Athletics: Silver for Sotherton lifts gloom in British camp

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The Independent Online
Britain had been looking to Kelly Holmes for inspiration here at the European Indoor Championships. But following the withdrawal of the double Olympic champion because of injury, it was left to the other medal-winning Kelly in Athens, heptathlete Kelly Sotherton, to do the job by finishing second to the Olympic champion, Carolina Kluft, in the pentathlon.

Britain had been looking to Kelly Holmes for inspiration here at the European Indoor Championships. But following the withdrawal of the double Olympic champion because of injury, it was left to the other medal-winning Kelly in Athens, heptathlete Kelly Sotherton, to do the job by finishing second to the Olympic champion, Carolina Kluft, in the pentathlon.

Sotherton's silver lining appeared at the end of a first day clouded with demoralising failures by British athletes, most lamentably the triple jumper Phillips Idowu, who appeared to have a real chance of winning gold, and the long jumper Jade Johnson, the European and Commonwealth silver medallist.

Sotherton, the 27-year-old Birchfield Harrier, who had entered the concluding 800 metres event in bronze position, finished half a stride behind the Swede in 2min 13.58sec to register a British record total of 4,733 points, with Kluft amassing 4,948. As she crossed the line, Sotherton ­ who finished 66 points clear of the Ukraine's Natalya Dobrynska ­ turned to see the rest of the field labouring 20 metres behind, and then smacked her fist into her palm before waving it in triumph.

Immediately before the pentathlon 800m, Mark Lewis-Francis and the defending champion Jason Gardener had qualified for today's 60m final. Gardener looked smooth and relaxed in running 6.58sec in his semi-final, the same time as winner Andrey Yepeshin, of Russia, and the winner of the other race, France's Ronald Pognon, who beat the Briton's European record last month with 6.45.

Sotherton had done well to get to Madrid in medal shape given the disruption caused by the departure of her coach, Charles van Commenee, to the Dutch federation. She is now having to co-ordinate her heptathlon preparations with six specialist coaches, but she maintains contact with van Commenee, who savaged her in Athens for failing to secure the silver medal with her final 800 metres run.

"Charles would have been proud of that performance," Sotherton said. "I wouldn't have been happy with the bronze. I wanted the silver to show I'm the second best in the world." Asked if she thought she could beat Kluft, she replied, with cutting sarcasm: "Yes ­ I'm only 200 points behind her. But of course, there are two other events in the heptathlon."

Sotherton began her one-day pentathlon ­ a new addition to these championships ­ well enough with a 60m hurdles time of 8.43sec, just 0.03 outside her best, and a high jump of 1.81m, four centimetres below the height she achieved in Athens. But it was only good enough for fifth position.

The points gap was closed, however, with a shot putt of 14.22m, well above her previous best of 13.86, and a long jump of 6.44m, an indoor best by 1cm, took her 43 points clear in third place.

Sotherton's performance, and Gardener's form, offered much-needed glimpses of brightness to Dave Collins, the newly established performance director for UK Athletics.

Collins has made his name as a sports psychologist; judging by some of the opening British performances here, he has his work cut out. The former Royal Marine looked on impassively as first Idowu and then Johnson failed to qualify for today's finals.

Idowu, whose effort of 17.30m in last month's trials appeared to indicate recovered confidence after his failure to register a jump in last summer's Olympics, did manage to record three marks here, but the best of them, 16.44, left him two places outside the group of eight qualifiers.

This time round it was Johnson who failed to trouble the scorers ­ although perhaps that was not strictly true given that the European and Commonwealth silver medallist spent five minutes arguing with officials after they judged she had no-jumped because her toe had marked the plasticine marker beyond the take-off board. A British protest was turned down.

It was a particularly taxing day for the man who coaches both athletes, John Herbert.

Meanwhile, the man who still holds the world record in retirement, Jonathan Edwards, was looking on from his BBC commentary position in bemusement at the performance of the man whom he competed alongside in the Sydney Olympic final.

"I wouldn't say it was a soft medal for Phillips, but this was a great opportunity for him, with none of the Olympic medallists present," Edwards said.

"I'm surprised he performed so badly. Physically he's fine. It's a mental problem. For him and John Herbert now it's back to square one. It's almost a bit further back than that. But he's still young. I was 29 before I managed to get it all together."

Idowu blamed the "springy" surface at the Palacio de los Deportes for his failure. He can tell that to the ex-Marine.

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