A funny thing happened to Jenny Meadows the other day. There she was, surrounded by a press pack at trackside in the National Indoor Arena, and nobody mentioned the "C" word. It must have been a satisfying few minutes for the Wigan athlete. At last, she could breathe in the oxygen of publicity generated by her own deeds. The cloud of the Caster Semenya affair had been lifted from her horizon. For the time being, at any rate.
The fall-out from the women's 800m final at the World Championships in Berlin last August lingers, of course. The International Association of Athletics Federations have yet to decide on the future of Semenya, having obliged the teenaged South African gold medal-winner to undergo a complex series of gender verification tests.
In the meantime, though, Meadows has moved on from the breakthrough bronze medal run that passed without due recognition in the midst of the sensational Semenya story. There were no questions about Caster in Birmingham two weeks ago because the "Pocket Rocket" had just hit the bullseye in the Aviva Grand Prix, smashing Kelly Holmes' seven-year-old British indoor 800m record with a time of 1min 59.11sec.
She had done so in emphatic style, beating the clock by a tenth of a second and leaving her closest pursuer, Yuliya Krevsun of Ukraine, looking like an also-ran club runner. At the age of 28, having crossed the Rubicon from also-ran territory to the major championship medal rostrum, Meadows has gained the assurance and stature of a major player in the global women's 800m game. She goes to the World Indoor Championships in Doha starting on Friday not just as some Jenny from the block but as a serious contender for gold – and as British team captain.
"I think sometimes you kind of believe what people think of you," Meadows says, reflecting on her shift in status. "And I always thought people had this tag of, 'oh, Jenny Meadows, she's really gutsy but she gets knocked out in the semi-finals'. So I proved a point to myself last year by getting my bronze medal and I've just taken the confidence from that with me all through the winter. People are announcing me as 'world bronze medallist' and I think, 'Oh gosh, I've got to live up to that. I've got to perform like that'. It's definitely been a confidence-building thing.
"It's strange for me going into a championship with people writing about me as a medal hope this time. It definitely puts more pressure on. I can sometimes feel when I'm running, 'Oh gosh, I'm all tense'. I think, 'Well why?' because I'm in the position that I want to be. I think it's important that I try not to see it as pressure. I try to view it as support for me rather than something stressful."
Meadows travels to Qatar with the second fastest time in the world this year, behind Russian Yevgeniya Zinurova, who has clocked 1min 58.65sec. Only one other woman has broken two minutes on the boards in 2010: another Russian, Mariya Savinova, who beat Meadows in the Moscow Winter meeting last month. As Dame Kelly pointedly remarked in the aftermath of Meadows' British record run, women's 800m running has become more of a level playing field than it was in the recent past.
It could hardly have looked much steeper to Meadows when she made her senior international championship debut in 2002. Back then, she was a 400m runner stepping up in distance. With her basic speed, and her snappy running action, she looked like she might make a name for herself at the European Indoor Championships in Vienna. That was until one of her shoes got dislodged as she ran in the heats. She dropped out at halfway and ended up watching the final as Jolanda Ceplak stunned the home favourite Stephanie Graf in a humdinger, both women smashing the old world record set by Christine Wachtel in the days of the steroid-driven GDR track regime, the Slovene Ceplak prevailing in a jaw-dropping 1min 55.82sec.
"I remember sitting high in the stands watching that final and I think I actually cried," Meadows recalls. "I remember saying, 'Oh my goodness, I'm never going to be as good as those girls'. I remember thinking, 'They're sprinting for 800m'. If somebody had told me at the time, 'You'll end up getting a bronze medal at the World Champs, running 1min 57.93sec,' I think I would have stopped crying and thought, 'Oh, OK then'."
It is not just that the playing field has been significantly levelled, Ceplak and several other chemically enhanced performers having been flattened under a weightier drugs-testing regime. Meadows has taken a notable step up in class under the guidance of her husband and coach, Trevor Painter. It took her until 2007 to crack two minutes but in Berlin she pushed on into 1min 57sec territory.
She did so in the wake of Semenya, who won in a stunning 1min 55.45sec. They could have hardly cut a greater contrast: the big, muscular South African and the 5ft 1in slip of a British lass. And yet, while the questions started to be asked about the matter of Semenya's gender and other rivals complained of being at a disadvantage, Meadows offered nothing but support and heartfelt sympathy for the teenager and her plight.
"I can't believe that we're sitting here now and Caster still doesn't know where she stands," Meadows says when the C word is put to her. "She's training at the moment and it must be so difficult for her to know what she's training for. I've had my goals to aim at since Berlin. You need a target, something to motivate you. And with all of this still up in the air, Caster must just think: 'What is going on?'
"I mean, she's an unbelievable talent. I don't wish to be defeatist, but if she's running against you in a championship race then I think the silver medal's the best you can aim for. She looked so phenomenal in Berlin. It's just crazy that it's not been sorted out."
The Belgrave Harrier won the 60m silver medal at the World Indoor Championships in Valencia two years ago, and he currently stands second in the world rankings with 6.50sec, behind Ivory Williams, who won at the US trials in 6.49sec. It should be close, and the new false-start rule (first strike and out) could be a factor.
Picked as the Great Britain team captain following her inspirational bronze medal-winning run in the 800m at the World Championships in Berlin last summer, the Wigan runner is in fine form. Two Russians, Yevgeniya Zinurova and Mariya Savinova, and Anna Willard-Pierce of the United States are likely to be her main threats.
The reigning world triple jump champion, both indoors and out, Idowu is not a 100 per cent certain starter in Doha, following the recent birth of his second child. If he travels, however, he will be the man to beat, even though Italian Fabio Donato and the resurgent Swede Christian Olsson have been in better form in 2010.
The world heptathlon champion is back in shape following a minor foot problem and will start as the woman to beat in an intriguing pentathlon competition that also includes the three heptathlon medallists from the Beijing Olympics in 2008: Nataliya Dobrynska, Hyleas Fountain and Tatyana Chernova.
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