27 July 2008

She’ll do. Not everyone was impressed with either the time or the manner of Christine Ohuruogu’s 400 metres defeat of arch-rival Nicola Sanders at Crystal Palace on Friday night but it was hard not to be with her. For well after she had run the usual gamut of media interviews she was delayed again. She was signing the yellow T-shirts of the volunteer girls. She was leaving them something.

She was also giving us hope. Athletics, like cycling, has had so much recent drug disgrace that disbelief demands to be the default position. Ohuruogu served a year’s suspension over a much-disputed issue of missing three consecutive drug tests. Many still wanted to condemn her even after that brilliant return in the World Championships last August. But her reasons were much more understandable than all that motorcycle tosh the Greek sprinters produced at Athens four years ago. On Friday, the old grassy terraces and busy, bubbling stadium at Crystal Palace beckoned us to try to believe again.

As did Asafa Powell and Phillips Idowu, Jamaica’s former fastest man in the world and our longest triple jumper. All of life, not just athletics, is a daily battle of hope against experience and here was a chance to sample again the delights of the most elemental sport of all. No boats or horses, bats or balls, just a pair of running shoes and a mind and body prepared to take themselves to the limit. In four years time this Aviva London Grand Prix will be a warm-up event in London’s new Olympic stadium. In the next four weeks we are going to need inspiration from our athletes in China. We have been given some hope of finding it. They must not let us down.

Nothing matches being close to someone who tunes their whole physique to the simplest, purest test of all – to run or jump further than the others. Standing behind the start line as Powell flexed and reflexed those big, smoothly muscled legs and tensed his frame down and around the blocks was to submit oneself to wonder. However much the long Ben Johnson to Marion Jones roll of shame may pester, cannot we give them one more chance?

The gun goes and the acceleration is as direct and predatory as any greyhound from the traps – the torso low, the palms flattened and vertical slicing rhythm out of the air. Powell takes his time to assert – 9.94 sec to be exact. Some say that he was disrespectful not to run quicker. He comes back to claim, (slightly unconvincingly) that he feels “no pressure” about his Beijing showdown with world-record-holding fellow countryman Usain Bolt. But he’s more convincing as a man, even if some of us are not too sure about the goatee beard.

Powell does not just condemn drugs, he thinks users should be sent to jail. His parents are pastors, he stands tall and shaven headed with those big brown eyes looking straight at you as he preaches the joy of running. If only you had not stood in exactly the same place four years ago and listened to the now banned Justin Gatlin talking on exactly the same theme. But with Powell, we have just got to believe.

So too with Idowu. With that white headband below the dyed red hair he looks, from a distance, like a lanky, long stockinged Father Christmas come to the long jump pit. Close up he is a relaxed, ‘Cool Dude’ Hackney joker with such a bewildering amount of facial piercing that you dread to think where else he might be accoutered. Appropriate therefore that his triple jump competition should have been played out alongside the comedy turn of the Kelly Sotherton hurdle race fiasco when some dumbo put the obstacles in the wrong position and caused a mid-race shambles.

Idowu is in pole position for gold and comes in to say calmly that he sees no reason why he should not win it. Ohuruogu could too, but she has clearly to hugely up her game to cope with the faster American Sanya Richards. But both Britons have an even more important role. By their behaviour as much as by their running they have to give us, and the younger athletes behind them, reasons to enjoy the four-year journey to the London Olympics.

One sage old head believes they will. Alan Pascoe trotted round Crystal Palace 30 years ago to a standing ovation as he ended 13 medal-winning years as a 400m hurdler and much else. The promotional companies he has founded have been central to the development of the sport but he has always been much more than some sharp-suited PR man.

“The next four years are crucial,” Pascoe said. “The sport has had its issues and its essential that the IAAF take a very hard line not just with offending athletes but with those around them. But this remains the primary Olympic sport, I am very encouraged that some 40 of the 60 going to Beijing will be at their first Olympics. London is a wonderful target. The lesson of Phillips, Christine and the others is that it can be done.”

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