Ladejo leads Britain's chase for medals

Mike Rowbottom, in Stockholm, looks at the weekend's European Indoor Championships
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It seems appropriate that the 24th European Indoor Athletics Championships, a stepping stone en route to this summer's Olympics, should be hosted by a city built on 14 linked islands.

But if the course is set, then for the runners at least the path is narrow. The track inside the Globe Arena here has only four tight lanes and is extremely sharp on the curves.

"It's like back to the old days of indoor running," said Malcolm Arnold, Britain's director of coaching. "When you finish running one bend and you are looking down to the next one it looks like a right angle." Or, as someone suggested, a left angle.

Whatever the angle, Du'Aine Ladejo, Britain's defending 400 metres champion, has revised his expectation of breaking Todd Bennett's national indoor record of 45.56sec.

Ladejo, who spent six years studying at an American college, has a seemingly inexhaustible capacity to be upbeat. Having said he hopes to beat the world champion, Michael Johnson, at this year's Olympics, he managed to formulate a positive take on the fact that the American has recently run 44.66sec indoors - nearly two seconds faster than his best this season. "It shows that he is not in any better nick than last year," he said.

But even Ladejo - second in the European list this year to Ashraf Saber, of Italy - has had to lower his sights on the evidence of his own eyes. "On this track I don't think breaking the record is realistic," he said. "I would go so far as to say it is not up to standard. It has probably the tightest corners I've ever seen."

Two years ago at the Palais Omnisport in Paris, Ladejo contributed to Britain's best total of five European indoor medals, the others coming from Dalton Grant in the high jump, David Strang in the 1500m, and Colin Jackson, who completed an unprecedented double in the 60m and 60m hurdles.

While both Ladejo and Grant will defend their titles here, many of the leading Britons are absent either because of injury or a desire to concentrate on training for the Olympic outdoor season.

That has given other British talents the opportunity to raise their profiles in an event which began as the European Indoor Games in Dortmund 30 years ago.

Jason Gardener, a 20-year-old from Bath, goes into these championships as the fastest European of the indoor season over 60m. Anthony Whiteman is another Briton for whom these championships could represent a great leap forward. He goes into the 1500m as the third fastest European this year with a time of 3min 39.47sec.

And Ashia Hansen, third in the triple jump rankings this season, is a strong medal contender despite having suffered recently from a heavy cold.

For Kate Staples, Britain's pole vault record holder, this weekend offers the first chance to compete in an international championship.

Women's pole vaulting was only officially recognised by the International Amateur Athletic Federation at the beginning of last year, and it will not be included in this summer's Olympics. As the Games get under way, Staples, now 30, will distract herself by filming another series of the TV show Gladiators, where she appears as her alter ego, Zodiac.

But she is determined to make the most of the first championships where her event has been included, and hopes to improve her indoor record of 3.85m to beyond 4m with the help of a newly extended 4ft 6in pole.

While the women's record has been broken regularly this season - the world indoor mark currently stands to China's Sun Caiyun at 4.28m - Staples would have a chance of a medal if she can achieve her objective.

Staples' training partner, Nick Buckfield, faces a relatively harder task in his event, where the top seven performers in the world this year are European. But it gives him the ideal competitive environment in which to improve his recent British record of 5.61.

Judy Oakes has an outside chance of a medal in a shot putt competition which features one of only two world champions to be competing here, Astrid Kumbernuss of Germany. The other is also a German, Alina Astafei, the high jumper.

Grant's gold in Paris, the first championship victory of his career, was no more than he deserved for his pioneering achievements in lifting British high jumping to world-class levels.

Although Norway's European outdoor champion, Steinar Hoen, appears a clear favourite, Grant - who has as much nerve and competitive spirit as any British athlete - looks sure to add to his medal collection.