The young stars who will shine the brightest in Athens

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The Independent Online

The athletics is finally starting, Athens is buzzing, and the men and women who have been stewing in the Village all week at the end of months, years, of training and preparation, begin to face their destinies today.

The athletics is finally starting, Athens is buzzing, and the men and women who have been stewing in the Village all week at the end of months, years, of training and preparation, begin to face their destinies today.

When I was competing, I grew to hate the pressure at major championships; before races I'd be alone in my room, stretching, focusing, and I'd wonder why all the weight of expectation had to be heaped on poor old me.

This time there is added pressure, on the athletes and on the sport as a whole. Athletics itself has to perform well in these Olympics. After all the doping scandals, culminating in the débâcle we've seen with the two Greek sprinters here, we desperately need some great performances on the track. Athletics has to be clean, it has to be seen to be clean, the authorities have to deal firmly with any wrongdoing, and the athletes have to go out and win back some of the world's faith and interest.

Nothing could be better than for these Olympics to throw up some great new champions, icons to be talked about in positive ways around the world. Many of the greats are here defending their titles, but I'm looking for some challengers, some from the younger generation, to come through and win, and excite everybody. Here are a few who I think have a great chance of winning medals and establishing themselves.

Asafa Powell (100m)


The reigning champion, Maurice Greene, is still the big name in the 100 metres, but Asafa, a Jamaican who is still just 21, beat Maurice at Crystal Palace and in Zurich earlier this month, and he's unbeaten all year, a tremendous position to be in. It isn't as if Maurice has been off form; he's been running fast - 9.94 in Zurich - but Asafa ran 9.93.

I like Asafa's whole approach. He was disqualified for two false starts in the World Championships last year, but you didn't see him going ballistic like Jon Drummond; Asafa kept his dignity and just walked off quietly.

There is a fine tradition of Jamaican sprinting; not just the great Don Quarrie, who won gold and silver in Montreal in 1976. Ben Johnson was disqualified in 1988, but he won the race - he's Jamaican. Linford Christie, gold in 1992: Jamaican. Donovan Bailey won the 100m for Canada in 1996 but he's a natural born Jamaican too.

My parents are Jamaican and if you listen to the stories, it turns out all the unruly slaves were sent to Jamaica. We can be nice and polite when we've got work to do, but we tend to have that killer instinct. I see Asafa definitely having it, and he's my tip for gold.

Xiang Liu (110m Hurdles)


My old event is generally dominated by European or US-based black athletes, which makes the tall, 6ft 3in Chinese athlete Xiang Liu a real exception. His progress has been so impressive, he has a genuine chance of threatening Allen Johnson's dominance of this event. Xiang is the world junior record-holder, he won a silver in the World Indoor Championships this year, bettering his bronze last year, and he has beaten Allen twice, so he's coming into the games in top form.

Xiang isn't spectacular or even that explosively fast on the sprint, but he is incredibly technically consistent. He's got tremendous rhythm, he just doesn't hit hurdles, and when you have that, you have a great chance. With the Olympics going to Beijing in 2008, the stage is set for Xiang to do well here and be a huge homeboy in China next time. He'll get a medal and he is capable of winning the race.

Yolanda Ceplak (800m)


People always tease me that I talk up Yolanda's chances because she's a mate of mine, but that's not so. She's becoming more dominant in her event and, at 26, she's a good age for an 800m runner. She has all the talent, but most importantly for these punishing middle distances, she's a gutsy runner.

Yolanda has had her battles, with a bad back and Achilles injuries, and then she suffered as Kelly Holmes did from stress and a lack of confidence - Yolanda felt the burden of the whole of the Slovenian nation pinning its hopes on her.

She took herself away to Italy to train through June and July and she's prepared so well, regained her composure, and has run 1min 58sec, the fastest time this year. I'm looking to her to do something special and unseat Maria Mutola here.

Elvan Abeylegesse (5,000m)


When Elvan Abeylegesse, running under the Turkish flag, smashed the world 5,000m record at the Golden League meet in Bergen in June, no less than five Ethiopian athletes ran in behind her. But hang on, this wasn't a challenge to African dominance - Elvan is Ethiopian too; she took Turkish citizenship five years ago and her training is clearly bringing the best out of the talent developed at altitude in Ethiopia.

In Bergen, she came out and took on a quality field right from the front, we watched amazed as she just ran and ran. The 5,000m world record, set by the Chinese athlete Jiang Bo in 1997, was one of those we thought would not be beaten for a long, long time but Elvan smashed it. At 21, to come out on the world stage and take everybody on was special, she was astonishing. She has to be the favourite here.

Kenenisa Bekele (5,000m and 10,000m)


Athletics has quite a generous culture; when I was a senior athlete, I had no patience for younger athletes if their attitude was all wrong, but I loved to help youngsters who were working hard at their sport.

Haile Gebrselassie is currently digging deep into his generosity of spirit, as he's seeing his protégé and training partner, 22-year-old Kenenisa Bekele, storm through, having smashed both Haile's world records in the 5,000m and 10,000m earlier this year.

Haile's retiring at the end of the season and I think he's genuinely happy to see the next generation progressing. Kenenisa is a classic Ethiopian running machine, a super heart and lungs, born and bred at altitude. It's hard to see anybody living with him at all, and I hope the world will sit back and enjoy him.

I've said already I don't see the British athletes coming away with too many medals, but apart from the old stagers Paula Radcliffe, Kelly Holmes and Steve Backley, there are two others I have been watching closely who are coming strongly into the Games with an outside chance of doing very well.

Chris Rawlinson (400m Hurdles)

Great Britain

Chris is always one for saying he's going to win everything and beat everybody, in particular the utterly dominant champion in his event, the Dominican Felix Sanchez. Then he doesn't win after all. So I've been giving Chris a really critical eye, wondering if he can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. I have to say I've been impressed.

He's been running with a quality lacking elsewhere in British athletics at the moment. He's had a good season; he hasn't overraced, he's paced himself well, he's got a great rhythm going which is vital for this killer event, he's in fine physical shape and he's run well tactically. Sanchez is still out there on his own, unbeaten in three years, but Chris is in with a shout. He could run in somewhere like sixth, but if it all comes right, he's showing he has what it takes to win a medal.

Michael East (1500m)

Great Britain

Michael is an excellent athlete in the old mould of great British middle distance runners, and he's a real threat in a tactical race. He's in great shape at the moment, so if the runners are bunched up on the last lap, Michael is fast, he can really kick, so he ought to have a great chance.

Unfortunately, the top middle distance runners don't tend to run tactically in championships like they used to. They just take off, they run fast all the way; when you get Hicham El-Guerrouj running 3min 27sec it's ridiculously difficult for Michael to hang on to that kind of pace. I fear they won't bunch up and watch their backs, I think they're going to leg it; but if they run tactically, Michael is in there with the best of them. He proved it in the Commonwealth Games, where he beat all the top Africans to win gold.