ROWING: Redgrave four head the quest for medals

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THE BRITISH Rowing Team has grounds for some jittery preparation as it waits today for tomorrow's opening of the World Championships at the Chorweiler course in the suburbs of Cologne, Germany. This year the challenge is to live up to the very high performance and expectations raised by the record total of eight championship medals won last year.

For the last 14 years the best chance of a gold medal has rested on the crew with Steven Redgrave. This time, as in France a year ago, the coxless four with his partner throughout the 1990s, Matt Pinsent, and the two freshman world champions, James Cracknell and Tim Foster, is the vehicle closest to a banker in the increasingly tough World Championship competition.

The coxless four trained with the rest of the team since Lucerne in mid- July, first at high altitude in Silvretta, Austria, and latterly at Varese in northern Italy. Jurgen Grobler, the former east German, who, as men's chief coach, has taken personal care of Redgrave and Pinsent since coming to Britain in January 1991, claims they are now faster than last year.

The four suffered its only defeat in Munich in June, when Foster was absent with injury, and did not reappear until Henley, when it beat the recently re-formed Atlanta Olympic champions and repeated the feat with a stunning victory in Lucerne a week later. Unless a wholly new four of exceptional talent has been drafted into the event in the last month, the Union flag should get another airing over Redgrave's perspiring bulk at lunchtime on Sunday week. But, there is no room at the top for the smallest hiccup and nothing will be taken for granted by this formidably professional crew.

The men's eight has been restructured as thoroughly as the Russian national debt and has only three survivors from the 1997 fourth-place crew. Louis Attrill is now at stroke, with Richard Hamilton behind him at seven.

The crew is looking technically proficient and has been going well enough to get under 5 minutes 30 seconds for the 2000-metre course in flat conditions, which will be necessary to win a medal here.

The men's coxed four has only Dan Johnson, in as a substitute for Toby Garbett, surviving from the crew which won bronze last year and has had disrupted training, but as a non-Olympic event with 12 entries of little- known form almost any result is possible.

The men's pair of Fred Scarlett and Steve Williams were eighth-ranked in the April trials in Britain but gained enough World Cup points through the season for the selectors to pick them to race in an extended field of 21 entries with no obvious stars.

In the single scull Greg Searle has had the kind of poor season which would push anyone else into retirement. Similarly Peter Haining in the lightweight single has had a poor preparation in comparison to his record three years from 1993 as champion but is going well and talking as confidently as ever of his prospects. In this non-Olympic event he may find the competition has eased in the past two years.

Guin Batten in the Women's single never really took off this summer and remains stuck somewhere toward the back of the final in fifth or sixth place.

Unless she can make a breakthrough here to the medals she will have to face up to whether the best use of her talent for Sydney will be in a bigger boat like the Women's eight, which has looked under-powered in a much harder field this season, and which may struggle to get more than a place in the final here.

Mike Spracklen, the women's chief coach, has scratched the coxless four which won the non-Olympic event last year to concentrate on the eight, acknowledging the harsher competition.

His two leading boats, the coxless pair and double scull, have both had good preparation and expect to go well. Dot Blackie, in the pair with Cath Bishop, missed the final last year when a medal seemed a certainty and will be deeply anxious to prove that their World Cup overall victory was deserved in spite of a dip into fourth place in Lucerne.

The double scull of Miriam Batten and Gillian Lindsay raced only once in the summer, at Hazenwinkel, but are now back in the sort of form which took them to silver a year ago.

The Women's team won only isolated medals in open weight events in the years of eastern European dominance of the sport and in the early nineties allowed the mantle to go first to the Canadians and then to the Australians. Three medals in Aiguebelettes proved that it is possible with the right preparation for the British to compete with the best and it is vital this year that the momentum is maintained to give them a proper take off point for Sydney.

The lightweight men are led by the eight which has stayed ahead of the European field, but it is not an Olympic event, and the double sculls and four, which have Sydney as the target, have each found the going tough this season and will be pleased with a place in the final.

The lightweight women's double scull, with Tracy Langlands and Jane Hall, have an outside chance of a medal.