Holmes' World Championships hopes recede

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The Independent Online

With the Olympic 800 metres and 1500m champion looking, in her own words, "less and less likely" to compete at the World Championships which start in four weeks' time, and with Paula Radcliffe still recovering from the illness and injury that affected her during last month's European Cup weekend, Britain's prospects in Helsinki are looking distinctly grim.

The situation was hardly improved yesterday with the news that Mark Lewis-Francis, runner-up in Saturday's 100m final to Jason Gardener, was receiving intensive treatment for a hamstring injury and will make an announcement tomorrow about his fitness for the season.

It is worrying news for a runner who still has youth on his side but who, at 22, is still struggling to translate the potential so evident when he won the world junior title in 2000 to full effect. The relay win in Athens appeared to give Lewis-Francis added conviction in his quest to realise his full talents; it would be cruel if injury were to prevent him contesting a global title.

Lewis-Francis was not the only one of Britain's victorious sprint relay team from Athens to be in the doldrums on Saturday, as Darren Campbell announced he would not compete in yesterday's 200m final after failing to reach the 100m final, and Marlon Devonish, after setting the fastest qualifying time, was disqualified for a false start.

Campbell is still hopeful that he can earn a Commonwealth place in Melbourne next year, but the man who has been winning serious medals since taking double silver at the World Junior Championships has written off his championship aspirations this season. "As far as the worlds go, unless someone gets hurt, I wouldn't even ask for a place," Campbell said.

Another of Britain's successful Olympic performers disappeared permanently from the track yesterday as Katharine Merry, 400m bronze medallist at the Sydney Games, announced her retirement after a long struggle with injuries. Presumably, it was no more than coincidence that this outstanding performer should have made her decision the day after her British junior 100m record had been beaten at the English Schools' Championships by 14-year-old Ashleigh Nelson, who ran 11.64sec.

Donna Fraser, the woman who finished just a place outside the medals in the Sydney 400m, confirmed her return to fitness after a long-term injury by winning the AAA title easily in 51.27sec, her fastest time since she ran 49.79sec in the Olympic final of 2000. Christine Ohuruogu, the 21-year-old defending champion, was just 0.01sec behind, and in fifth place 18-year-old Laura Finucane - one of the group being mentored by Holmes - ran a season's best of 53.66sec.

With the temperature rising into the nineties fahrenheit, conditions for spectators could hardly have been more different from last year, when this event was established here at its cosy little home alongside the City of Manchester stadium.

The conditions suited Tim Benjamin, whose career was knocked off stride last year by an abreaction to an injection which left him in hospital for a week. He indicated his return to 400m form last month, however, by clocking 45.11sec.

The 23-year-old Welshman earned himself a place in Helsinki with an assured win over the naturalised American who represented Britain at last summer's Olympics, Malachi Davis. Benjamin clocked 45.52sec, with Davis second in 45.84sec.

With Sally Gunnell - the woman who 11 years ago, held Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth 400m hurdles titles as well as the world record - looking on in her position as a BBC TV interviewer, the 2005 version of the event she once called her own went to 23-year-old Nicola Sanders, who succeeded in shattering her personal best of 56.39sec with victory in 55.61sec.

That meant a narrow defeat for Lee McConnell, the European and Commonwealth 400m flat medallist who has taken up the event this season. McConnell's form has improved since she failed to claim a European Cup place last month, and she too improved her personal best - from 56.17sec to 56.06sec.

In the absence of Chris Rawlinson, still not fully fit after a hernia operation which hampered his performance in the European Cup, the men's 400m hurdles title went to Welshman Matt Elias in a time of 49.67sec.

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