Those who see indoor athletics as an inadequate substitute for its outdoor counterpart should take a look at the entry list for the women’s 400m ... and think again. For any contest that includes six of the fastest athletes of the 1998 outdoor season as well the reigning Olympic and European 400m hurdles champions, is first class.
It is certainly hard to pick out one favourite. The two fastest women this winter have been Olga Kotlyarova (RUS) and Ana Guevara (MEX), who ran 50.91 and 50.94 respectively in Stuttgart on February 7. Another who has been running extremely well indoors is Ionela Tirlea, the perky Romanian who won the European outdoor 400m hurdles title in 1998. She has clocked 22.76 for 200m and 51.11 for 400m this winter and will run both events in Maebashi. Russia are also counting on the precocious ability of Natalya Nazarova – who is only 19, but is the fifth fastest so far this season with 51.48. But all these women are young, Guevara turns 22 on March 4, Kotlyarova is 22 and Tirlea is 23, and they will need to overcome some wily competitors.
First among these is Grit Breuer, who spent her apprenticeship in the former GDR but has become one of the reunited Germany’s best performers – particularly in relays. With a baton in her hand, Breuer’s terrific pace judgement and fighting spirit make her a redoubtable anchor runner. Yet she is also European champion in the individual event and won a silver at the Tokyo World Championships as far back as 1991, so is highly experienced. Breuer’s best indoors this year is 51.06.
And then there is the reigning world champion Jearl Miles, who has clocked 51.82 and also won the US Championship title this weekend. When asked what her chances were of regaining her title in Maebashi she replied: "It will be tough. But I am tough" ... But then so is Deon Hemmings, who won the 1996 Olympic 400m hurdles title, and the Nigerian pairing of Charity Opara and Falilat Ogunkoya. Opara had a fantastic 1998, ending the year with the world’s fastest time of 49.29 and less than a handful of defeats. Ogunkoya was also impressive, running 49.52 to win the World Cup in Johannesburg. But they must both adjust to the special demands of indoor racing as will Australia’s 1997 outdoor World Champion Cathy Freeman. After succumbing to injury for most of 1998, Freeman will be keen to start her 1999 campaign in the right way. But whoever wins, they will certainly have had to earn their $50,000 the hard way.