Downcast Richardson looks to lift spirits

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The Independent Online

Two years after he beat Michael Johnson, the world's leading 400 metres runner, Mark Richardson faces the American again tonight at the Brussels Golden League meeting in circumstances that are uniquely unfortunate for him.

Two years after he beat Michael Johnson, the world's leading 400 metres runner, Mark Richardson faces the American again tonight at the Brussels Golden League meeting in circumstances that are uniquely unfortunate for him.

When Richardson, then 26, inflicted a rare defeat on the Olympic champion in Oslo, despite running on the tight inside lane, it seemed that a rich potential checked by years of injuries was finally being realised.

Since that high point, however, Richardson's world has darkened. That year ended with crushing defeats at the European Championships and Commonwealth Games by his domestic rival Iwan Thomas. The following year saw him test positive for nandrolone, a result that has since been overturned by UK Athletics but, crucially, not by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, which will arbitrate on the decision before next month's Olympics get under way. And unless startling evidence emerges between now and then, Richardson is likely to endure the same two-year ban which the IAAF confirmed on his colleagues Linford Christie, Doug Walker and Gary Cadogan on Monday after they had also been cleared of similar charges by their domestic body.

In the meantime, Richardson is sticking to the schedule he spoke of after winning the Olympic trials two weeks ago. Hardly surprisingly, however, he is less than upbeat about the occasion. "I haven't even considered that Johnson is in the race," he said yesterday. "It's ages since I thought about that win. It is a long time since I ran at this level and I'm only interested in my performance." Johnson, making his first appearance since pulling up injured in the 200m final at the US Olympic trials, is also interested in turning in a convincing performance in the event which is now his only route to individual gold in Sydney.

The Van Damme Memorial meeting forms the first part of Johnson's three-race countdown to the Games, where he plans to become the first man to retain the 400m title.

Ominously for his opponents, he says he still has room for improvement on the opening section of his race. "My only concern is to win these races," Johnson said. "A good time would be a bonus. As long as I'm healthy and at my best, and if I can execute correctly, I don't believe I can be beaten." Among the others seeking to test that hypothesis tonight will be Jamie Baulch, offered the discretionary place in the individual event ahead of Thomas, but still seeking to find consistent form.

The women's 400m race was billed by the promoters as the "Olympic final, a month early" before France's double Olympic champion Marie-Jose Perec dropped out of what would only have been her third race of the season. The presence of Australia's Olympic favourite Cathy Freeman, and Britain's medal prospect Katharine Merry, recovered from the stomach upset which caused her to miss the Olympic trials, should nevertheless ensure a high level of competition.

Perec's late withdrawal is reported to have occurred because of a dispute over her appearance money but, as this is the fourth successive race she has failed to turn up for, there must be legitimate concerns over the state of mind, if not health, of the woman who has recently been training in Germany.

The presence of Latesha Colander-Richardson, who won the US trials with a time of 49.87sec, will mean that Freeman, whose winning time of 49.48 in Monte Carlo last Friday was the fastest of the year, needs to be on top form to maintain her position.

Britain's Darren Campbell will take on world record holder Maurice Greene in the 100 metres, while Greene's compatriot Marion Jones returns to the Golden League circuit to contest the women's short sprint.

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