Athletics: Ohuruogu's golden fairy tale recaptures British glory days

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The Independent Online

It was supposed to have been the "Cathy Freeman moment" of 2012: the home run to global glory around one lap of the Olympic arena. Perhaps it will happen still, but 5,860 miles from her east London home yesterday, five years ahead of schedule, the remarkable Christine Ohuruogu snatched the moment to realise her golden potential on the world track and field stage.

She could hardly have done it in more dramatic style. With 60 metres remaining of the World Championship 400m final, the young woman from Stratford, a near neighbour of the 2012 Olympic Arena, was back in fourth place and still fighting for just a place on the podium. "I was kind of thinking, 'I'll settle for third; third's all right'," she later confided. "But then I remembered something my coach said: 'Don't leave anything on the track. Make sure you have every last bit you have'."

It took every bit, but in the last two strides, already up to third place, the 23-year-old hauled herself past the tiring Novlene Williams, of Jamaica, and dipped her chest just in front of Nicola Sanders, her Great Britain team-mate, right on the line. "Is it me?" she mouthed after half sinking on her haunches from the effort and then looking up to the scoreboard in the Nagai Stadium.

It was her indeed: "1. C. Ohuruogu GB 49.61" flashed up in lights, then "2. N. Sanders GB 49.65". The team-mates embraced and savoured the special moment. After all of the talk of British athletics having stumbled headlong into the black hole of a dark age, we were back to the real glory, glory days. Not since Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram crossed the line in the Olympic 1500m final in Los Angeles in 1984 had British athletes taken gold and silver in the same event in a global championship. Fittingly, both of the middle-distance greats were looking down from the stands to savour the moment.

It was the first World Championship win on the track by a British woman since Sally Gunnell's 400m hurdles success in Stuttgart in 1993 and also the first ever global victory in the flat 400m by a female member of a Great Britain team. That, however, was not even half of the story.

Back on 6 August, Ohuruogu was not even in the British team. She had the previous 12 months serving a suspension imposed for missing three out-of-competition drug tests. She had even considered hanging up her racing spikes and making use of her linguistics degree in the working world. Fortunately for her, and for British athletics, she decided to keep on running.

On 7 August Ohuruogu was picked in the Great Britain team, on the strength of the qualifying time she recorded en route to victory at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in March last year. Twenty-two days, three warm-up races, and three rounds later, Ohuruogu was standing on top of the World Championship rostrum wiping tears from her eyes, with the national anthem ringing round this little corner of southern Japan and a gold medal around her neck. There has not been an unlikely success story quite like it in the long, distinguished history of British athletics.

"I'm glad I didn't quit," the unlikely lass said, draped in a Union flag in the bowels of the stadium. "There were many, many moments of despair, but I believe no matter what rubbish happens to you, things are going to turn around for the better for you in the end. When you've worked hard, and you've done nothing wrong, and you're an honest person, I believe God will smile at you and make something work out for you in the end."

That it worked out for Ohuruogu yesterday was due not just to her own indomitable spirit (her family name means "Fighter" in the mother tongue of her Nigerian parents), but also to the faith and guidance of her coach, Lloyd Cowan. A former international hurdler, he has performed a feat of Herculean proportions in guiding his athlete through a year in the wilderness, and from the pair of crutches she needed at the start of the year (after surgery to both Achilles tendons) to the very top step of the World Championship medal podium.

"Nothing surprises me with Christine," Cowan said. "She's like a racehorse. She's lazy when she's training but she's got this strength when she races which is second to none."

Ohuruogu needed that strength yesterday to edge past Sanders, whose own medal-winning success was achieved against the odds, the young woman from Amersham in Buckinghamshire having been held back by an Achilles problem since blitzing her way to the European indoor title in Birmingham in March. "You can't ask for any better than first and second," she reflected, having, like Ohuruogu, recorded a personal best time. "Obviously, I'd have liked it to have been the other way round, but I'm chuffed."

There was a measure of disappointment for the British team here yesterday, what with Goldie Sayers failing to make the qualifying cut in the javelin and Chris Tomlinson doing likewise in the long jump. But, with four days still to go, Britain have a gold, a silver and a bronze on the medal board (the latter courtesy of Kelly Sotherton in the heptathlon). And with Ohuruogu and Sanders in the 4x400m relay there is the promise of more to come too. On yesterday's evidence, golden promise.

Previous British one-two track finishes

Seb Coe and Steve Cram – 1500m (1984 Olympics)

The 1500m decider in 1984 was Cram's first Olympic final whereas Coe already held the Olympic gold in that event. Neck-and-neck for much of the way, Coe stepped up a gear for the final 200 metres and Cram had no answer.

Steve Ovett and Seb Coe – 800m (1980 Olympics)

In the 800 metres Coe was the favourite; it was his best distance, but Ovett claimed the title. Coe made up for his disappointment by winning gold in the 1500m, which Ovett had been expected to win, but in which could manage only bronze.

C olin Jackson and Tony Jarrett – 110m hurdles (1993 World Championships)

Before yesterday, there had been just one other British gold-silver finish in World Championship history, with former world record holder Jackson claiming top spot.

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