Swift exit for subdued Smith

OLYMPIC GAMES: Comeback queen Sanderson falls short of the mark as Britain's track and field team find the competition is hotting up
Click to follow
The Independent Online
On a subdued morning in the Olympic Stadium yesterday, Britain suffered an immediate setback when their two women's 400 metres runners, Phyllis Smith and Donna Fraser, were both eliminated in the heats.

With four winners from each of the four heats going directly into the semi-final today and no chance for the fastest losers, Smith could only manage sixth and Fraser seventh in an event that is going to be a fascinating contest between the defending champion Marie-Jose Perec, of France, the Commonwealth champion Cathy Freeman and Grit Breuer, the German who has controversially returned after a three-year drugs ban.

If it was not the perfect start to the day for Britain, it matched the mood late the previous night, when Jonathan Edwards was struggling with self-doubts about recovering his triple-jumping form and Tessa Sanderson said a final farewell to athletics in a packed Olympic stadium. There was also a curious alliance between Britain's team, which will be lucky to get one athletics gold medal, and Sonia O'Sullivan, who could add two more golds to the Irish tally won by Michelle Smith.

If O'Sullivan, the world champion, is to be denied victory in the 5,000 metres, the most likely rival to beat her is the extraordinary Chinese runner Wang Jun- xia, who has run so quickly over 10,000m that she could give the rest of the world's long-distance runners a 200m start and still win. Although O'Sullivan says she takes no interest in her opponents, she appreciated the psychological boost of seeing Britain's Paula Radcliffe run a brave heat to keep pace with Kenya's Rose Cheruiyot, Roberta Brunet of Italy and Michiko Shimizu of Japan that left Wang in fourth place - good enough to qualify for today's final.

Whereas in the past the Chinese had run heats like finals, there was a hint here that they had been brought down to earth after some performances two years ago suggested they had found the dark secret of invincibility. Radcliffe not only kept ahead of Wang but stepped up the pace so much starting the last lap that Mary Slaney, once a darling of the American crowds, was left wondering why she thought she could live with a new generation of Olympic hopefuls.

O'Sullivan was in her usual long-striding form that could also bring her a gold in the 1,500m. Her qualifying time was almost seven seconds quicker than Brunet's, and burned off the initial lead of Sweden's Sara Wedlund, leaving no challengers over the last 50m.

Tessa Sanderson's return to javelin competition at the age of 40 had briefly seemed like a fairy story for someone who last Christmas was playing in pantomime. For a time this summer she had looked capable of challenging the best throwers, but the difference between proving she could immediately regain her place as Britain's No 1 and reach another Olympic final was too much to expect. She has raised a lot of money for a children's hospital charity, but at the same time shown determination that in the end was not enough to take her back into the sport's elite.

"I'm disappointed," Sanderson said. "I thought I could get a medal but I've not been able to get enough speed. So that's the end of the dream." Her best throw of 58.86m was not as good as she had achieved on her first reappearance on a cold day in Bedford earlier this year.

Doubts that athletics would draw big crowds here, where the sport is largely ignored, were swept away when almost a full house arrived for the first morning of competition. Admittedly, the programme was geared to American interest. But rapturous applause from more than 70,000 for a comparatively obscure high jumper from the Bahamas who rattled the bar but cleared the first qualifying height epitomised the atmosphere only a few hours before the bomb explosion in Centennial Park. Not that it helped Dalton Grant, whose poor season ended with elimination while Steve Smith went on to today's high jump final.

If Dennis Mitchell thought he needed to implore the crowd to raise their voices even more for America, he was mistaken. Long before he crossed the line to win his 100m heat and celebrate as if he had won the final, and Linford Christie had been relegated to third-fastest on his earlier appearance by Frankie Fredericks and Ato Boldon, Gail Devers had bought out the crowd's full volume when recording 10.94sec for 100m. This gave the first evidence that the warm air and a hard track will bring extremely fast times.

Waiting is something that most of the athletes here now accept as normal, but it is usually only for buses. In his qualifying competition Edwards discovered that the time between jumps was almost as long. Possibly that was the cause of his failing to respond after the crowd's massive support for their own Kenny Harrison and Mike Conley had lifted their men over 17m while Edwards' best in qualifying was 16.96. Kelly Holmes probably had the benefit of knowing that no American could be raised to a performance out of character in her 800m heats. Qualifying ahead of Patricia Djate of France and Maria Mutola of Mozambique was no more or less than she expected.

Comments