WORLD ATHLETICS CHAMPIONSHIPS: Fun in the Land of the Midnight Sun

Mike Rowbottom, Athletics Correspondent, previews the action that begins in earnest in Gothenburg tomorrow
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The Independent Online
The Swedish tourist board is working overtime at the moment as it exhorts visitors for the World Championships which open in Gothenburg today to experience the wider attractions of the Land of the Midnight Sun.

It may well be that some will return home in 11 days' time having taken due note of the plentiful bicycle paths on the Baltic islands of Oland and Gotland, or the annual eel festival in Skane Province ("a must"). Sadly, it is the wrong time of year to witness the Swedish Royal family setting forth on their annual task of "thinning the elk herds". That happens in October. And only in the winter months can one participate in dog sled races - "your role is to bundle up comfortably in the sledge while the softly swearing driver and his moaning huskies do all the hard work".

But by the time the fifth World Championships finish in the rebuilt Ullevi stadium, there should be a rich store of athletics memories for export. Spectators who have already spent a record pounds 10m on tickets are likely to get their money's worth.

After all the dispute over these Championships becoming biennial, rather than quadrennial, in 1993, the overall quality of competition appears undiminished. And this despite the fact that prize money - over which many athletes looked likely to boycott the last World Championships in Stuttgart - will not be available until the 1997 Championships in Paris, where at least $6m (pounds 3.75m) will supplement the current lure of a Mercedes for every winner.

There are, naturally, some Stuttgart champions absent. Unfortunately for Britain, two of them are Sally Gunnell and Colin Jackson, the former because of an Achilles tendon injury, the latter because of a combination of indifferent form, injury, and pique at the way he has been treated by the British Athletic Federation's selectors.

Refreshingly, however, Bri- tain still has a chance of coming away with three world titles through the efforts of Linford Christie, its only defending champion, Jonathan Edwards, who broke the world triple jump record last month, and Kelly Holmes, who has excelled at both 800 and 1500 metres this year and will attempt the double in Gothenburg.

Then there are competitors such as Steve Backley in the javelin and Steve Smith in the high jump, who could possibly surpass themselves and surprise more fancied rivals.

Edwards, the fresh-faced vicar's son, has made a colossal impact upon the sport this year, with four leaps beyond 18 metres. Although all four efforts were ruled out for record purposes because of too strong a following wind, it is clearly territory which his newly adapted technique is allowing him to explore on a regular basis.

After years of being a world class performer, Edwards is now out on his own, with a best this year of 18.43m, which is more than half a metre further than any of his nearest rivals have managed.

His last competition, at altitude in Sestriere, did not produce the legal 18-metre jump which many were hoping for, mainly because, in the thin air and on a bouncy surface laid on Astroturf, he was unable to control his natural speed on the runway. Coming back down to earth should see him take off in earnest.

Holmes, the Army sergeant who won European silver and Commonwealth gold at 1500m last year despite carrying an Achilles tendon injury, has become an even stronger competitor in a season characterised by a succession of bold, brave victories over both distances.

However, Mozambique's reigning 800m champion, Maria Mutola, unbeaten for three years, has set a new world best this year of 1min 57.40sec, and Ana Quirot of Cuba, back to running after a traumatic domestic accident which left her with serious burns, showed at Monte Carlo last week - when she made Mutola work very hard to win - that she is a serious contender once again.

It will be hard for Holmes to combat the superior natural speed of these two over two laps, but over 1500m her speed endurance should be hard to match. Sonia O'Sullivan, Ireland's European 3,000m champion, may have the fastest 1500m time this year, but she may be distracted by the 5,000m, where she has her best chance of winning despite strong opposition from Britain's resurgent 22-year-old talent, Paula Radcliffe. Holmes has yet to show her full potential in the metric mile. Now is the time.

Christie will also attempt a double, at 100 and 200m, and while he will do well to contend for a medal at the longer sprint, the blue riband event should be his again. He has had niggling injuries throughout the season, and received further treatment in Munich last week for a hamstring problem, but it was the same in 1993.

Just as he did two years ago, he faces opponents who have run faster than him this season. Donovan Bailey, of Canada, leads the world standings with 9.91sec, more than a tenth of a second better than the Briton's 1995 best. But Bailey has made no impression on Christie in their last two competitions. In Oslo, the Canadian failed to come through his heat. Two days later, he was soundly beaten by Christie at Sheffield over 150m.

Mike Marsh, winner of the US trials and the reigning Olympic 200m champion, has beaten Christie over 100m this season, in Lausanne, and has enormous natural talent. But Christie is unmatched at putting together a sequence of races within a Championship context. This ability, and his aura of superiority, may erode Marsh's will in the same way as it did Andre Cason's in Stuttgart.

Christie, Holmes and O'Sullivan are not the only competitors doubling up in Gothen- burg; indeed, it could yet become a motif of the Championships.

The pre-eminent double shot will come from Michael Johnson of the United States. Having won the world 200m title in 1991 and the world 400m title in 1993, it is hard to see him meeting serious resistance in his efforts to become the first to take both in the same year, although if his concentration slips at the shorter distance, the reigning world champion, Frankie Fredericks, could capitalise.

The schedule has been altered to allow Marie-Jose Perec, the Olympic 400m champion, to double up at her new event, the 400m hurdles. She is only fourth in the world standings this year, with a time of 53.92, but that was achieved despite a couple of hurdles where she looked like a newly born foal. In Gunnell's regrettable absence, a small improvement in technique could provide a large and golden bonus for the leggy Frenchwoman.

Haile Gebreselassie, of Ethiopia, will attempt both the 10,000m, at which he set the world record this year, and the 5,000m, in which he misjudged Ismael Kirui's long run for home two years ago and finished second. He may yet experience further disappointment at the shorter distance, with Dieter Baumann, Germany's Olympic champion, looking fresh and ferociously fit. But the 10,000 must surely be his.

China's female middle-distance runners, who rose so startlingly in 1993 - when they took six of the nine medals in the 1500, 3,000 and 10,000m including all three golds - have fallen away almost as mysteriously.

Coach Ma Junren's fabled group of runners has broken up amid disputes about over-training and under-paying. Wang Junxia, the world 10,000m record holder, has been dropped because of poor form following her separation from the man whom she complained ill-treated her. He, meanwhile, is suffering from throat cancer. Neither Liu Dong nor Qu Yunxia, world champions at 1500 and 3,000m respectively, will defend their titles. Which leaves just one Chinese distance runner - 20-year-old Dong Zhaoxia. She will feel lonely.