Athletics: Britain fails to convert Paul to the cause

By Simon Turnbull
Sunday 23 March 2003 01:00
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The seven medals won by the home runners and jumpers in Birmingham last weekend were a record haul by a Great Britain team in the World Indoor Championships. The total could have been higher, though. Yamile Aldama, the Cuban who has settled in the east end of London, led the world rankings in the women's triple jump on the eve of the championships. While Ashia Hansen was jumping to gold, she was standing outside the National Indoor Arena with her Scottish husband, minus a ticket, vainly pleading to be allowed in.

Aldama's pleas for expedited British citizenship are meeting with similarly unsympathetic ears. Such is her frustration that the Shaftesbury Barnet Harrier is considering moving elsewhere in Europe.

Paul McKee, meanwhile, is going nowhere – in terms of residence, at least. He is Belfast born and bred, but it was not as a member of the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team that he won a medal in Birmingham last Sunday. The athlete who emerged as the surprise of the championships happens to live in republican west Belfast. McKee won his bronze medal in the men's 400m as a proud member of the Irish team.

"People ask me if it was a difficult decision and the answer's 'No'," he said. "Since I was a kid I've always considered myself Irish. When I got older I wanted to run for Ireland. I know the political situation is a lot more complicated than that, but that's the way it was for me. There was talk in the early days of maybe Britain selecting me, but it wouldn't have been a hard choice for me. I got what I wanted when Ireland picked me for the European Cup in 1999. And, to be honest, winning a medal for Ireland is a much bigger deal. They don't get many."

Indeed not. McKee's bronze was the first medal won by an Irish athlete in a sprint-related event at global level since Bob Tisdall struck gold in the 400m hurdles at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932. It was perhaps fitting that McKee's medal-winning success should have been achieved in as bizarre a fashion as that of Tisdall, who took the Olympic title in 51.7sec but lost the world record to the second-placed finisher (Glenn Hardin of the USA, who crossed the line in 51.9sec) because, in contravention of the record-book rules as they stood at the time, he had knocked over the final hurdle.

McKee crossed the finish line in Birmingham behind Tyree Washington and Daniel Caines but dead-level with Jamie Baulch. The arena scoreboard flashed up the result that the Irishman and the Welshman had placed joint third, but then amended McKee's position to fourth. Both men were credited with the same time, 45.99sec, and scrutiny of the photo-finish picture, prompted by an Irish team protest, reached the conclusion that Baulch and McKee could not be separated.

The medal ceremony, though, was allowed to proceed without McKee, who received his bronze alone in front of a half-empty stadium at the end of the final day's competition. "It obviously took a bit away," McKee reflected. "They went ahead with the medal ceremony even after they knew it was a dead-heat. I was disappointed with that, but I've got my medal now. That's the most important thing. I've done something I never expected to do."

It was indeed a major breakthrough by the 25-year-old, who gave up his teaching job at La Salle Boys' School in Belfast last summer. Last year he reached the quarter-finals of the 400m at the Commonwealth Games, running for Northern Ireland. He was outside the top 10 going into the World Indoor Championships but improved his indoor best by 0.55sec.

"I expect things will change a bit now," he mused. "I'll get into better races, against better athletes, and hopefully I canperform in the outdoor championships." Starting in August at the world championships in Paris – sadly for Britain, in an emerald-green vest.

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