Sonia's twin incentive

Norman Fox sees the athletes go through their final paces before Atlanta

When somebody inevitably and almost accusingly demanded to know why she had not broken the 5,000 metres world record "as advertised" at Crystal Palace on Friday night, the stately, composed Irish runner Sonia O'Sullivan was not bitter. She smiled knowingly and said expectation was a fine thing - performing to demand was another. What she did suggest was that her own Olympic expectations were even higher than those of the couch potato who asked the question.

She goes to the United States this week not concerned that almost everyone she has heard giving her unprovoked advice has said that taking on the 1,500m and 5,000m in the heat, physical and mental, of the Olympic Games in sweltering Atlanta is too much. "I've always planned to do the two races," she said. "There's plenty of recovery time between them - the finals are seven days apart - and in any case everybody has to run in the same conditions." Not everybody is going to run heats and finals of two particularly enervating events, though. "I'm happy that the 5,000m is first and the 1,500m later," she said.

She is favourite for the 5,000m and if she goes into the shorter race with the gold medal, she can relax and not suffer as much tension as others who are concentrating on the one event. Her attitude to the 5,000 is that it could be a slow race. "I've not really thought much about the tactics of other people. I don't even know what the Chinese have been doing. All I know is that I have to cover every move," which is exactly what she did at Crystal Palace when Paula Radcliffe gave her some solid competition until the final lap when O'Sullivan strode away.

No one with serious Olympic expectations was going to attempt a flat out performance as close to the Games as Friday - least of all Linford Christie, who had just recovered from some hamstring irritation, and Jonathan Edwards, who had only one semi-serious leap of over 17 metres. Indeed O'Sullivan confessed that she had used up most of her energy in a lively morning training session in perfect weather. By the evening there was a breeze and the mood was not with her.

Only the javelin competitors Steve Backley and Tessa Sanderson really needed to test themselves one more time. Sanderson, now aged 40, has progressed so well that a medal is within reach but she is annoyed that so few competitions have been available in the Olympic run-up. "I keep hitting and missing," she said. "I really needed more events, but I think I've done enough to send out some shock waves. Deep down I know I can win."

She thinks the gold will be won with a throw of about 67 metres. She says that distance could be within her capability "but you could say that about several others". A throw of 64.06 metres at Crystal Palace still left her outside the top 10 of the year, but the gap is closing.

Backley, still behind with his training after Achilles tendon problems, may well have to find at least another five metres if he is to beat Jan Zelezny in the Olympic final. However, a throw of 85.58 metres on Friday and four other ones of over 80 metres may have left him second to Gavin Lovegrove, of New Zealand, but in a good frame of mind and hoping for one of Zelezny's occasional off- days.

Although Edwards is convinced that sometime this summer he is going to produce another huge triple jump, possibly even a world record, he is also coming to the conclusion that when it comes to the Olympics, the important thing is consistency and to do just enough to keep the opposition at bay. Although his timing is not yet perfect, his best leaps in all his competitions this summer have always given him a clear lead over the field. All he has to do in Atlanta is the repeat the performance. His main Olympic enemies could be his own nerves.

As for Christie, much has been made of a poor start leading to Friday's defeat by Michael Green, of Jamaica. The Olympic champion was hardly going to blast out of the blocks and invite more hamstring trouble. "It will be all right on the day," he suggested. His performances against much quicker runners than Green this summer point to his day being in the past, but it would still be unwise to bet against his suddenly producing one outstanding sprint. The problem is that having entered the Olympic 200m as well, he could find the physical demands, especially given Atlanta's humidity, cause him further injuries.

As the British athletes head for their American training camp, Christie's defeats, the latest injury to Sally Gunnell and comparatively poor form of Colin Jackson have combined to reduce public interest, a fact reflected in hundreds of empty seats at Crystal Palace, though failure to attract high quality foreign competitors was partly to blame.

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