As one World Cup dream fades, another comes alive. In the heat of Annecy yesterday at 90 degrees, as sweltering as Shizuoka the British men's track and field team mastered the conditions and the opposition to move on course for a place in their own sport's quadrennial global competition.
It might only be half-time in the 2002 European Cup here at the foot of the Alps, but Dwain Chambers and the boys are poised promisingly on the shoulder of the hosts in the race for the two places available in the World Cup in Madrid in September. Indeed, in second position, with just two points to make up on France, they are well placed to qualify as winners of the continental cup for a fifth time in 13 years.
"It's close enough," Chambers, the team captain, said. "Hopefully, if we have the same confidence tomorrow, we can win it." Confidence would not be unfounded either, considering four British men Jonathan Edwards (in the triple jump), Colin Jackson (110m hurdles), Steve Backley (javelin) and Marlon Devonish (200m) will start their events as favourites in the Parc des Sports this afternoon.
There were four winners yesterday as the British team racked up a haul of 57 points significantly, nine points more than the third-placed nation, Italy. It was the captain, fittingly, who led the way, Chambers producing a high-class, high-speed sprinting exhibition in the 100m. He was in front from the gun to the line, which he crossed in 10.04sec, equalling the European Cup record set by Linford Christie in Madrid in 1996. The 24-year-old Londoner finished so far ahead of his nominal rivals Aimé Nthepe of France filled the runners-up spot in 10.27sec he was more concerned with the scorching heat than the scorching pace.
"I don't like it that hot," Chambers said. "I prefer the weather at Gateshead and Sheffield. It's so hot I had to limit my warm-up. You're almost exhausted when you get out there. I really wanted to get under 10 seconds, but I'll have to wait until Oslo next week." Chambers finished the day by taking the 4 x 100m relay team through from fourth to first place on the anchor leg.
Lying in wait for him in Oslo on Friday, in the first Golden League meeting of the season, will be Maurice Greene, Tim Montgomery and the rest of the world's best. Lying in wait for Daniel Caines in the 400m yesterday was Ingo Schultz, the German who emerged from absolute obscurity last summer to take the world championship silver medal in Edmonton behind Arvard Moncur of the Bahamas. It was a challenge the Birchfield Harrier met full on.
He rounded the final bend level with the giant Schultz but pulled clear to set a new personal best, 45.14sec. Caines, the reigning world indoor champion, won by 0.19sec rather more than the thickness of the vest he had hastily to borrow from his team-mate Jared Deacon when he found his was missing two minutes before the race call-up time.
In the long jump Chris Tomlinson's margin of victory was only 2cm, though in defeating the Italian Nicola Trentin with his opening jump of 8.17m the 20-year-old Teessider maintained his impressive progress on the international scene.
There were also precious points for the British men from Micheal East and Sam Haughian, who finished second in their events. East continued to show the tactical shrewdness that earned him a European indoor bronze in Vienna in March, taking his rivals by surprise by striking at the bell in the 1500m. It was no surprise that he was passed with 200m to go by Mehdi Baala, the Frenchman who placed fourth in the Sydney Olympic final two years ago, but it was to the Portsmouth man's great credit that he finished clear of the rest of the field, clocking 3min 48.26sec.
It was to Haughian's considerable credit, too, that he took an even more unheralded runners-up spot in the 5,000m. The Windsor runner executed an equally canny tactical race, finishing strongly behind Dmitriy Maksimov of Russia in 14min 11.60sec.
Chris Rawlinson was less successful with his game-plan in the 400m hurdles, blasting out hard from the gun but fading from first to third in the final 150m. The one-time television Gladiators contender still fared better, though, than the big hope for individual glory on the track in the British women's team.
Kelly Holmes found herself short of finishing speed and shunted from first to fourth in the home straight in a bruising 800m race. Natasha Danvers finished third in the 400m hurdles, but the strongest challenge by a British woman came in the field, Ashia Hansen finishing second in the triple jump with 14.62m. It was not a great day for the British women. Indeed, they slipped from fourth to seventh place in the overall standings when Amanda Forrester failed to find Vernicha James with the baton at the final exchange in the 4 x 100m relay, the final event of the day.
Fortunately, Chambers and his colleagues were rather better at carrying the baton the actual one Europe's leading speed merchant grasped via Chris Lambert, Devonish and Christian Malcolm plus the metaphorical one passed on from Sven and his World Cup boys.
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