European Cup: Sanders overcomes 'niggly' knee to equal great Briton

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The Independent Online

By Simon Turnbull in Annecy

It is not the end of the world this weekend in this beautiful lakeside town on the edge of the French Alps, but it is the end of the European Cup of track and field. After 33 years, the midsummer contest is to be replaced next year by an event to be known as the European Team Competition, withan increase from eight countries to 12, the introduction of elimination rules in longer track races and knockout stages in the field events. It seemed fitting yesterday, then, that day one of this fond farewell should feature a British victory that rolled back the years to one of the most cherished European Cup highlights.

Nicola Sanders was not the only British athlete to emerge triumphantly from the sweltering cauldron of the Parc des Sports; Jenny Meadows, in the 800m, was also victorious for the women's team (inspirationally so, less than three weeks after the death of her father), while Tyrone Edgar (100m), Martyn Rooney (400m), Mo Farah (5,000m) and the 4 x 100m relay team achieved a quartet of successes for the men's squad.

As one of the handful of British runners, jumpers and throwers blessed with a realistic chance of making it on to the Olympic medal rostrum in Beijing next month, though, Sanders' 400m run was of particular significance – all the more so considering it was her first of the summer, as she had twice delayed her start to the season because of a "niggling" knee injury.

It will have been with some relief to both the woman who took the World Championship silver medal in Osaka last August and to the British team management that she strode to an assured victory, starting somewhat cautiously but easing ahead from the 200m mark and finishing a coupleof strides clear of the field in 51.17sec.

In doing so, she became only the third Briton to win the women's 400m in the top division of the European Cup, following in the footsteps of Mel Neef in 1995 and Lillian Board in 1967.

Board was the first British athlete to win any event at the elite level of the European Cup. She was only 18 at the time. She was still a teenager when she was pipped to Olympic 400m gold by Collette Besson in Mexico. Board's time was supposed to have come at the Munich Olympics in 1972 but she died of cancer in 1970, 13 days past her 22nd birthday. She was one of the great British athletes of all time. At 25, Sanders is estab-lishing herself as one of the great British athletes of her time. Last year she blitzed her way to the European indoor 400m crown and then took the World Championship silver behindher team-mate Christine Ohuruogu in Osaka.

Her winning run yesterday was 0.11sec slower than Ohuruogu's in her season's debut at the one-lap distance in Ostrava the week before last. Not that the Buckinghamshire woman was concerned about that, having shown that – unlike Jessica Ennis, who is already out of the reckoning for the heptathlon in Beijing, and Paula Radcliffe, who is still treading water eight weeks ahead of the marathon (restricted to aqua-jogging in the wake of her fractured femur) – she is on the list of medal possibilities rather than the list of casualties.

"It's something I'm still having to manage," Sanders said of her still less-than-perfect left knee, "but I think that run today shows that I'm managing it OK. It's something I had to do throughout last season with a related injury, and the fact that I finished with a silver at the World Champion-ships gives me confidence for this year. That run today was quite a bit faster than my first run last season."

For Meadows, just getting to Beijing would be the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition. It was a dream of her father to watch her compete in the Olympic arena, but sadly Keith Meadows died of cancer on 2 June.

"He came everywhere to watch me run," the Wigan athlete reflected after a superbly judged two-lap win that she dedicated to the memory of her father.

With her father's wedding ring on one of her fingers, his name written on her left hand, and a black ribbon pinned to her vest, Meadows nimbly avoided a collision on the final bend and sprinted clear down the home straight to secure victory in 2min 1.2sec. In doing so, she achieved a feat which eluded that grand Dame of the track, Kelly Holmes.

Diane Modahl, in 1994, was the only previous British winner of the women's 800m at the European Cup. "I know my father would have beenvery, very proud," Meadows said. "I'm sure he's smiling somewhere."

Helen Clitheroe, anotherLancastrian, was smiling after claiming the runner-up spot in the 3,000m with a sprinter's dip on the line, while Emma Ania took second place in the 100m, clocking 11.22sec, and then anchored Britain to second in the 4 x 100m relay. All of which left the British women lying third, behind Russia and Ukraine.

The British men lead by three points from Poland and France. Farah was a clear winner of the 5,000m in 13min 44.07sec, while Edgar took the 100m in 10.20sec and Rooney the 400m in 45.33sec. The men's 4 x 100 relay team claimed a belated victory after the Germans were disqualified.

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