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Banishing the Beijing demons

Mo Farah, Simeon Williamson, Christine Ohuruogu and Charles van Commenee
Farah, Williamson and Ohuruogu will all have impressed their new boss

By Mark Ashenden

I shook hands with two of the most important people in British athletics at the UK Indoor Grand Prix in Birmingham on Saturday. Both wear flash glasses and are known for their trackside roar.

First was Spike, the irrepressible tiger mascot. Then I looked into the eyes of Charles van Commenee - through those expensive spectacles and below that magnificent quiff - and I sensed the simmering steely determination everybody is talking about.

"A nice guy, but ruthless," I kept hearing from athletes at the NIA.

He is a UK Athletics chief on a mission. He needs to be. Christine Ohuruogu's gold (plus two silvers and a bronze) aside, it was a limp Olympic effort for Team GB's athletes in Beijing last August.

Highlights - Ohuruogu prevails in 200m

The Dutchman's got three years to turn it around - getting more than six medals is his target - and according to the 50-year-old, it's "mission difficult, but mission possible".

Tuesday marks Van Commenee's selection debut when he picks his team for the European Indoors at Turin. Then it's the Worlds in Berlin in August. Olympic fever hitting London might seem light years away but every athlete is straining to impress the new gaffer.


The strain was there to see on a dramatic day in Birmingham at an event billed as the world's biggest and best one-off indoor meeting.

It was a day of anger, tears, ecstasy, frustration, even one of those ridiculous pay cheques the size of a double decker bus was wiggled about. And all this without the Dwain Chambers circus coming to town.

Ohuruogu, the likely face for 2012, has few worries. After the misery of her ban, the smile beams like never before and why not? This might have been a "fun" day for the 400m Olympic champion, but she is in tip-top shape.

After trailing in the 60m heats, a late burst pipped Donna Fraser in the 200m final - an event she is simply using for speed-work.

Her coach Lloyd Cowan told me that within a few hours of Ohurogu's Beijing gold he was plotting the next one.

Highlights - Williamson wins thrilling 60m

If you're an Olympic champion you can afford to relax at these types of meets, but for others the pressure was on.

Six months ago Mo Farah "over-cooked" his 5,000m to miss out on the final. It could have broken him, but for the last six months he has worked his socks off in Kenya and the 25-year-old is reaping the rewards.

The NIA crowd watched him obliterate the British 3,000m indoor record by six seconds - just three weeks after breaking John Mayock's 2002 mark. Farah says a happier head has led to greater confidence which has enabled his amazing performances. Long live the Farah smile.

There were other faces lighting up Birmingham.

Marilyn Okoro edged good friend and rival Jenny Meadows in the 800m with a PB and the second fastest time in the world. "I'm in the shape of my life," she shrieked. "I know my best is good enough and I'm really pushing for a Turin medal now."

After a steady showing in Beijing with a semi-final spot, this part-time jazz singer now looks ready to shine on the world stages.

South African-born Kate Dennison looks like she should still be at school, but the 24-year-old has been a pole vaulting revelation, breaking the British record for the second time in a week on Saturday.

No surprises with Yelena Isinbayeva winning - albeit without a new world record - but Dennison, third after flying over 4.46m to earn a cool $5,000, said: "This is my first meeting with the big girls and it was great. It is all about believing you can get over the bar." Early days but she could soon be one of the big girls.

Dennison raises UK pole vault record

Triple jump world-record holder Jonathan Edwards is hugely excited about the talent pool in high jumping, with three Brits making the last Olympic final and the man missing from that showpiece looks fired up.

Samson Oni just missed out on a lifetime best 2.31m to finish third ahead of GB team-mate Martyn Bernard.

In second place was Ivan Ukhov - the man responsible for a million YouTube hits last year after competing under the influence of booze in Lausanne.

With Chambers already on the Turin plane, it was left to Britain's young pretenders to scrap it out for the remaining two 60m places, though Tyrone Edgar is almost certain to be absent after tearing a hamstring in the warm-up.

Highlights - Farah smashes UK record

Simeon Williamson, coached by Cowan and fresh from a spell training with Asafa Powell, cruised to victory with a PB of 6.53 seconds and the 23-year-old could be the one to lead Britain's sprinting charge to 2012.

Craig Pickering - fifth in the final but bagging 6.57 in Glasgow - will probably be in Turin but things seem to be stirring inside his head.

A disqualification in Sheffield made him "apprehensive" on Saturday and as the deathly silence fell upon the finalists in the blocks, Pickering's hand came up. A legal move but the tension spreading throughout the 22-year-old's body was obvious.

That Beijing baton still hangs heavy on him - his fumble denied GB's 100m relay quartet a chance to defend their Olympic crown.

A smiling, but reflective, Pickering said: "I still feel bad because I was completely at fault and I'm trying hard to make it up to the public and it's clearly not happened yet."

Last but not least is heptathlete Kelly Sotherton.

After missing the last two indoor meets, she declared she would "definitely" make Turin, but asked for everybody to "cross their fingers she would be fit".

Right now, competing in the junior 10m hopscotch championships for the Athens bronze medallist would be a blessing, given the size of the crutch she's been hobbling around on for the last four days because of a heel injury.

Her former coach Van Commenee should be ordering that cotton wool suit now.

Most athletes have spoken to their new boss at least twice, with Okoro revealing she had been asked to write down what she needs to get on the podium in 2012 - including her projected times and objectives.

"I'm all for reaching for the stars," Okoro said.

London is the big star, but if the Dutch master thinks athletes aren't reaching hard enough for the smaller stars - like Turin - then they might find themselves ditched long before 2012.

Watch the European Indoor Championships in Turin on BBC One and the BBC Sport website (UK only) on 6-8 March.

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see also
Farah breaks record in Birmingham
21 Feb 09 |  Athletics
Which athletes will star in 2009?
20 Feb 09 |  Athletics
When is a record not a record?
19 Feb 09 |  Athletics
Chambers could make GB relay team
16 Feb 09 |  Athletics
Isinbayeva sets new indoor record
15 Feb 09 |  Athletics
Sotherton to miss season opener
27 Jan 09 |  Athletics
Athletics on the BBC
28 Oct 08 |  Athletics
Contact TV team
08 Apr 08 |  Athletics

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