Old arena set for Merry showdown and record assault

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The Independent Online

Crystal Palace's days as a venue for premier international athletics may appear to be numbered, but the stadium which has been a vital part of British athletics for more than a quarter of a century will play host today to a meeting billed as the finest quality this country has ever seen - the Norwich Union British Grand Prix. All 16,500 tickets have been sold for an event which can offer both of the essential elements required to draw the interest of track and field followers - record attempts and head-to-heads.

Crystal Palace's days as a venue for premier international athletics may appear to be numbered, but the stadium which has been a vital part of British athletics for more than a quarter of a century will play host today to a meeting billed as the finest quality this country has ever seen - the Norwich Union British Grand Prix. All 16,500 tickets have been sold for an event which can offer both of the essential elements required to draw the interest of track and field followers - record attempts and head-to-heads.

The men's mile and 5,000 metres races contain both elements. Hicham El Guerrouj, of Morocco, will seek to better his world record of 3min 43.13sec in the Emsley Carr mile, where he will be assisted by two pace-makers and the presence of the man who stands just 0.27sec behind him in the all-time rankings, 21-year-old Noah Ngeny of Kenya, who finished a stride behind him when he broke the record in Rome last July.

It should be a classic confrontation, and if the weather holds out, one which could see that mark come under genuine threat.

The 5,000 metres offers a similar scenario as Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie warms up for the defence of his Olympic 10,000 metres title against a field which includes Morocco's world champion, Salah Hissou. Whatever happens, Gebrselassie's London-based fan club, numbering around 2,000, will generate the noise and support they have shown whenever this legendary athlete sets foot on these shores.

The women's programme also offers two intriguing head-to-heads. Britain's Katharine Merry, who has followed up last year's breakthrough at 400 metres, when she finished fifth in the world championships, faces the greatest challenge of her season so far in the form of Australia's world champion and the Olympic favourite, Cathy Freeman.

Freeman, who has been training in Britain recently in order to escape the growing pressure of being Australia's strongest hope for a track and field title on their home soil, indicated in Oslo last month that she is on course to fulfil those national aspirations as she won without undue trouble in 50.74sec.

That represented cruising, rather than sprinting for the woman whose best stands at 48.63. But her presence in London today could at the very least help Merry to break through the 50-second barrier herself, an achievement which would underpin her position as a potential Olympic medallist.

"I'm very impressed with Katharine because she has been running the event for such a short time," Freeman says. "I think it has a lot to do with the fact that she's coached by Linford Christie. He's teaching her to be really confident and not to be scared."

How deeply that philosophy has been ingrained into Merry will become evident shortly after 5.25 this afternoon.

In the women's 100 metres, the world champion, Marion Jones, takes on her closest sprint rival, the 200m world champion, Inger Miller, as she prepares herself for next month's attempt to make Olympic history as she seeks to win five gold medals in Sydney. Yesterday she was blithely confident that her own British 100m all-comers record of 10.80sec at the same venue last yea, would fall. On Tuesday night in Stockholm, in what was only her seventh short sprint of the season, she won in 10.68sec, a marginally wind-assisted time which was her fastest ever at sea level.

"My preparations are going even better than I expected at the start of this season," she said. Asked if she could see herself running faster than 10.60 this season, she said: "I think that's quite possible. It's quite possible to go faster but you are not going to hit me with saying how much faster."

Ominously for her opponents this season she said that last Tuesday's run had been hindered by technical problems. "I was disgusted with my start... it's something I will definitely improve."

Although Britain's only world champion, Colin Jackson, has withdrawn from the 110m hurdles with a persistent thigh injury for which he is receiving treatment in Austria, the meeting offers a world record holder, the triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, the chance to return to the limelight after his decision not to compete in the European Cup in his native town of Gateshead last month. Edwards will need to be on his mettle to deal with the challenge of the man who won in his absence at Gateshead, Larry Achike.

* Michael Johnson will miss next Friday's prestigious Zurich meeting as he recovers from a hamstring injury sustained at the US Olympic trials. A final decision on Johnson's other meetings in Europe will be based on his rate of recovery. Johnson is due to run 400m at Brussels on 25 August, at Berlin on 1 September and at Rieti, Italy, on 3 September before defending his 400 title in Sydney next month.

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