Charles van Commenee, the hard taskmaster head coach of UK Athletics, was in distinctly chipper mood yesterday. "What better place to be?" he said, full of the joys of Parisian near-springtime on the eve of the European Indoor Championships. "I've been here seven times now and I've enjoyed every visit."
The native Amsterdammer was referring specifically to the Palais Omnisports de Bercy, the distinctive grass-walled complex next door to the British team hotel, by the banks of the Seine. It is there that the British team – minus such major players as the injured Jessica Ennis and the resting Phillips Idowu – will be contesting the first international championship of this pre-Olympic year, starting this morning and running through to Sunday. It is also there that Kylie Minogue will be performing on Tuesday week.
It was within these green walls that Britain gleaned their best gold medal haul in the 42-year history of the European Indoor Championships. That was five in 1994, courtesy of Colin Jackson (60m sprint and 60m hurdles), Du'aine Ladejo (400m), David Strang (1,500m) and Dalton Grant (high jump). Might that be matched come Sunday night by the British class of 2011? They should be so lucky.
"It's not the strongest team," Van Commenee conceded, "but I still expect to do better than two years ago. We won four medals then, including two golds. I expect more than four medals."
There ought to be twice as many medals for the British team in Bercy over the course of the next three days as there were in Turin in 2009. Whether there will be as many golds, however, is open to question.
Sitting alongside Van Commenee yesterday were the two golden boys of 2009, Dwain Chambers and Mo Farah. Both lead the European rankings ahead of the defence of their titles, but while Farah looks a gold-medal banker in the 3,000m (being more than five seconds quicker this year than his closest rival), Chambers is a 50-50 shot.
The 60m indoor distance is the 32-year-old Londoner's speciality. He has not lost over it since 7 March, 2008, when he finished joint runner-up behind Olusoji Fasuba of Nigeria at the World Indoor Championships in Valencia. Since then the big Belgrave Harrier – barred from Olympic competition because of the British Olympic Association ban on past doping offenders – has won European and World Indoor Championship gold. In the grass-covered Palais, however, he will be up against a rival who will be not so much on home turf as inside it.
Chambers knows all about the threat of Christophe Lemaître, the coltish 20-year-old French flyer who won European outdoor gold in the 100m, 200m and the 4x100m relay in Barcelona last summer and who gained global fame as the first white sprinter ever to break 10sec for 100m.
Chambers has the faster time over 60m on the boards this winter, but only just – 6.57sec to Lemaître's 6.58sec. There was only 0.01sec separating the pair going in to the 100m final in Barcelona last July, but as the Frenchman sped to a clear victory the Briton finished down in fifth – suffering from a hamstring injury he kept to himself rather than offer as an excuse.
Chambers has since moved on. He has a new coaching adviser in Dan Pfaff, whose past sprint charges include the 1996 Olympic 100m champion Donovan Bailey and Marion Jones in her pre-tainted days. There is a sense, however, that the seasoned Brit has business to finish against the young home hope in Paris.
"It did take me a long while to get over what happened in Barcelona," Chambers admitted yesterday. "That was my first real sense of loss in any major championships. I've had seconds and thirds, but nothing hurt as much as that.
"This is a great opportunity to race Lemaître again and match myself up against the best in Europe. We're both pretty much equal time-wise, so it will be very exciting."
Even more so, with a sell-out crowd screaming for the young French hero. "As I said to Dwain earlier this week," Van Commenee recounted, "the best scalps are home scalps."
Five Brits to follow
Dwain Chambers. Defends his 60m title against French flyer Christophe Lemaître. Heats tomorrow 9.30am, semis 3.30pm; final 3.55pm on Sunday.
Mo Farah. Dual European outdoor champion defends indoor 3,000m title. Heats today 10.15am; final 4.50pm Sat.
Helen Clitheroe. At 37, team captain heads the rankings at 3,000m. Heats tomorrow 10.30am; final 2.15pm Sunday.
Jenny Meadows. World outdoor and indoor medallist at 800m. Heats today 3.25pm; semis 2.20pm Sat; final 3pm Sun.
Nigel Levine. 400m prospect in great form. Heats today 9.50am, semis 5.05pm; final tomorrow 4.45pm.