Gunnell plagued by uncertainties

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The Independent Online
Two athletes left Oslo yesterday in very different states of mind. Neither may be at the World Championships.

For Haile Gebrselassie, who regained his world 10,000 metres record with such awesome certainty at Friday night's Bislett Games, next month's events in Athens are almost an irrelevance. He has done it all before.

The same is true for Sally Gunnell, who in 1994 completed the set of Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth 400m hurdles titles. However, she has been desperate to do well in the World Championships after two seasons of illness and defeat. As she trailed in fifth, more than two seconds adrift of the athlete who succeeded her as Olympic champion last summer, Deon Hemmings, Gunnell presented a woebegone sight after her third defeat in the space of six days.

"I don't know what is happening," said Gunnell, who will be 31 this month. "I seem to have lost my confidence. I've got a bit of thinking to do." It was a measure of her distress that she refused to talk to television after her run and, equally uncharacteristically, turned away autograph hunters.

Asked if she was considering giving up for good if she didn't finish this season, she replied: "When things are not going so well, that is one of the things that crosses your mind." After a night of contemplation, she postponed the decision. "I have decided to go out and enjoy the year and go to the World Championships and enjoy it too."

It is not the first time that this outstanding athlete has contemplated retirement - but the reasons which caused her to do so have always been physical. Now it is her psyche, rather than her body, that is injured.

When Gunnell won her European Cup event in Munich last month she punched the air in unmistakeable triumph. She was on the way back, and talking about bridging the gap between herself and the three other women who have taken her event on in her absence, Hemmings and the two Americans Kim Batten and Tonja Buford-Bailey. It puzzles her as much as anyone why she has gone backwards, rather than forwards, since then.

Gebrselassie is in no doubt about his immediate future. His next competitive outing will be over 5,000m in the Zurich grand prix. He will not, he insists, be defending his world title in Athens. He has cited several reasons, including the fact that the track is too hard - a problem he encountered in winning the Olympic title in Atlanta.

The Athens smog also influences him. Pointedly, after what was his first appearance here, he praised the "clean air" of Oslo, describing it as the perfect place to race. A capacity crowd of 18,600 saluted his new mark of 26min 31.32sec - 6.76sec inside the time run by Morocco's Salah Hissou last summer - with huge enthusiasm. Oslo spectators know their distance running, and this was the third time in four years that the 10,000m record had been set here.

But as he waited quietly for his flight home yesterday morning, the little Ethiopian attracted no attention from the travellers who bustled around him. The man who can claim to be the greatest middle-distance runner of all time was just a figure in the crowd.

"I am going home to rest," he said with a wide grin. "I am not doing the World Championships. I have won it twice. There is no need." Financially, the 24-year-old, whose rise from humble origins in Assala will be featured in a film at the next Cannes Festival, is secure. Friday's performance will probably have been worth around $250,000 to him. Having regained his two miles and 10,000m world records in the space of just over a month, the only problem Gebrselassie seems to face now is one of constant expectation. If he fails to improve on his own phenomenal 5,000m record of 12min 44.39sec when he runs in Zurich, it will be considered a failed enterprise.

Then again, Gebrselassie has grown accustomed to discovering new territory when he runs. "A world record is always possible," he said, displaying once again his set of startlingly white teeth.