Old guard put on their Olympic mettle

The AAA championships will have an added sting for athletes this weekend
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The Independent Online
At the first Amateur Athletic Association Championships in 1880, the opening event, the mile, drew just one competitor.

Then 21, Walter George - the greatest middle-distance runner of his era - was said to have run 4min 20sec in training, nearly five seconds faster than the amateur record. The rumours were enough to discourage all potential opponents, and thus when the frock-coated, silk-hatted starter fired his pistol, only George was there to respond.

One hundred and sixteen years on, the championships that start at Birmingham's Alexander Stadium on Friday form the pivotal point of the Olympic season for Britain's athletes. They double up as trials at which places for Atlanta go automatically to the first two in each event. There is one other discretionary place in each event.

Roger Black, who will take part in a 400m that promises to be the most cut-throat of all the events this weekend, uses a footballing analogy to emphasise the importance of the championships. "There are a lot of athletics meetings in a season that don't really matter," he says. "But this is like England v Switzerland. It matters."

And just as England's footballers discovered, the real thing can be unpredictable, debilitating and disorientating. Last year's decision to grant automatic places to the first two in each trial event rather than solely the winner has added an element of drama to the weekend's action. Someone, somewhere is going to be elated. Someone, somewhere is going to see the bottom drop out of their world.

The British Athletic Federation had more than one reason to alter its policy. The format is more attractive to spectators and makes absenteeism - which marred last year's trials so badly - too dangerous an option for most athletes to contemplate. But the federation has wisely resisted any impulse to follow the American example of picking the first three past the post.

According to a poll conducted by Black and the high jumper Geoff Parsons, most British athletes welcomed the new format. And an uneasiness at being obliged to run their specialist events when they turn up has been counter- balanced by relief that these championships will be closed. The prospect of British runners having to chase home accomplished Kenyan middle-distance runners in a desperate attempt to reach their finals has been banished.

Despite all this, a handful of Britain's best athletes may be forced to miss the championships because of injury. Steve Backley, javelin silver medallist at last year's World Championships, is recovering from Achilles tendon surgery; and Jonathan Edwards, Britain's most obvious hope for an Olympic gold medal, has pulled out with a heel injury aggravated in winning at the Rome Grand Prix last Wednesday.

Linford Christie, who will have to announce whether he intends to defend his Olympic 100m title before selectors announce their team on Monday morning, runs only at that event in Birmingham.

Assuming he finishes in the first two places, Christie will collect his flowers, do a lap of honour and then trot over to the BBC cameras to announce ... surely, that he will go to Atlanta.

Our other Olympic champion, Sally Gunnell, is in no doubt about wanting to defend her 400m hurdles title, but after mixed experiences since coming back from long-term injury this season she is still uncertain about her capabilities. Unlike previous trials, where she has been happy to do the high hurdles, she needs hurdling practice in her main event.

Britain's 110m hurdles world record Colin Jackson is similarly up against it after four defeats in the space of 10 days. His hurdling rhythm is out, and he is suffering tendinitis in his right knee.

All in all, these championships, with their edge restored, feel very different to those of last year.