Misery for Merry and Freeman

Countdown to Sydney 2000: Woe for women's one-lap wonders but Radcliffe puts in promising performance
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The Independent Online

Something had to give in the top-billing race at the Norwich Union British Grand Prix yesterday. Cathy Freeman had not lost a 400m race for two years. Katharine Merry had not lost a 400m race this summer. It was Freeman who yielded first - to the great disappointment of the capacity 16,500 crowd here, without setting foot on the track.

Something had to give in the top-billing race at the Norwich Union British Grand Prix yesterday. Cathy Freeman had not lost a 400m race for two years. Katharine Merry had not lost a 400m race this summer. It was Freeman who yielded first - to the great disappointment of the capacity 16,500 crowd here, without setting foot on the track.

The Australian world champion tweaked a thigh muscle on the warm-up track, leaving the eighth lane vacant and the spotlight to Merry. The Briton wilted under the pressure, though, struggling up the home straight to salvage third place in 50.45sec - behind Ana Guevara, of Mexico, and Michelle Collins, of the United States. The Olympic final remains seven weeks away and both Merry and Freeman have time to recover - one physically, the other psychologically. Merry revealed later that she, too, almost pulled out of the race having felt tired after a heavy training programme and being prescribed antibiotics.

The real winner yesterday was Marie-Jose Pérec. Competing in the French championships in Nice, she will be fancying her chances of a third Olympic 400m title.

In the other one-lap event which pitted a British Olympic hopeful against a Sydney favourite, Chris Rawlinson ran a three-quarters perfect race, as well he might. The Rotherham man is the fastest ever hurdler over 300m, having last Sunday relieved David Hemery of his 28-year-old world record for the rarely contested distance. After 300m yesterday, he was ahead of Angelo Taylor, the leading contender for gold in his event in Sydney. The trouble was he still had 100m to run.

He also had two more hurdles to clear and the pig's ear he made of negotiating the first of them cost him his chance of victory. Taylor and Hadi Al-Somaly swept by, leaving Rawlinson to trail home a forlorn and fancifully clad third. The hooded "Swift suit" he wore was not swift enough. Taylor, the winner of the US trials last month and the world's fastest 400m hurdler this year, prevailed in 48.66sec, pipping Al-Somaly by 0.09sec, with Rawlinson a disappointing 0.45sec adrift.

Rawlinson, a former Gladiators contender, might yet fight a winning battle in Sydney, on to the medal rostrum at least. So might Paula Radcliffe, whose fighting spirit was in glorious evidence yesterday. The Bedfordshire woman has suffered a succession of blows since her silver medal-winning 10,000m run at the world championships in Seville last August. In the past six months she has had an ovarian cyst removed, torn a calf muscle, suffered a virus and, most painfully of all, hurt a knee while kneeling on the floor to write thank you letters after her wedding in April.

The 5,000m yesterday was only her second race back on the track after surgery and it was hardly surprising that at the half-way mark she was trailing the leaders by some 30 metres. When the going gets tough, though, nobody gets going quite like Radcliffe. By the 3,600-metre point she was on the heels of Ayelech Worku, Tegla Loroupe and Lydia Cheromei. And on the last lap burn-up she still had enough gas in the tank to take second place - behind Worku, the world championship 5,000m bronze medallist, who clocked 14min 41.23sec, a UK all-comers' record and the fastest time in the world this year.

Radcliffe's time, 14:44.36sec, was less than a second short of the Commonwealth record she set here on the eve of the world championships last year. "As the race went on, I just felt better and better," she said. Sadly, the opposite was true for Sonia O'Sullivan. On the comeback trail following the birth of her daughter last summer, the Irishwoman was with Radcliffe at half-way but finished 33 seconds behind her in ninth place - just ahead of the Bristolian Jo Pavey, who clocked 15:18:51 in her debut race at the distance, eleven seconds inside the Olympic qualifying time.

Of the other leading Britons in action, Jonathan Edwards triple jumped a season's best, 17.34m, Steve Backley threw 85.84m, his best of the year, to take second place in the javelin and Christian Malcolm finished third in the 200m. There was another British performances of note - Tony Whiteman's winning run in the men's 800m, a non-grand prix event, in 1min 45.81sec, a personal best by more than a second - but the stars of the sold-out Palace show were, inevitably, the overseas visitors.

The sparkle was missing from the quick-tempo stride of Gabriela Szabo, who was outsprinted in the 1500m by her fellow Romanian Violeta Szekely. Haile Gebrselassie, too, was not quite at his best in the 5,000m, though he kicked past Sammy Kipketer of Kenya in the home straight to win in 13min 06.73sec. Marion Jones, however, ran to form in the 100m breaking the UK all-comers' record she set at Crystal palace last year with 10.78sec - the world's fastest time this year.

The athlete who really hit the heights, though, was Vyacheslav Voronin, of Russia. He cleared 2.40m, the best high jump performance for six years.

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