At the European Team Championships in Bergen last month there was just the 0.03sec separating them. In the Montjuic Olympic Stadium last night they crossed the finish line some 32 minutes apart. Dwain Chambers was running in heat one in the 100m first round at the European Championships. Christophe Lemaitre was running in the fifth and last heat.
The business end of the most anticipated contest of the championships is to come tonight. The semi-finals are scheduled for 6.50pm British time, the final for 8.45pm. Blink and you might miss the decisive moment. It promises to be a desperately close call between the 32-year-old Briton, with the baggage of the track and field drugs conviction behind him, and the 20-year-old cherubic-faced flyer who in the French Championships a little more than a fortnight ago became the first speed merchant of fair skin to break through the 10-seconds barrier for the 100m.
Lemaitre's name translates as "the master" but, despite his landmark achievement in Valence, the leggy young colt from Annecy still has some way to go before he can be described as a true master of the sprint game. This is his first season out of the junior ranks and his first senior European Championships. Chambers ran in his first European Championships in 1998, taking the 100m silver medal behind Darren Campbell in Budapest. He won the gold medal in Munich in 2002 but had to send it back after the drug testers caught up with him and his secret life as one of the fraud squad of sprinters doped up on the products of Victor Conte's Balco factory was revealed to the world.
Eight years on from the fool's gold of Munich, Chambers wants a winner's prize that he can keep and show to his three children with untarnished pride in his heart. Experience is on his side and he hopes it will count when it comes to the finish line in the final this evening.
The priority last night for the Belgrave Harrier was to get through the opening round with the minimum of effort. Running from lane two, he shot out of his starting blocks and had the job effectively done by halfway. Easing down in the last 30m, Chambers crossed the line in 10.21sec – a quarter of a second clear of his closest pursuer, Lemaitre's French team-mate Ronald Pognon.
His most trying task of the evening was getting past the endless line of television and radio folk thrusting microphones in his face as he negotiated the labyrinthine mixed zone leading from trackside to the stadium exit. "Oh, mate, I was out there for 10 seconds; I've been here for about 40 minutes," Chambers said when he finally made it to the representatives of the press.
"It was comfortable for me out there," he added. "With the one false start and out rule I wasn't taking any chances. I took myself casually out of the blocks and worked my way through. I know there's a lot of pressure on me going into these championships. It means a lot to me. Gold is obviously on my mind but I expect to have strong competition from the young French guy."
The early rounds of the men's 100m at major championships are always something of a phoney war, none of the major players want to show anything approaching a full hand. For Lemaitre, though, there were nerves to overcome. Understandably so. When he was given a taste of the big senior stage at the World Championships in Berlin last summer, he was disqualified in the heats for making two false starts. Then there was the question of the overnight celebrity he had gained in his homeland since his 9.98sec clocking. The renown of being the first white sub-10 sprinter has not sat very comfortably on his young shoulders. "In my eyes sprinting has never been a matter of skin colour," he said. "It is a superfluous matter."
Lemaitre would prefer to be known as the third fastest 20-year-old of all-time – behind Yohan Blake of Jamaica (9.93sec) and the Nigerian Seun Ogunkoya (9.97sec). He is faster as a first year senior than Chambers was (10.10) – and Usain Bolt (10.03) and Tyson Gay (10.27). So we are talking about a serious talent here.
When the final heat came round, the class of the young Frenchman was clear to see. He looked like he barely broke sweat as he strode to victory, stopping the trackside clock at 10.19sec – making him, for what it might be worth, the fastest qualifier for the semi-finals, 0.02sec ahead of Chambers.
There would seem to be a good deal more to come from Lemaitre. But, then, you never can tell for sure. The man in the lane next to him was once hailed as the next big thing of the sprinting world. Mark Lewis-Francis has an Olympic relay gold back home but his best 100m time, 10.04sec, dates back to when he was 19, in 2002. Now 27, the Birchfield Harrier is working his way back after Achilles tendon problems.
Lewis-Francis could afford to shoot a cheeky sideways glance in the direction of Lemaitre as he qualified in second place from the final heat, clocking 10.23sec. He was the third-fastest qualifier and Croydon Harrier James Dasaolu also made it through, finishing third in heat four in 10.40sec.
On a night when most eyes were trained on Chambers and Lemaitre, though, there was a barrier-breaking moment of considerable significance. Running in the same heat as Lemaitre and Lewis-Francis, Jason Smyth made history as the first Paralympian to compete at the European Championships. The 23-year-old has been registered blind since childhood. He suffers from Stargardt's Disease, a degenerative condition which affects the macular, or central, vision.
At the Paralympics in Beijing two years ago Smyth won two sprint medals. Sporting the green vest of Ireland last night, he finished strongly, taking fourth place in 10.41sec. He will be back for the semi-finals tonight, together with the big two contenders.
The week's highlights
20:05 The Women's 10,000m final
20:45 The always enthralling 100m final, which will see world indoor champion Dwain Chambers and Frenchman Christophe Lemaitre go head-to-head in the battle for gold.
18:40 Phillips Idowu will aim to fly in the triple jump final. He will have to usurp world No1 Teddy Tamgho though if he intends to add the European title to his successes.
20:45 The Women's 100m final will hopefully feature Laura Turner, but the race for gold lies between Germany's Verena Sailer, European record-holder Christine Arron and Norway's Ezinne Okparebo.
18:50 Reigning bronze medallist Andy Turner and world fourth placer Will Sharman will both be in contention in the 110m hurdles.
20:10 Jenny Meadows and Jemma Simpson are heavily favoured in the 800m final.
20:25 British duo Michael Bingham and Martin Rooney should offer a strong showing in the 400m final.
21:00 Andy Baddeley and Tom Lancashire, who lead the European rankings, will surely feature in the 1,500m final.
18:35 Michael Rimmer has a real medal chance due to the absence of Olympic champion Yuriy Borzakovskiy as he takes to the track for the 800m final.
19:10 Dai Green, the only European athlete to break the 49-second barrier this calendar year, races in the 400m hurdles.
18:45 In the 4 x100m relay the British team may be the defending champions but they face stern competition from the Italians, the Germans, and the favoured French.
20:15 World silver medallist Lisa Dobriskey could yet cause an upset in the 1,500m final, despite an inauspicious start to the season.
20:55 Team GB are a good bet in the 4x400m final, with all four home athletes currently placed in the European top-10.
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