24 July 2005

An evening of hope seemed an unlikely outcome as traffic snarled in south London, doomsday threatened on the airwaves and Crystal Palace appeared to offer little chance of the British glory days of yesteryear. Never was an abiding truth more needed: vitality is the very essence of sport.

Within hours there had been an all-comers’ best from Justin Gatlin in the 100 metres, a first ever five-metre pole vault from Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva and, glory of glories, our hitherto luckless Tim Benjamin came good at last to defeat the Olympic champion Jeremy Wariner in the 400 metres.

A capacity crowd drifted up the crumbling old steps of the Crystal Palace, all ages, colours, creeds and origins. The stadium may need updating and is rescheduled for a complete revamp in 2009. The spirit doesn’t. Not for the first time Seb Coe caught the mood best. “These are difficult days,” he said after taking a public bow with Ken Livingstone and the chief executive of London’s Olympic bid, Keith Mills, to celebrate last week’s announcement of the city’s triumph as the chosen host for Games of 2012 . “For Londoners to turn out with a full house tonight makes us realise that there is a massive resolve out there,” Coe said. “We all came down on the train, I brought all my kids.”

Some 20 years since he ruled the track, Lord Coe still cuts a marvellously youthful figure, but there was a tiredness behind the eyes and something in the well-practised smile hinted at the diamond underneath.

“You just don’t concede do you?” he said, “you just don’t concede.”

It was a message Benjamin echoed to the hilt. Earlier this year his back was so bad that he was not allowed out of bed even to go to the loo. Doctors said he might be in such a state for three days, or three months. It took three weeks before he did the Lazarus bit. Hardly the preparation to take to next month’s world championships, let alone against the Olympic champion Wariner on Friday night.

The shock of an unexpected result is best unravelled slowly. Earlier in the evening Asafa Powell’s groin strain pull-up in the 100 metres was as instant as a shot pigeon. Then here was our man hunting up the Olympic star.

At first you applauded his pluck, then his achievement of being close. Finally, disbelieving, you whooped in delight as he came past and had him. You looked at the clock : 44.75 seconds, a personal best, a first sub-45 – there had been no fluke. Benjamin had booked his ticket.

“To be honest I showed a lot of promise as a junior but I kept getting injured,” he said afterwards. “In truth it is about time I got under 45 and became a proper contender. Jeremy [Wariner] is a real champion but I have taken his scalp and have shown that I could beat anyone in the world.”

The sense of sporting batons being picked up was heightened by the now fairly massive presence nearby of Linford Christie, in something of a fashion-mistake figure-hugging pink sweater. Now Benjamin can begin to tell his tale. “I was feeling my back in the warm-up,” he said. “After going out really hard in the first 60 yards I got a niggle in my quad. It meant I had to ease off down the back straight and it found me a rhythm. Now I have gone under 45, I feel very confident for Helsinki if I keep my health. I aim to make the finals of the World Championships and will be very disappointed if I don’t.”

The memory of Benjamin’s brilliance gave the home crowd something to hold close as outside heroes shone on the floodlit stage. Ethiopia’s diminutive world record holder Kenenisa Bekele finally escaped the tall loping shadow of Australian Craig Mottram in the 5,000 metres but not by far enough to deny the Aussie the belief that his day will come. In person Bekele is a small courteous figure with something of an echo of his even more sparrow-like countryman, Haile Gebrselassie. “I am always trying my best,” he said modestly.

The best part of athletics can be that the true stars keep their talking for the track. Outside Isinbayeva limbered up for the pole vault. The bar had been raised to a world record 4m.96. Up and over, she cleared it. It was raised again, to five metres. The whole stadium came alive as she hurtled down the runway. The pole bent as her weight swung down, then in one glorious flowing movement both it and Isinbayeva extended upwards into the London night. Five metres and a smile to lighten the dark.

Earlier Coe had been very specific. “The easy bit about the Olympic preparation is the building,” he said. “The hardest thing is to get young people into sport and to do it in the most imaginative way. The words we chose for our final presentation were not a quick fix to get us through the Wednesday in Singapore. We really do have to deliver on this.”

On Friday there was inspiration aplenty. The mighty Justin Gatlin ran 9.89sec, the fastest 100 metres Britain has seen. “I am not just an athlete, I am an entertainer,” he said, a big man with a quick mind and a shining face. “I thrive on atmosphere. “Tonight we had a great crowd and a great track. London doesn’t deserve what’s happened.”

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