The new age of Sanderson

Javelin veteran rolls back the years to qualify for Atlanta as Gunnell calms the nerves
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The Independent Online
The HEAT and humidity of Atlanta at Olympic time seemed more like a distant pleasure than an impending threat as Sally Gunnell "warmed up" with a 400 metres flat race at cold, windy Bedford yesterday. It was her first appearance out of doors in Britain since September 1994, and she won, only to be upstaged by Tessa Sanderson, whose last public appearance was in pantomime in Cinderella and last javelin competition was four years ago. Sanderson defied her 40 years by qualifying for an Olympic place.

There was probably just one spectator for every metre Gunnell ran, and over the last two or three strides she struggled to hold off a challenge from Allison Curbishley. However, after her longer struggle against injuries, her time of 52.96sec in torturous conditions was clearly satisfying. "I was very nervous - I just wanted to get it over with. I was pleased with the time but I tried to overstride. I need racing. Every week now the injuries get better. There was no pain today - I'm running in total confidence physically."

Next comes the mental pressure of facing the hurdles in proper competition, and the thought that if she does make the final at the Olympic hurdles event, and so defends her title, it will be two days after her 30th birthday. Unlike Linford Chris- tie, she is not all that concerned about anyone mentioning age, but no doubt this is going to be her last important year.

In the meantime, her injuries have already cost her the world title, now belonging to Kim Batten, the American who has also taken the world record. The two will face each other in Lausanne in July, then Atlanta.

The removal of some bone spur on her heel and a cleaning-up operation on a troublesome achilles tendon had left her walking on crutches. She came back this winter to run a few indoor races without further problems, but the real test will come with her first race over hurdles in Germany next Saturday, after which she races six more times before the Olympic Games, including the European Cup in Madrid.

Sanderson, Olympic cham- pion 12 years ago, knows that her attempt to qualify for her sixth Olympics is not entirely a matter of being a jolly good sport and making a comeback at 40 to raise money for the charity Children in Hospital. She is well aware that women's javelin throwing in Britain is in such a poor state that no one achieved the Olympic qualifying distance of 60 metres during the whole of last season. Yesterday she did that with her second throw.

Following her first training session, she said she hurt all over. After all, she had not thrown a spear in anger since the World Cup in Cuba back in 1992, but she thinks the "knack" never goes away, which is as well since a loss of 13 pounds in weight since then has cost her something in strength.

Her best throw yesterday, 60.64 metres, not only brought her the Olympic qualifying standard but the world record for her age by some nine metres. Despite the conditions, her six throws were all impressive, and she said that come July she would be looking for an Olympic medal.

"My aim is to get in the final. Once there I should perform. I'm aiming for 68 or 69 metres. Today I just wanted to get rid of the fear of coming back to competition. I needed the buzz again."

To place too much expectancy on Sanderson would be unreasonable as it would be to expect Gunnell to keep her title. So at this stage Britain has only one confident gold medal prospect, Jonathan Edwards, the triple jump world record holder.

Christie is unlikely to divulge his intentions until he feels confident of winning or the British Federation tell him to stop messing them about. On a good day Steve Backley is capable of taking the Olympic javelin title, but he has had a few setbacks this winter, and though Britain's top 400 metres men are of a good standard, the American Michael Johnson is a class ahead.

All in all, British athletics, clinging to a slender lifeline financially, could finish the summer desperately hoping that they are more than a hop, step and jump away from losing their television lifeblood.