Gardener misses Birmingham speed show

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The Independent Online

Britain's transformation from a nation of harriers to a nation of hurriers will stand plainer than ever this weekend as a rapidly expanding group of outstanding sprinters gathers in Birmingham for the Norwich Union World Trials and AAA Championships.

Long gone are the days when Linford Christie so pulverised the event that other Britons were but shadows in his wake. The 100 metres event, which gets underway today at the Alexander Stadium, and the 200m, which starts tomorrow, promise two things: speed, and distress. With only three places available in each event for next month's World Championships in Edmonton, there is simply too much sprinting talent to fit in.

For Jason Gardener, only the second Briton to run under 10 seconds since Christie retired in 1997, the distress kicked in early yesterday as he pulled out of the trials and ruled out his chances of competing in Canada.

Gardener, who competed with a bad back at the Sydney Olympics, has struggled to recover this season, and pulled up with a new injury halfway through his first real test last month at the Seville Grand Prix.

"There is no way I am fit enough to race this weekend," said the Wessex and Bath athlete, whose career has stuttered since winning the European indoor 60m title last year. "I am over the back injury, but in Seville I suffered serious cramps in both my calf muscles. The problem was so serious I only managed to get over the pain and begin training again on the track last week.

"The injury has effectively ruined my season... realistically I know I will not be going to Edmonton. Now I intend regaining full fitness and getting myself prepared for next year."

Gardener's withdrawal simplifies the complexities of the short sprint – but only a bit. Dwain Chambers, who confirmed his return from a hamstring problem last week by lowering his season's best to 10.00sec in Lausanne, is favourite to win. But if the 23-year-old world bronze medallist of 1999 gets away sloppily he can expect the 18-year-old world junior and European Cup champion, Mark Lewis-Francis, to mow him down. These two have been the pre-eminent British performers at 100m this season, but the event can call on other world-class performers.

Darren Campbell, the Olympic 200m silver medallist, returned to action in Nice on Monday after a hamstring problem and could choose to stake his claim over the shorter distance. Ian Mackie, who returned to form with 10.19sec in the three-sided international at Glasgow last Sunday week, feels he has a point to prove to the selectors.

Christian Malcolm, fifth in the Olympic 200m, could disturb some egos by racing in the shorter sprint as well. Other challenges for a World Championship place could come from Doug Bignall, who has already clocked 10.30 this season, and Jon Barbour, a training partner of Chambers, who will be competing for Britain at the European Under-23 championships in Amsterdam this weekend.

The men's 200m could be equally fraught with possibilities. Will Campbell rely upon his Olympic silver medal and neglect to run? Will Chambers double up, as he did last year? However it turns out, Malcolm seems certain to put in a characteristically dashing performance here, as does Marlon Devonish, who justified being chosen above the European indoor champion for last month's European Cup by taking second place. The involvement of Allyn Condon, who always seems to run well in the trials, and the Commonwealth champion, Julian Golding, still tantalisingly short of full form after two seasons beleaguered by injury, promises a richly rewarding event.

Elsewhere there are searching questions to be asked in the 400m, where Iwan Thomas, still seeking his best form after injury, competes encouraged by his season's best of 45.77 last weekend, just 0.05sec off the world qualifying standard.

Thomas's perennial domestic rival Mark Richardson, who celebrated the annulment of his two-year suspension for nandrolone abuse by winning in Glasgow last Sunday week, is hoping to underline his credentials as a potential world medallist. The participation of the world indoor champion, Daniel Caines, who has been troubled with injury, would only enhance the event.

The women's 400m could be as compelling a spectacle if Katharine Merry, the Olympic bronze medallist, decides to contest it. She faces the fourth-placed runner in Sydney, Donna Fraser, although the Croydon Harrier is still struggling for form following an Achilles tendon injury. Opportunities also beckon for the Welsh record holder Catherine Murphy, Lesley Owusu, who won silver at the NCAA Championships earlier this year in a personal best of 52.15, and, interestingly, Lee McConnell, who defeated both Michelle Dunkley and the European Cup champion, Susan Jones, at last year's trials – in the high jump.

Kelly Holmes, who produced an 800m of just outside 2min in Madrid last Sunday in what was her first outdoor race since earning an Olympic bronze medal, will be eager to demonstrate that she has made a full recovery from the glandular fever which threatened her World Championship year.

However, if the Olympic champion, Jonathan Edwards, decides to compete in an event he gave a miss to last year, and Olympic finalists Phillips Idowu and Larry Achike also take part, the triple jump could turn into the best events of the trials.

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