Ennis leads charge as Team GB look for late Radcliffe boost

Heptathlete starts World Championship gold mission today but marathon world record holder is in New York to prove her fitness.
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The Independent Online

One way or another, it will be déjà vu time when the 60-strong Great Britain track and field team gets down to the business of chasing World Championship gold, silver and bronze in the sunken bowl of the Olympiastadion on the west side of Germany's capital city this morning.

Their running, jumping and throwing predecessors were here, of course, in 1936. With the man they derided as a Charlie Chaplin double sitting watching those Berlin Olympics from his box in the main stand, and with the menacing, metaphorical storm clouds starting to gather over Europe, the boys and girls in red, white and blue did rather more than gain themselves a silver lining.

They won five silver medals and two golds – one courtesy of the men's 4x400m relay team and the other from Harold Whitlock in the 50km walk. Adolf Hitler leapt out of his seat to applaud when Whitlock entered the stadium after four and a half hours on the roads of Berlin. Apparently, he mistook the mustachioed Londoner for a German. Like every other gold medal winner, Whitlock returned home with the gift of an oak sapling from the Führer – an alternative, eco-friendly Nazi plan for global influence. He planted it at his old school, Hendon Grammar, and it grew to 50ft before being cut down two years ago because of a fungal infection.

The British track and field class of 2009 has been afflicted by such an array of ailments that any thoughts of matching the Berlin medal-winning feats of Whitlock and Co have veered on to the fantastical side of improbable. Even before the team was selected, injuries had accounted for a trio of major medal hopes: Mara Yamauchi, ranked second in the world this year in the marathon; Tasha Danvers, an Olympic bronze medal winner in the 400m hurdles last year; and Kelly Sotherton, who has World Championship and Olympic bronze in her heptathlon medal collection.

Since then Germaine Mason, a surprise Olympic high jump silver medalist in Beijing last summer, has also bitten the dust – and doubts remain about the fitness and form of Paula Radcliffe. The fastest female marathon runner of all time has flown to the US to test herself in the New York City Half Marathon tomorrow before deciding whether to race over the full distance here seven days later. For the British team, it is something of a wing-and-a-prayer mission.

They could certainly do with a racing-fit Radcliffe raring to go for gold – what with only one member of the British squad ranked in the world's top three. That is Jessica Ennis, who heads the global order in the heptathlon, with Christine Ohuruogu, Britain's only track and field gold medal winner in Beijing, having endured an injury-affected build-up to Berlin, and with Phillips Idowu, silver medallist in the Olympic triple jump, having been some way short of world-beating form this summer.

"Nobody has been putting pressure on me," Radcliffe said yesterday, speaking in a teleconference from New York. "Obviously with the number of people we've had drop out of the British team, I want us to have a good showing in Berlin so I'd like to be there. I want to be in Berlin for myself, to regain the title I won in 2005."

The trouble is the 35-year-old has not raced since her victory in the New York City Marathon last November. She missed the London Marathon in April because of a bunion problem which required surgery. "I'll be the first to admit this is an unorthodox way to prepare for a World Championship," Radcliffe said of her transatlantic fitness test, "but I don't want to put myself on the line in Berlin unless I'm ready. I have to be in shape to go and win it."

Radcliffe has a ticket to fly direct from New York to Berlin after her race tomorrow. If she decides she is in shape to put herself on the line here she will have a good chance of emulating her 2005 success in Helsinki. Irina Mikitenko, the German who beat the burgeoning Yamauchi in the London Marathon in April, has withdrawn from the field following the death of her father.

By the time Radcliffe is winging her way back across the Atlantic tomorrow, Ennis should be getting ready to collect the first British medal in Berlin. The 5ft 4in Sheffield woman, who starts the two-day heptathlon competition this morning, is the big British hope for gold. Twelve months after missing out on the Olympics because of a stress fracture, she stands on top of the world rankings – but only by a margin of 19 points, ahead of Nataliya Dobrynska, the Ukrainian who struck gold in Beijing. "Dobrynska's definitely a massive threat," Ennis said, sounding a cautionary note amid the mounting expectation. "She's one of those athletes who come out at championships and perform well – like she did at the Olympics."

There is no better championship performer than Ohuruogu. At the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006 she won 400m gold. At the World Championships in Osaka in 2007 she won 400m gold. At the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 she won 400m gold. It would take a brave man to bet against the Londoner getting on the rostrum here but she goes into the heats this morning short of racing form, following a hamstring tear that disrupted her preparation. Her best time this summer is 51.14sec. Sanya Richards, who beat her in Oslo in June, has broken 50 seconds five times this season and will start as the woman to beat.

Idowu started as the man to beat in the triple jump in Beijing but lost to Nelson Evora. It would be typical of the Londoner, having dropped to fifth in the world ranking this summer, to spring a surprise by trumping the Portuguese favourite here. We shall see.

It would be wise to expect the unexpected because the British team have been this particular way before. On the eve of the 2007 World Championships in Osaka there was only one British athlete ranked in the world top 10, but by the end of the nine days of action there was a respectable haul of five medals.

Charles van Commenee has set the same target for his first major championship as head coach. "Most of all I'd like the athletes to come into the arena with an invincible attitude and have no excuses," he said. "I've told them I don't expect them to use the words injury, pain or niggle."

The Dutchman has also told the British team to think of 1936 – not so much of Harold Whitlock and Co but of Jesse Owens. "I told them a bit about the history of the stadium, in the team speech," he said. "I told them about the amazing things that Jesse Owens did there – all in the context of overcoming obstacles, and there were some pretty high obstacles for that man in 1936."

Owens won four gold medals as a one-man phenomenon in the Olympiastadion 73 years ago. The chances are that the British World Championship team of 2009 will win four medals but possibly only one of them of a golden hue.

Going for gold: GB medal prospects

Golden shots

*Jessica Ennis, heptathlon

The Sheffield athlete heads the world rankings and starts marginal favourite ahead of Olympic champion Nataliya Dobrynska of the Ukraine. Should get a medal of some colour.

*Phillips Idowu, triple jump

The Belgrave Harrier is only fifth in the world rankings but has the ability to upset the favourite Nelson Evora of Portugal, who did the same to him at the Olympics. Should at least be on the podium.

*Christine Ohuruogu, 400m

Proved too strong for Sanya Richards in the Beijing Olympic final but the American is running faster than ever and starts favourite ahead of the Briton, whose preparation has been affected by a hamstring problem.

*Paula Radcliffe, marathon

Will be the woman to beat if she lines up a week tomorrow but first needs to prove her fitness to herself in the New York Half Marathon tomorrow.

Minor medal shots

*Men's 4x400m relay

Unlikely to challenge the US for gold, but Michael Bingham, Martyn Rooney and Co should be in the mix for bronze, if not silver.

*Women's 1,500m

Fourth in the Olympic final, Lisa Dobriskey is rapidly regaining form after injury. A podium finish is a big ask but not entirely beyond the grasp of the Commonwealth champion.