first track race since winning the European 10,000m title, it is important that she performs well.

ASHIA HANSEN

Having gambled on a foot injury in order to win the world indoor triple jump title on her home ground of Birmingham last year, the 32-year-old Commonwealth and European champion has competed only once since and this will indicate her readiness for the forthcoming Olympic challenge.

KELLY SOTHERTON

Named in the long jump, this 27-year-old from the Isle of Wight has transformed herself into a leading heptathlete in the space of the last year, training with Olympic champion Denise Lewis and putting herself second in the early-season world rankings with a personal best of 6,406 points in Gotzis last month.

MARK LEWIS-FRANCIS

Knows Bydgoszcz well, having won the world youth 100m title there in 1999, a year before choosing to contest the World junior title rather than the Olympics. Now he is 21, the Athens Games are clearly in his sights, and completing a European Cup hat-trick will do nothing but good for his ambitions.

PHILLIPS IDOWU

Fifth in the last Olympic triple jump as the title went to fellow Brit Jonathan Edwards, Idowu has the talent to improve on that result, having returned from an injury which kept him out of action for the best part of 18 months. Has already jumped 17.00 metres this season, and there is plenty more to come.

DONNA FRASER

Lee McConnell's late withdrawal from the 400m has offered the woman who finished fourth in the last Olympic final to register her presence back in the big time after a horrendous foot injury which required three operations. Has already run 51.49sec this season, and is running like a woman reprieved.

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