Athletics: Rawlinson and Holmes raise medal hopes

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The Independent Online

Britain's athletes offered a packed south London stadium a genuinely encouraging farewell at the Norwich Union Grand Prix here last night in the kind of sultry heat they will soon be encountering in Athens.

Britain's athletes offered a packed south London stadium a genuinely encouraging farewell at the Norwich Union Grand Prix here last night in the kind of sultry heat they will soon be encountering in Athens.

Less than a fortnight before the Olympics get under way, and on an evening which ended with Team GB members waving a symbolic goodbye from the back of that endangered species, the London Routemaster bus, as fireworks flashed from the roof of the Jubilee Stand, several home talents offered evidence that they will rumble on to Greece as much in expectation as hope.

The most notable performers were Chris Rawlinson, Kelly Holmes, Phillips Idowu, Chris Lambert, Jade Johnson and Lee McConnell, respective winners in the 400m hurdles, 1500m, triple jump, 200m, long jump and 400m.

Steve Backley, making his last appearance at his home stadium before he retires, was only denied a final victory in the javelin by Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway, who threw 84.45m to better his effort of 83.42.

The evening ended with two familiar sights. The first was that of Russia's Yelena Isinbayeva setting a world pole vault record, this time 4.90m, for the seventh time in total and the fourth time within these shores.

The second was that of Ethiopia's multiple champion and world record breaker Haile Gebrselassie winning a 5,000 metres race - this one being the 31-year-old's last in Britain before, like Backley, he finishes his career in Athens. The smile before his race was as dazzling as ever; his finish, as he pattered past the huge figure of Australia's Craig Mottram in the final straight, the killing thrust of old. Five times this great runner has won over 5,000m here, and he has got faster on each occasion. His All Comers's record now stands at 12min.55.51sec.

Rawlinson set the tone of rising home hope by recording a commanding win over the two top Americans, including trials winner James Carter, fastest in the world this year with 47.68sec. Although the Briton only recorded a respectable 48.49sec, it was enough to convince him he had a genuine medal chance next month.

Holmes, who emphatically beat the season's fastest performer Jolanda Ceplak over 800m last Sunday, won the 1500 metres with ease in 4min 04.06sec. Meanwhile, her training partner Maria Mutola, the Olympic and world 800m champion, indicated she is regaining her usual form after two surprising defeats by winning in 1min 59.17sec.

Maurice Greene had invited anyone who cared to listen to bet their house on him bettering 10 seconds on this newly-laid track, and he did not disappoint, running 9.98sec in his heat and 9.97 in the final. It was not enough, however, for him to avoid his second defeat in two races since arriving in Europe for his run-in to Athens.

Greene, the 100m heavyweight of the last seven years, was made to look like a relative middleweight by the towering power of Jamaica's 6ft 3in Asafa Powell, who gave a disdainful glance over to the straining Olympic champion as he crossed the line in 9.91 - beating Greene's All Comers' record of 1999 by 0.06sec.

Greene, who had spoken of his Olympic prospects in almost Messianic terms earlier in the week, managed a sickly smile before admitting: "He's very good. Very powerful also. But my confidence will not suffer because of today's result. And if you bet your house on me today, you won."

Powell, a 21-year-old student at Kingston University of Technology, was asked to comment on the view expressed by the world champion from St Kitt's and Nevis, Kim Collins - who was fifth in 10.14 - that Caribbean nations could enjoy a hugely successful 100m in Athens. "Who knows?" he responded. "We could get the 1-2-3..."

That's US-style talk. Britain's 1-2-3, meanwhile, all failed to qualify from the heats. Darren Campbell recorded 10.27, Jason Gardener 10.32 and Mark Lewis-Francis, most calamitously, 10.34.

Britain's 200m sprinters had a far more comforting evening, however, as Lambert won in a personal best of 20.50sec, one hundredth of a second ahead of Christian Malcolm. But the sense of the short sprinters' disappointment hung on. "I'm gutted,' said Lewis-Francis. "It was crap. Rubbish."

"Some call it stalking. I call it love" read the little badge on the ever-extravagant Phillips Idowu's cap as he reflected upon a hugely encouraging triple jump in which he claimed victory with a last round effort of 17.47 metres.

Idowu - whose ever-changing moods are reflected in his hair colouring - was smiling broadly under his cap after recording his first big win of the season. "No one believed I was a star, but I knew it all along," he said with another grin.

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