Team GB’s Cuban-born Yamilé Aldama books place in Olympic triple jump final


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The Independent Online

No-one could blame Yamilé Aldama for playing it a little safe today. Her indefatigable coach Frank Attoh, without whom she would not have been making her long-awaited Olympic debut for Britain at the age of 39 in bright sunshine, gestured his surprise at how far behind the take-off board she had launched off for her first triple jump. But a nine-year unfulfilled desire to represent a nation tempers an athlete and makes her determined not to take any chances with reaching a final.

Aldama did make there - easily so – reaching beyond the 14.40 qualifying distance by five centimetres, a performance bettered only by Jamaica’s Kimberley Williams’ 14.53. “I wasn’t running as hard,” the Cuban-born Aldama said. “I was a little bit concerned because the wind was changing and you’ve got a headwind. I wanted to make sure. Get it down on the first one. That’s what I did.” Only Williams and Aldama matched the qualifying target, with the next ten best distances making Sunday’s final. That reveals how substantial Aldama’s medal chances are, this weekend.

The idea of being one of the first Britons to experience the deafening home support of the Olympic Stadium – where only Jessica Ennis’ 100m eclipsed her in the early performances– is one she has written off up in her head, many times. When she jumped 15.29 metres at a meeting in Rome nine summers ago, becoming No 1 in the world, all the talk was of her going to Athens for Britain. She had been resident here, with her British husband Andrew Dodds, for a little less than the three years required for British residency to be granted automatically. She hoped things might be rushed through, in the way that Zola Budd was naturalized inside 13 days in 1984 - though things didn’t turn out that way. There was chaos in the background. Her husband had been imprisoned for his part in a $17 million (£10.8 million) dollar heroin smuggling ring and she has always felt that her husband’s crime – which has never been disputed – influenced the naturalization process, with potential to take the sheen on the GB image, heading into the Athens Games. Aldama performed instead for Sudan – whose government were fast-tracking passports for talented athletes from elsewhere to enhance their own podium possibilities– finishing fifth.

That finish added to the fourth she had achieved at Sydney in 2000 for her native Cuba, where she was part of the Castro regime’s national sports and recreation programme, which identifies young athletes early. It was only about a year ago that Attoh suggested Aldama resurrect the very old idea of performing for Britain, after watching the AAAs event in Birmingham and seeing none of the British triple-jumpers jumping over 14 metres – let alone reaching the qualifying standard. The Sudanese federation agreed to release her, so beginning the new chapter in which she has been mentally preparing for the Olympic Stadium which she can see from her home at Wembley.

All of which is why it was an emotional Aldama who reflected yesterday on this coveted appearance, achieved in the month she turns 40, an age at which she had expected athletics to have long given up on her, let alone Great Britain. Aldama sat alone against an advertising hoarding after her work had been done, fleeced up against that sharp wind and quite clearly wrapped up in her thoughts. “I have waited a long time for this,” she said, having emerged from that reverie. “This is my fifth Olympic Games  and I have never known anything like this crowd. Normally it’s empty and there’s been nothing like this.” She went into the qualifying round on the recovery curve from a bad shoulder injury sustained in her second-round jump in the Diamond League meeting in the Stadio Olimpico, early in a season she started as the newly crowned world indoor champion in the triple jump. Aldama looked far sharper and fitter as she produced her safe jump yesterday in a fashion which made the work of Ukrainian Olha Saladuha, perilously close to stepping over the board, look heavy by comparison “What shoulder?” she joked.

Aldama’s story deconstructs the notion of her as one of those ‘plastic Brits. “What I wanted was to represent Britain. I wanted to compete at the top and had my reasons for wanting to represent Britain,” she said. Gold tomorrow would enable her to make a statement to those who had challenged her eligibility and it will also deliver her 71-year-old mother Modesta to London to see her. She has left Cuba for the first time in her life to do so. That will be some font of emotion. “I’ve finished fourth and fifth in Olympics and hopefully I can change that now,” Aldama reflected. “We only have to wait until Sunday.”