Rugby Union: May leaps into the headlines

Simon Turnbull finds that British long jumping is alive and well
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The Independent Online
THE June edition of the magazine Inside Track includes the mournful headline "RIP British Long Jumping". Yet on Thursday morning one newspaper was proudly proclaiming news of a national record set by a long jumper who was born in Slough, raised in Derby and educated at Leeds University. "I was on the front page, would you believe, even though we won 3-0," Fiona May said. Sadly for British athletics, it was on page one of La Gazzetta dello Sport that May's feat was patriotically trumpeted. The "we" to which she referred was the World Cup Azzurri, winners against Chile in Montpellier on Wednesday evening. The national record May set in Athens on the same night was Italian.

British long jumping may be resting in peace - with Lynn Davies's men's record approaching its 30th birthday and the women's record having advanced by just 14cm in the 34 years since Mary Rand struck Olympic gold in Tokyo - but the former British long jumper was alive and kicking in the Greek capital. With her final round effort in the annual invitation meeting in the Athenian Olympic Stadium, May leaped 7.03m. Only Marion Jones, the multi-talented American, has jumped farther this year, albeit by 28cm. It snatched victory from Heike Dreschler, an ironic one in British eyes. When the German won the world title in Stuttgart five years ago, May failed to even qualify for the final. It was her final appearance as a great underachiever in a Great Britain vest.

A reminder of that nadir drew a chuckle on Thursday evening. "No," May said, "I don't think I would have achieved what I have if I'd stayed in Britain. It would have been a miracle if I had." What May has achieved in the past four years is the stuff of British long-jumping dreams: European Championship bronze in 1994, World Championship gold in 1995, Olympic silver in 1996, World Championship bronze last summer and European Indoor gold in March. But her glittering array of major championship medals have been won as a member of the track and field Azzurri. Since 1994, when she married the Italian pole vault record holder Gianni Iapichino, May has lived in Florence and competed for Italy.

"The main reason I came here was because I was engaged to Gianni," she said. "But I definitely needed to do something about my athletics. Coming over here has given me a different mentality as an athlete. It has also given me great support by the Italian federation. Everything is geared towards being 100 per cent right for competitions."

The officers of the Federazione Italiana di Atletica Leggera are rather hoping May will be 200 per cent right in St Petersburg next weekend. She has been pencilled in for the triple jump as well as the long jump in the European Cup. It will be her first international test as a triple jumper and one that will be followed with vested British interest. Ashia Hansen will not be among May's rivals in the Petrovsky Stadium. A bruised heel has ruled her out of the British team. But the new golden girl of British athletics, having broken the world indoor record at the European Indoor Championships in Valencia four months ago, will be anxious to assess whether the British-born Florentine is likely to be a threat to her prominent place in the world order.

May smashed the Italian indoor record on her triple jump debut in January, with a world-class 14.56m. But even in the absence of Hansen, whose indoor world record stands at 15.16m, she is steeling herself for "a baptism of fire" in St Petersburg. "Sarka Kasparkova, the world champion, will be there," she said, "and everyone will be looking to see what I can do. The triple jump is really an experiment for me this year. I just want to settle into the event. I won't be doing it in the European Championships in Budapest in August. I'll be concentrating on the long jump there.

"I knew there would be interest in Britain when I started triple jumping because of Ashia breaking through. But I don't want to take away her limelight over there. If we become rivals, so be it. But we've known each other for a long time and we get on well. I've just written to her, inviting her over here for treatment or just to recuperate."

As for British long jumping, signs of recovery could be evident in St Petersburg. Nathan Morgan, 19, will make his senior international debut with a wind-assisted 8.04m to his credit. Having entered the world on 30 June, 1978, the 10th anniversary of Davies's British record, he would seem born to the historic task of eclipsing the Welshman's 8.23m leap. A Leicester lad, Morgan is the not the first European junior long jump champion to have emerged from the East Midlands. She will be scoring points for Italy in St Petersburg.