From The Sunday TimesAugust 19, 2007
Little prospect of gold rush in Japan
Britain’s athletes head to Osaka with low expectations and the alarming prospect that they may fail to win a single individual medalRichard Lewis
THERE were two common elements at the last world athletics championships in Helsinki: a daily monsoon and a daily lack of British finalists. Not until Paula Radcliffe won the marathon on the last afternoon did Britain win a gold medal, and her victory did little to paper over the cracks which had appeared at the Olympic Games the previous summer.
There is now a wave of optimism sweeping through track and field in Britain, but has anything changed in the two years since Helsinki? At the helm of the organisation which runs the sport are fresh ideas and enthusiasm from chairman Ed Warner, a former City businessman, and Niels de Vos, the chief executive. They promised a nononsense approach, and so far that has been the case. At this year’s trials, there was no guarantee of an athlete making the team even if they finished in the first two.
Nobody would be allowed to go along for the ride, and there is little doubt that if some do not perform this time they might not be back.
Few athletes are under greater pressure to deliver than Mark Lewis-Francis, once the great hope of British sprinting, now a 100m runner who has not made an individual final at the distance since the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002. On that infamous night, he was carried away on a stretcher after sustaining injury during the race and has never been the same runner.
Yen for running
Speed kings slow to attack
The national performance director of UK Athletics, Dave Collins, is in a no-win situation. He has been in the job since after Athens, and must be judged on a four-year cycle at least. Calling for him to leave his position after Osaka would be wrong because things have improved under him.
At the end of the championships in Helsinki, Collins said: “Our performances, our preparations and a lot of the things we do are generically unacceptable.” Apart from Radcliffe, Britain won two relay bronze medals, and the 400m runner Tim Benjamin was the only individual men’s track finalist.
Collins was impressed by the way the youngsters at last month’s European junior championships in Hengelo arrived with training plans, and a year ago in Gothenburg, at the European championships, some fresh new faces emerged: Becky Lyne won bronze in the 800m, Sam Ellis did the same in the men’s race, while Rhys Williams finished third in the 400m hurdles. All three are missing with injury, while Greg Rutherford, the European long jump silver medallist, arrives in Osaka having hardly competed this year because of injury.
In the days leading up to to Osaka, which gets under way on Saturday, there is no certainty that any British athlete will make the podium, let alone win a gold medal.
Arguably there would be no more popular champion than Chris Tomlinson in the long jump, because he calls it as he sees it and talks with enthusiasm. As with fellow field star Phillips Idowu, the Commonwealth and European indoor triple jump champion, it is all about what happens on the day. One great leap and the title could be theirs.
It is a frightening prospect for track and field in the country that will stage the Olympic Games in just under five years’ time that athletics is creaking on the track while in such a stable position off it.
At last, UK Athletics are prepared to admit that success is not happening as quickly as they would have liked. De Vos said recently: “Dave Collins is passionate and knowledgeable about what he wants to achieve. Like me, however, he thinks that the process is taking longer than it should.”
Injuries cannot be used as an excuse, although the team is clearly being hampered by problems to their big names. Progress can be judged through the likes of 21-year-old Jessica Ennis, the heptathlete who has soared from Commonwealth bronze last year to come into Osaka ranked third in the world.
Her time could be in London, but she is the common theme that links these championships with the Olympics in Sydney in 2000. Denise Lewis won heptathlon gold in Australia, Kelly Sotherton bronze in Athens and now Ennis has emerged with the credentials of a future world-beater.
While Lewis-Francis might be at the last-chance saloon in the 100m, Ennis is only just old enough to order drinks herself. But she could be the one athlete UK Athletics will be toasting prior to what is likely to be an inquiry into what went wrong in Japan.
Four to watch in Osaka
Jeremy Wariner (US) 400m Could become the star of the championships as he chases Michael Johnson’s world record of 43.18sec
Carolina Kluft (Sweden) heptathlon The Olympic gold medallist and defending world champion should be the unstoppable force one more
Liu Xiang (China) 110m hurdles Gold awaits for the Olympic champion who won bronze in 2003 in Paris and silver in 2005 in Helsinki
Sanya Richards (US) 200m After failing to make the team in her best event, the 400m, it will be fascinating to see what happens