Ofili stumbles with the line in sight to lose her grip on gold

By Simon Turnbull
Saturday 05 March 2011 01:00

The strains of Lou Bega and "Mambo Number Five" had just died down over the public address system in the Palais Omnisports de Bercy when Tiffany Ofili settled into her starting blocks for the second semi-final of the 60m hurdles on the opening day of the European Indoor Championships.

The refrain still hung in the air: "A little bit of Jessica, here I am."

The Anglo-American athlete making her debut in a Great Britain vest yesterday announced her arrival on the international scene for the land of her London-born mother by taking more than a little bit out of Jessica Ennis' UK indoor record for the 60m hurdles. Powering to victory in 7.89sec, Ofili took a 0.06sec chunk out of a mark that tends to be lowered bit by bit in hundredths of a second.

It propelled the 23-year-old into the final as the fastest qualifier and favourite on a day that would have been full of golden promise for Ennis in the pentathlon had the world's leading all-round female athlete not withdrawn from the British team on Monday suffering from a niggling ankle problem. With five metres of the 60m hurdles final to go, Ofili had gold within her grasp. It was not, however, to be a perfect day for the young woman from Ypsilanti – the Michigan town where James Newell Osterberg Jnr, the future Iggy Pop, was raised in a trailer park.

Ofili stumbled as she approached the line, crashing to the ground beyond it. In doing so, she hurt her right shoulder and lost the gold. After a prolonged delay and close scrutiny of the photo-finish picture, it was announced that Carolin Nytra of Germany had pinched the victory in 7.80sec. Ofili was given exactly the same time as runner-up, knocking another lump out of the British record, 0.09sec.

"It was so close," Ofili reflected, before being taken to hospital for a precautionary X-ray. "I had no idea if I'd won or not. But I did my best and I'm excited by the time. It's a big deal for me. I'm so proud to bring home a medal."

Ofili is only the second Briton to win a medal of any colour in the women's 60m hurdles at the European Indoor Championships, following the Liverpudlian Diane Allahgreen, who took bronze in Valencia in 1998. It was not the British new girl's first medal in international competition, though. She won bronze as a member of the US team at the World Junior Championships in Beijing in 2006.

A pharmacy student at the University of Michigan, Ofili has possessed a British passport since birth. She decided to switch nationality with a view to making the selection cut for the 2012 Olympic Games in her mother's home town. It was a shrewd move, given that nine US athletes were ranked ahead of her in the 100m hurdles last year.

"I just really appreciated how much support Great Britain give their athletes," Ofili said, reflecting on her transatlantic transfer of allegiance. "It's not just monetary but overall, how they take care of their athletes. I figure it's important to be part of a federation that really cares about you. It was a very easy decision for me."

Ofili intends to base herself in the United Kingdom in the summer but, having just made a name for herself as a British athlete, she will return for the outdoor season with a new identity. On 7 May she marries her fiancé, Jeff Porter. "I'm 99 per cent sure I'm going to change my name," she said. "I might hyphenate it, though."

It would take a major turnover of the form book for the British team to finish the second day here today without a gold medal. Mo Farah lines up for the 3,000m final as a red-hot favourite. The Somali-born, London-raised leading light of European men's distance running toyed with the opposition in his heat yesterday morning, biding his time at the back of the field before breezing past Rui Silva of Portugal on the final lap to win in 8min 2.36sec.

Now a member of the elite training group coached by the former American marathon great Alberto Salazar at Nike's headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, Farah continues to look a class apart from his nominal European rivals. The best that Silva and Co can hope for today would appear to be a silver lining.

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