Katharine Merry gave further indication in Athens last night that she can win the world 400 metres title this year with a personal best that saw her defeat a world-class field. The 26-year-old Olympic bronze medallist came home in 49.59 seconds at the International meeting in the Olympic stadium to surpass her previous best of 49.72sec, which she had set in Sydney.
In a year when the Sydney gold medallist, Cathy Freeman, has taken leave, Britain's former child talent looks ideally placed to earn further rewards at the World Championships in Edmonton in August. Merry might have run even closer to the British record of 49.43sec, which Kathy Cook set in winning Olympic bronze in 1984, had she not had a poor start.
"I knew I was in good shape after running 50.44 last week in Milan," Merry said after finishing ahead of two of her potential rivals in Canada, Heide Seyerling of South Africa, who finished 10 metres behind her in 50.36, and Nadjina Kaitouma of Chad, who set a best of 50.59 in third. "But never in my dreams did I think I would run so quickly tonight. I expected to do a low-50 something, but to go under that barrier and strike almost 0.3 seconds off my best is scary. Even though I know I am strong, to run so quickly is frightening. It's eight weeks until the World Championships and already I am flying."
Merry's time shattered the meeting record of 50.04sec, set by Freeman last year, but she is now determined to ease off her racing in order not to lose her edge for the World Championships. Despite being offered, in her own words, "pots of money" to run in Helsinki on Thursday, she is likely to decline. "The organiser was begging me to compete and I have a mortgage to pay," she said. "But I don't think I'll be going. Money doesn't rule my life."
Her next appearance is likely to be in Nuremburg on Sunday, followed a week later by the European Cup in Bremen. Meanwhile, she is happy to be closing in on Cook's longstanding record. "I always believed I could do that and after tonight it should come some time during the season. But for the moment winning is more important for me than times. That is why I came here. I knew the field would be much stronger than in Milan. But to pull away from rivals who will be my main challengers for the gold medal in Edmonton so easily has amazed me, particularly as I was suffering from a bad belly in the build-up to the race."
Colin Jackson produced one of the other British highlights on the night, finishing a close third behind the Olympic champion Anier Garcia in the 110m hurdles but the Welshman confirmed that he would not be running in the World Championships. "You saw out there I'm running free and easy," Jackson said after clocking 13.36 behind Garcia's 13.30. "But I will not be in Edmonton."
Maurice Greene's return to the track where he set the world 100m record of 9.79sec two years ago was somewhat anti-climactic. Although the American won, his time of 9.91 was, for him, ordinary, and his comments reflected that. "I'm not actually pleased with the run," he said. "I'm disappointed. My start was terrible. I think I excited the crowd. I was, however, expecting something better. I will try harder next time."
Greene still managed to run the fastest time in the world this year, but was pushed all the way by his training partner Ato Boldon. The Trinidadian beat Greene out of the blocks, but the Olympic champion fought back over the last 20m. Boldon finished in 9.97, with Bernard Williams third in 10.07.
In the 5,000m, Sammy Kipketer won the sprint to the line in 12min 59.34sec, ahead of his fellow Kenyans Benjamin Limo (12:59.60) and John Kibowen (12:59.97).
As expected on home territory, the Greek world silver medallist Costas Gatsioudis, urged on by the patriotic crowd, threw 88.69m to win the javelin from Finland's Aki Parvainien (88.61) and Raymond Hecht of Germany (86.64). Steve Backley, Britain's Olympic silver medallist, was fourth with 83.03 behind Germany's Raymond Hecht (86.64). Mick Hill was 10th with a throw of 77.62.
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