Athletics: World leader is left in limbo in Limehouse

East Ender from Havana is ready but unable to compete for Britain

By Simon Turnbull
Sunday 09 February 2003 01:00
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Aside from the world indoor record-breaking feats of Svetlana Feofanova and Regina Jacobs, and the return to form of Stacy Dragila, the best track-and-field performance thus far into 2003 has been achieved by a member of Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers.

Yamile Aldama returned to her home in the east end of London last week after triple-jumping a mighty 14.85m at an outdoor meeting in Germiston, South Africa, a fortnight ago. It is almost half-a-metre farther than the best distance indoors this year, yet the prospects of Aldama being able to jump for gold at the world indoor championships in Birmingham next month are on a par with Peter Ridsdale being elected mayor of Leeds.

Since her push for British citizenship came to light in July last year, when she fought and narrowly lost a thrilling duel with Ashia Hansen at the AAA Championships in Birmingham, the native Cuban has been stuck in international limbo. As her coach, Frank Attoh, lamented on Thursday: "I don't think people are in a hurry at the moment to embrace what we've got. If people really did want her to do the major championships they would come forward very, very quickly."

It is 15 months now since Aldama moved from Havana to Limehouse, where she lives with her Scottish husband, Andrew Dodds, and their year-old son, Almile. Zola Budd was embraced as a Brit within 13 days, but Aldama's application remains pending. Even if it were to be approved before the world indoor championships, which take place at the National Indoor Arena from 14 to 16 March, she would probably not be cleared by the athletics authorities to compete for the British team.

Under the rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations, athletes switching national allegiance must serve a three-year suspension from the date of their last international competition – unless they have the permission of their former country's national governing body. The Federacion Cubana de Atletismo have suffered a succession of high-profile defections in recent years and would be unlikely to give their blessing to Aldama, who won a silver medal at the 1999 world championships in Seville. That being the case, the 30-year-old would not be cleared until September – three years after her last competition for Cuba, at the Sydney Olympics. In addition to the world indoor championships in Birmingham, she would miss the outdoor world championships in Paris in August.

"It's a difficult situation," Attoh said. "Every athlete wants to compete at major championships. That's what Yamile's looking to do, and I think she ought to be given the opportunity to do so. It's all going very, very slowly. The IAAF could put pressure on Cuba to release her, because it's a global sport and they want the best athletes competing at the championships, not sitting at home."

Given the form Aldama produced in South Africa, there is every possibility that she will be the clear world No 1 kicking her heels at home when the world indoor and outdoor titles are up for grabs. Hansen was top of the global rankings last summer and her best jump of the year, the 14.86m that snatched her the Commonwealth title in Manchester, was just 1cm farther than Aldama achieved on a cold, wet night in Germiston, while holding back for fear of aggravating a sore hamstring. There is clearly more to come this year from Aldama – though not, perhaps, at the Welsh National Indoor Athletics Centre today, when she competes for an International Select team in the Lansing Linde meeting.

The Cuban East Ender has been suffering from a heavy cold since her return from South Africa and her coach does not expect her to be at her best in Cardiff, nor indeed in Tampere, Finland, where she competes in an invitation meeting next Thursday. Attoh, however, has high hopes – or long ones, rather – for the rest of the season, including the Norwich Union Indoor Grand Prix in Birmingham on 21 February, when Aldama is due to face Hansen. "If Yamile can get healthy, I think she'll go a long way – a long, long way," Attoh said. "She could have jumped a lot farther than 14.85m in South Africa. She was actually very, very upset with that. I think she's potentially a 15.30m-plus jumper indoors."

Considering the world indoor record stands at 15.16m (to Hansen), that gives some indication of the benefits Aldama has gained from working with Attoh's training group at Copthall Stadium in Barnet, and from the strength work she has done with John Herbert – like Attoh, a former British triple-jump international.

Attoh, who fits his coaching around his job as a British Telecom engineer, has already guided two triple-jumpers within a step or two of the Olympic medal podium. In Sydney in 2000 he helped Larry Achike finish fifth, and in Atlanta in 1996 it was his coaching that got Hansen to fourth place. Hansen has since linked up with Aston Moore, and Attoh is reluctant to compare his past and present protégées. "They're two terrific jumpers and really there's not that much between them," he said, "but I've got to have that belief that Yamile shades it slightly and is perhaps the one that could jump far."

Before Aldama can jump far for Britain, though, she will have to take the step that Britain's No 1 female triple jumper made 25 years ago. Hansen was born an American, in Evansville, Indiana, and lived in Ghana until she became an adopted East Ender at the age of six.

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