Gunnell's plans run into trouble

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The Independent Online

Linford Christie marked his first domestic appearances of the outdoor season with two untroubled victories over the weekend, but Britain's other Olympic champion, Sally Gunnell, has more pressing work to do if she is to defend her title successfully in Atlanta.

Gunnell, who finished third in Jena on Saturday in what was her first 400 metres hurdles race since September 1994, was philosophical about her prospects yesterday.

"It was the technical side that let me down," she said. "It's just a case now of getting more racing. I mucked up the first hurdle, and I mucked up seven, eight and nine. When I was coming down the home straight I was thinking, 'this is going to be awful; it's going to be 56.57 seconds.' Considering the number of mistakes I made, I was pleased with the time.''

The Olympic champion, who missed the whole of last season with a heel injury, recorded 55.84sec behind Germany's Silvia Rieger, the winner in 54.97sec.

Gunnell, who is aiming to retain her 400m hurdles title in Atlanta this summer, will get another crack at the event - and Rieger - next week, when she captains the women's Europa Cup team in Madrid.

With Sandra Farmer-Patrick, the American whom Gunnell beat in Barcelona, leading the world standings this year with 54.14sec, the question of whether Gunnell will have enough time to get her technique back into shape is a key one.

She estimates that she will have eight races, counting heats at the Olympic trials, before competition begins in Atlanta. "It's just the confidence of racing I need to get back," she said. "I really feel as though I've done all the work.''

She came through a hard training session yesterday with no adverse reaction from the foot which was operated on last year. Bruce Longden, her long- time coach, believes that she is in ideal shape.

"She could have run the race again in Jena 20 minutes later," he said. "I think she's actually fitter than she has ever been at this stage of the season." Twenty four hours after a 150m victory in the Welsh Games, Christie returned to the track at the Inter-Counties Championships yesterday, easing through his 100m heat and then accelerating away from the European indoor silver medallist, Jason John, in the final to win in 10.28sec - respectable running in chilly conditions. "It's fun competing at events like these again," Christie said. "This is where athletics starts.''

He returns to more serious business in Madrid next weekend as he seeks to extend a record run of six 100m wins in the European Cup, as well as going for a fourth 200m success.

He captains a powerful British men's squad - who were winners in 1989 and have finished second every time since - and maintained: "I'm sure we can finish in the top two again.''

While he keeps the athletics world guessing over whether he will defend his Olympic title, potential rivals are showing some impressive early- season form.

In Lille, Frankie Fredericks responded to the previous weekend's sub- 10sec times of Carl Lewis and Dennis Mitchell in Atlanta by winning the 100m in 9.99. "I didn't give everything," Fredericks said.

Saturday's Welsh Games produced victories for other European Cup selections apart from Christie. Jonathan Ridgeon, making a third comeback after four Achilles tendon operations, broke 50 seconds for the 400m hurdles, recording a hugely encouraging 49.87sec in blustery conditions.

Tessa Sanderson once again broke the Olympic javelin qualifying standard, winning in 60.60m, while Colin Jackson, the event promoter, looked impressive as he won the 110m hurdles in 13.26sec.

Diane Modahl, winner of the 600m in 1min 28.40sec, is in Hengelo tonight, when she will run over 800m with the Olympic qualifying mark of 2min 01sec in mind.