Gardener rediscovers his golden glow

European Indoor Championships: Hero of Athens shrugs off poor recent form to claim his third successive title

For a man whose profession requires him to be in a hurry, Ronald Pognon tends to rise from his starting blocks with all the urgency of a Sunday morning Parisian stroller on the Left Bank of the Seine. When he manages to get into his sprinting stride, the young Frenchman is about as stoppable as a TGV. The favourite for the blue riband event of the European Indoor Championships was shunted into the sidings, though, when the gold medal was on the line in the Palacio de Deportes last night.

For a man whose profession requires him to be in a hurry, Ronald Pognon tends to rise from his starting blocks with all the urgency of a Sunday morning Parisian stroller on the Left Bank of the Seine. When he manages to get into his sprinting stride, the young Frenchman is about as stoppable as a TGV. The favourite for the blue riband event of the European Indoor Championships was shunted into the sidings, though, when the gold medal was on the line in the Palacio de Deportes last night.

Pognon may have deprived Jason Gardener of his European indoor 60m record last month, but in the race of the season that mattered the most the speed merchant known as the Bath Bullet was firing on all cylinders. While Pognon hesitated in his blocks, Gardener was away and flying to his third successive European indoor 60m title. The Briton clinched his hat-trick with room to spare, earning a place in the championship record books alongside Valeriy Borzov and Marian Woronin.

Gardener led from start to finish and, after crossing the line in a season's best, 6.55sec, he turned smartly on his heels and doubled back down the sprint strip in celebration. He was not the only Briton celebrating. As in Vienna three years ago, Mark Lewis-Francis took the silver medal in Gardener's wake. He also clocked a season's best, 6.59sec.

Poor Pognon, who clocked a scorching 6.45sec in Karlsruhe a month ago, had to settle for the bronze medal in a modest 6.62sec. It was the British sprinters who were the Eurostars, Gardener and Lewis-Francis adding gold and silver to the Olympic gold medals they won as the first-leg and last-leg runners in Britain's victorious 4 x 100m relay team in Athens seven months ago.

"This medal is for me," Gardener said. "It's been a tough challenge. Pognon broke my record last month and came here as the outright favourite. I've not been running well this season but I knew I could come here and challenge to bring the gold back to Britain."

Six weeks ago Lewis-Francis was flat on his back being taken from the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham on a stretcher after pulling a hamstring in his first race of the season. "I'm just happy to have a medal," he said. "I've got a smile on my face."

It was the second silver of the championships for Britain, following Kelly Sotherton in the pentathlon on Friday. It was not the last yesterday, though. With a storming sprint off the final bend in the 3,000m, the veteran John Mayock moved from fourth to second, finishing runner-up to Alistair Cragg of Ireland.

There ought to have been a bronze medal for to celebrate from the women's 1500m final, too, but when Helen Clitheroe prepared to pass Hind Dehiba to move into third on the final bend the French athlete moved out into lane two in a deliberate blocking move.

With the Romanians Elena Iagar and Corina Dumbravean well clear in first and second, the stunned Clitheroe crossed the line 0.34sec behind Dehiba in 4min 7.54sec. As she did so, the British team management were already preparing a protest, supported by the watching Sebastian Coe. "It was stonewall obstruction," the twice Olympic 1500m champion said.

"It was definitely a deliberate tactic," Clitheroe maintained. "I will be speaking to the team management about a protest. To come so close to a medal, I would be gutted to miss out like that."

The Preston Harrier missed Dehiba sticking out her tongue in her direction after passing the line. "Maybe I should stick out mine at her," she said. Not that she needed to, with a strong British protest lodged with the jury of appeal.

A bronze would be richly deserved by Clitheroe, not just for the tactical astuteness of her run but for the manner in which she has overcome the heartache of missing out on the last Olympics. It would also be a fine reward for the coach who has helped the former lifeguard surpass her previous best achievement, a European Cup 1500m win in 2000. It is only this winter that Clitheroe started working with John Nuttall, winner of the 1994 Commonwealth 5,000m bronze.

There might also have been a bronze for Britain in the men's triple jump final but, after holding third place for two of the six rounds, Nathan Douglas had to settle for fourth place with an indoor personal best, 16.89m. Chris Lambert goes into the final day with medal potential.

A graduate of the JFK School of Government at Harvard, he clocked the fastest time in the 200m heats yesterday morning, a personal best of 20.77sec, and then improved by 0.03sec in winning his semi-final last night. The smooth-striding Londoner will be joined in this afternoon's final by his Belgrave Harriers club-mate Tim Abeyie, a former youth-team centre-forward with Fulham.

He won his heat in a lifetime best, 20.92sec, and then produced a storming finish to take the second qualifying spot from his semi-final, clocking 20.93sec. His coach will have been suitably impressed. Indeed, it was in the same Madrid arena that Linford Christie won his first international title, the European indoor 200m crown, in 1986.

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