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  Saturday, 10 August, 2002, 13:50 GMT 14:50 UK
Champions prepare for 800m classic
Wilson Kipketer finishes just ahead of Andre Bucher in the 800m heats in Munich
Kipketer (left) edged Bucher (right) in the heats

If you were thinking that European Championships men's 800m haven't been the same since Seb Coe led home a British one-two-three in 1986, it's time to step into the present day.

In Nils Schumann, Wilson Kipketer and Andre Bucher, the ingredients are present for a classic confrontation.

And if only Yuriy Borzakovskiy hadn't been so perverse and decided to run the 400m instead ... but more of that later.

Let's look at reigning champion Schumann first, the poster boy of German athletics, Olympic champion two summers ago and quickest in the heats here in Munich.

Nils Schumann wins his 800m heat in Munich
Schumann will have the crowd on his side

Should he use his trademark kick to blast down the home straight in the Olympiastadion on Sunday and retain his title, the noise from the crowd will wake the Bavarian dead.

Schumann, still just 24, exploded onto the international scene four years ago when he became European Indoor champion while still a junior.

In his heat he had run the last 250m with just one shoe, and sustained a stress fracture as a result.

The injury kept him from running for 15 weeks, yet at the Europeans in Budapest he outkicked Bucher and a tiring Kipketer to take a shock gold.

It made the former footballer and decathlete an instant hero in his homeland. Who cared that he needed a relatively slow race to be in with a shout?

It was that speed over the last 100m which won him the Olympic title in Sydney, with Kipketer in second and a baulked Bucher fifth.

Sometimes Nature produces people with abnormal traits - Borza falls into this category
Yuriy Borzakovskiy's team-mate Sergey Kozhevnikov

By last summer's World Championships, the balance had tipped in favour of the Swiss Bucher.

The 25-year-old history graduate, who has been coached by the same man, Andi Vogtli, since he was 15, enjoyed a sensational year which culminated in gold in Edmonton.

On his return to Switzerland he was greeted by 5,000 screaming fans at the airport and was subsequently named Swiss sportsman of the year.

A stress fracture kept him out for 10 weeks from April this year, and consequently his times have been nowhere near as good as in 2001.

Compared to the run of bad luck endured by Kipketer, however, Bucher's misfortune pales into insignificance.

When Kipketer is at his best, no-one else in the world can live with him.

Former BBC commentator David Coleman famously described him as caressing the track with his feet when he ran, but he is so much more than a mere stylist.

He holds the world record both indoors and out, the man who finally beat Coe's 16-year-old mark in 1997 and a three-time world champion.

From 1996 to '97 he was unbeaten for 27 races, but was laid low at the last Europeans by malaria and a liver complaint.

Awesome best

Schumann seized his chance then, just as he did at the Olympics when Kipketer, after a month out with a calf injury, was a shadow of his usual self.

Last year it was his turn to suffer a stress fracture, and he missed the entire season. But now he is back, the old man of the field at 29, and illustrated in Monaco last month that he is approaching his awesome best.

As for Borzakovskiy - well, he has the natural talent to destroy them all.

His team-mate Sergey Kozhevnikov says: "Sometimes Nature produces people with abnormal traits - for example, six fingers on their hands.

"Borza falls into this category because of his gift for running."

But he also has a wilful streak, a desire to be different that saw him give the 2001 Worlds a miss through choice and then enter the 400m in Munich as a training exercise.

No matter. His time will comes. For now it's the three men who have each won one of the last three major championships.

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