British athletes can write some good news headlines with strong performances in Budapest, says Sally Gunnell
Sally Gunnell believes the Great Britain team has the talent to get off to a medal-winning, momentum-building start to the World Athletics Championships, which are about to get underway in Budapest.
The lead-up to the showpiece in the Hungarian capital has been anything but smooth, with the national governing body coming under fire for a hardline selection policy which saw a number of athletes having their World Athletics invitations being turned down.
In recent days, it has also emerged that Darren Campbell, head of sprints and relays, will not be with the team.
These have not been the kind of headlines which UK Athletics would have been hoping to generate but Gunnell, who struck world gold 30 years ago in Stuttgart with a world record-breaking 400m hurdles performance, can see a number of ways in which the British contingent can get off to a flier.
The 2019 champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson is one of the first big names in action, starting the women’s heptathlon with high medal hopes, while Zharnel Hughes will start his 100m campaign as the fastest man in the world this year.
“He’s got an opportunity here,” says Gunnell of the national 100m and 200m record-holder. “[The 100m is] very open, he’s in great form, he’s had experience of past disappointments so maybe this is his time and you have to take those opportunities when you can.
“I know he’ll want the gold but I think if he can come away with a medal that will be incredible.”
Another gold medallist from four years ago, Dina Asher-Smith, is also quietly peaking at the right time.
“Dina wasn’t in the best shape early on [in the season], but she has just been seeing a little bit of a form coming through and just seeing how good she’s been on the national training camp, getting herself into shape, and with her experience, I’d never write her off,” adds Gunnell. “I’m very excited by Keely [Hodgkinson] in the women’s 800m, too.”
Those championships in Stuttgart not only saw Gunnell coming home with a title, but also her team-mates Linford Christie in the 100m and Colin Jackson in the 110m hurdles. Over a fateful dinner, it was the latter duo, in fact, who reinforced to the then Olympic champion that she could win as she battled the doubts brought on by illness right on the eve of competition.
Gunnell knows all too well that a strong team network of support works wonders and, though she can empathise with the absent athletes’ frustration, she has seen just how powerful the winning mentality can be.
“I can see how they [the athletes] are frustrated and it comes back to where do you get that experience from but I also know that I’ve been at major championships where people have come last in their heat and been knocked out and I know how that can affect the team having negative people around.
“I can also feel that we need to create a winning atmosphere and you want people there that are going to get to finals, that have got that talent and can get to that stage.
“I can see both sides, but the World Championships is different to the Olympics. It’s a higher level in some respects. I’m sure we’re going to be seeing some world records this week, for example, and you want that high quality to be there.”
For Britain’s athletes to come back from Budapest with some medals to show for their efforts will, of course, help to raise the profile of a sport which is now facing a fight for attention which it simply didn’t have to think about back when Gunnell was at her peak.
She returned from Stuttgart as a household name but insists that reaching the podium is now a necessity to make an athlete part of the conversation.
“It’s a different world out there,” she adds. “In 1993, there were only a few sports that you could watch on telly and a few sports that women were really excelling in. You were that household name because you didn’t have that competition.
“Now, we can watch [sport] all over. There are so many opportunities and so many people that started in athletics but they ended up doing rowing or bobsleighing or whatever else.
“I know there’s a lot of competition for the athletes and they say they don’t get the recognition but, in some respects, that’s because there are so many great other sports performances, you know, and that’s why you’re fighting for that place and maybe they need to use it to fuel themselves because, actually, it is about winning.
“I still think it’s a great sport and we’ve still got so many amazing athletes. There’s so much talent.
“It’s so important that we get off to a good start and we’ve got to feel within that camp of success. That does really fuel it.”
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