It did not take long for the new- fangled rules of the European Team Championships to reduce what was formerly the European Cup to something of a farce yesterday. With three laps gone in the women's 3000m, Natalia Rodriguez of Spain took no notice of the official waving a card in her direction denoting that – as the backmarker in the field she – was obliged to step off the track. She proceeded to win the race, only to be told she was disqualified. "I didn't understand the rules," she said. "I thought the elimination stage was later."
Thankfully for the British athletes in action yesterday in the Estadio Dr Magalhaes Pessoa, there were no such misjudgements. In the Portuguese sporting arena where Jose Mourinho cut his teeth as head coach of Uniao de Leiria, there were a string of British successes – from the emerging Dai Greene in the 400m hurdles, to the resurgent Tim Benjamin in the 400m, and from the surprising Emily Freeman in the women's 100m to the not-so-surprising Dwain Chambers in the men's 100m.
In the shadow of Leiria Castle, the British athlete infamous for attempting to waive the rules showed once again why he has re-established himself as the sprint king of Europe. Chambers finished comfortably clear of the field in 10.07sec, just 0.01sec shy of his season's best but nothing that might cause Usain Bolt any sleepless nights two months from the World Championships in Berlin.
"Not good," was Chambers' frank assessment, having promised much faster outdoor times with his scorching form in the indoor season "But I've just got to try and put everything into the races I'm getting." As well as being reduced to running in what is effectively the B circuit in Europe thanks to a gentlemen's agreement among promoters of the main Euromeetings group not to allow reinstated doping offenders to compete in their events, Chambers is banned from competing for Britain in the Olympic Games. There were reports yesterday of an offer for him to represent an unidentified Middle East country but Chambers said: "It's news to me. I'm just grateful for the opportunities I get like this to run for Great Britain."
It was Greene who got the British team off to a flying start yesterday, maintaining the tradition of 400m hurdles successes in the European Cup set by Alan Pascoe, Kriss Akabusi and Chris Rawlinson. Hampered by injury since winning the European Under-23 title two years ago, the one-time Swansea City youth team footballer announced his arrival as a world class talent in the one lap hurdles a fortnight ago with a 48.62sec in Prague.
The 23-year-old was not so swift yesterday but displayed admirable assurance as he allowed Periklis Iakovakis to lead all the way into the home straight before sweeping past the Greek and emerging a clear winner in 49.26sec. Iakovakis, the reigning European champion and an Olympic finalist in Beijing last summer, was second in 50.09sec. It was a superbly judged effort by Greene, suggesting that he could be a force with which to be reckoned come the World Championships in Berlin in August. "Coming in here, I knew my personal best counted for nothing," he said. "I had the Great Britain vest on my back. There was a lot more pressure on me."
Benjamin was another outstanding one-lap winner for the British team yesterday, in his case without the hurdles. The 27-year-old from Cardiff was on the cusp of a major breakthrough in 2005 after scoring a memorable victory over then reigning Olympic champion Jeremy Wariner at Crystal Palace, reducing his personal best to 44.56sec, and finishing fifth in the World Championship final in Helsinki.
Last year, after a succession of hip and knee problems, he was on the verge of hanging up his spikes when he was hit by chronic fatigue syndrome. "I was so fed up I very nearly walked away from the sport altogether," he confessed. "The only thing that kept me going was knowing I had an innate talent for running, that I was blessed."
He is that. Having been taken under the coaching wing of Linford Christie last winter, Benjamin has been bouncing back in recent weeks, clocking 45.80sec in Turin and 45.51sec in Thessaloniki. Yesterday, like Greene before him, he produced a perfectly judged race, entering the home straight in fourth place but easing past Swede Johan Wissman to claim victory in 45.58sec – his most notable success, perhaps, since his Crystal Palace win against Wariner four years ago.
More surprisingly, there was a British winner in the women's 100m, Freeman prevailing in 11.42sec. There was also a brilliant sub-two minute clocking by Hannah England in the women's 800m, the Oxford woman finishing fourth in 1min 59.94sec. There was a British record too, Kate Dennison clearing 4.55m for fourth place in the pole vault.
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