Athletics: Ohuruogu fights for her place on podium

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The Independent Online

No matter what fate befalls Christine Ohuruogu in the heat of the intriguing one-lap battle in Nagai Stadium this afternoon, she has lived up to her family name here in Japan's second city. Ohuruogu means "fighter" in the mother tongue of the east Londoner's Nigerian parents, and in getting herself into the World Championship women's 400m final the 23-year-old has shown an indomitable spirit. As her coach, Lloyd Cowan, reflected yesterday: "The year Christine has had would have seen some people crash and burn." Indeed it would. Ohuruogu was left "utterly devastated and heartbroken" when she received a mandatory one-year suspension last year after missing three out-of-competition drug tests. The linguistics graduate was so distraught she considered hanging up her running spikes for good. Instead, after 12 months of slogging away on the confines of the training track, she is stronger and faster than ever.

In the 23 days since her ban was lifted, she has contested four 400m races and won them all. Her time has come down from 53.09sec at the Scottish Championships on 11 August to 50.17sec in the semi-finals on Tuesday. Still, when the starting gun fires at 1.50pm British time today Ohuruogu will have to slug some more if she is to reach the podium. For one thing, the Commonwealth champion will have a fight on her hands to get the better of the other British contender in the eight-strong field.

While Ohuruogu has worked wonders, under the astute guidance of Cowan, Nicola Sanders has cast off the shackles of a season-long Achilles injury to put herself in position to go for gold today. The slightly-built 25-year-old from Amersham, in Buckinghamshire, not so much smashed as eased her way through the 50 second barrier in winning her semi-final, easing off the gas in the home straight but still clocking 49.77sec. Novlene Williams of Jamaica was the fastest qualifier for the final, with 49.66sec, but clearly Sanders has more in the tank.

Britain has yet to glean a medal from the women's 400m in the 24-year history of the World Championships. There might be two of them today, one even gold. In the absence of Sanya Richards, the world No 1 last year, the race looks to be wide open.

There may even be a revision of the British record that has stood since the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, when Kathy Cook clocked 49.43sec to take bronze. Now 47, a mother of three, and a PE teacher at Mayfield Prep School in Walsall, Cook will be watching the action on television back home hoping her record will finally fall.

"It's well overdue," she said yesterday. "I've held it long enough. I did have a mental picture of me being wheeled out as UK record holder in an ever more decrepit state. I watched the semi-finals and I was so impressed with both girls but I thought Nicola in particular looked fantastic. I think she's got a good mental attitude. She's very tough."

Sanders will certainly be tough to beat if she gets into the smooth stride that took her to European indoor gold in Birmingham in March, and to her impressive semi-final victory. Any tangible reward, though, will come as a bonus to the Great Britain team, both Sanders and Ohuruogu having made the trip to Japan as long-shots in the medal stakes.

Since arriving in Japan, Ohuruogu has been told by her coach to keep her thoughts strictly to herself and to focus on her running. Before departing, however, she said: "Britain must always maintain a tough anti-drugs stance but you have to tease out when people have been dubious from the genuine cases."

Going for Gold

Nicola Sanders and Christine Ohuruogu go for gold in the women's 400m final today at 13.50 (BST) TV: BBC2

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