joint World 100m record holder Asafa Powell wins in Oslo (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News 9 June 2006 – Gateshead, UK

Gatlin leaves the pressure on Powell in Gateshead – IAAF World Athletics Tour

Gateshead, UKAsafa Powell admitted this week that he's feeling the pressure from his much-hyped 100m rivalry with Justin Gatlin. If so, the 23-year-old Jamaican is probably the only person who's relieved the eagerly-awaited clash between the joint-World record holders isn't taking place at the Norwich Union British Grand Prix meeting in Gateshead this Sunday (11), the latest leg of the IAAF World Athletics Tour.

"It feels like there is a load on my back," the Commonwealth champion told the BBC in London on Tuesday (6). "When I'm in Jamaica people say to me 'You have to beat Justin Gatlin'. When I come to Europe they say the same thing. The rivalry is definitely real."

Glamour is not a quality usually associated with the north east of England city, but for a few weeks in May it appeared that Gateshead's International Stadium would provide the unlikely setting for an event Powell calls the athletics' equivalent of a World heavyweight boxing match - the sprinters' first head-to-head battle since Gatlin matched Powell's World record of 9.77 in Doha in May.

"Our rivalry is good for the sport," said Powell. "I compare it to a heavyweight boxing match. It's an exciting time."

Gatlin's withdrawal means the excitement will have to wait, however - probably until 28 July when the bout resumes at the London Grand Prix - and the absence of the World and Olympic champion has undoubtedly taken some of the gloss off the first major British meeting of the year.

"Maybe he is not ready to face me yet, or maybe the prize is not enough to race me," said Powell. "It's disappointing to know people were looking forward to the race, but I'll be there to win it with or without Justin."

Impressive cast of World, Olympic and Commonwealth stars

Even without the American, Gateshead provides the stage for an impressive cast of international stars, including 13 gold medallists from the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in March and a host of World and Olympic champions - Adam Nelson, Tonique Williams-Darling, Tirunesh Dibaba, Tatyana Lebedeva and Kajsa Bergqvist among them.

Although the heavyweight title fight is no longer on the bill, the men's 100m final is still slated as the meeting's grand finale. Powell will be favourite but, as he's shown in the past, winning under pressure isn't always his forté.

At the opening IAAF Golden League meeting is Oslo last week he was pushed hard by USA's Shawn Crawford. This time the opposition will come from his compatriots Michael Frater and Ainsley Waugh, members of Jamaica's victorious 4x100m relay squad from Melbourne, plus Ghana's World and Commonwealth Games finallist Aziz Zakari, and USA's Coby Miller.

Powell believes he's capable of dipping under 9.70 - with a bit of motivation from Mr Gatlin - but even aided by the better-than-usual weather expected in Gateshead (23 degrees), such blistering times are highly unlikely on Sunday.

Also unlikely is a serious British challenge, although Olympic sprint relay champions Mark Lewis-Francis, Darren Campbell and Marlon Devonish will be doing their best to get among the overseas stars (continuing back problems have forced Jason Gardener to withdraw). Double World Youth sprint champion Harry Aikines Ayreetey also gets his place on the start line.

Simpson vs Campbell

If anything, the women's sprints are even more appetising, particularly the 200m in which the Jamaicans Sherone Simpson and Veronica Campbell resume their rivalry. Simpson beat the Olympic champion in Melbourne, but with fellow-Jamaican Peta-Gaye Dowdie, Belgium's Kim Gevaert, 400m specialist Sanya Richards and USA's 2003 World 100m champion Torri Edwards also in the field it could be anyone's race.

Edwards also lines up in the 100m against Ukraine's 2001 World champion Zhanna Block and the Caribbean pair, Aleen Bailey of Jamaica and Chandra Sturrup of the Bahamas.

The 400m brings Williams-Darling, the World and Olympic champion, to Britain for the first time since she was beaten by England's Christine Ohuruogu in Melbourne. Unfortunately, Ohuruogu isn't running on Sunday so Williams-Darling's main opposition should come from her Bahamas teammate Christine Amertil, or the Jamaicans Lorraine Fenton and Sherricka Williams.

Dibaba heads Ethiopian challenge

Dibaba, the 5000m and 10,000m gold medallist in Helsinki last summer, is the other World track champion on show, one of six Ethiopians in a 3000m field that includes 2003 World 10,000m champion Berhane Adere and Britain's Commonwealth Games 5000m silver medallist Jo Pavey.

Lebedeva back to the Long Jump

After securing the world's first 15-metre Triple Jump of the season in Turin this week, Lebedeva returns to the Long Jump on Sunday, the vent at which she is Olympic champion. The Russian will face India's World and Commonwealth finallist Anju Bobby George and the British pair Jade Johnson and Kelly Sotherton.

Like Lebedeva, World champion Kajsa Bergqvist will be a clear favourite in the High Jump where her main challenge will come from the Helsinki silver and bronze medallists, Chaunte Howard of USA and fellow-Swede Emma Green. Three other Helsinki finallists - USA's Amy Acuff, Ukraine's Irina Mikhalchenko and the Czech Republic's Iva Strakhova are also in the line-up.

Shot heavy in talent

The pick of the men's field events is the Shot Put where Nelson heads a bevy of strong Americans, including Reese Hoffa and Christian Cantwell, plus the Dane Joachim Olsen and Britain's Carl Myerscough. In the Pole Vault, the 2003 World champion Giuseppe Gibilisco of Italy meets USA's 2005 World silver medallist Brad Walker.

Songok in the 3000m

Other Commonwealth champions making the trip to north east England include New Zealand's Nick Willis, who takes on Bernard Lagat of USA and Britain's Nick McCormick in the men's 1500m; Uganda's Boniface Kiprop, who'll face a slew of Kenyans led by Isaac Songok, Kenenisa Bekele's recent victor, in the 3000m; and Jamaica's Maurice Wignall, who'll be up against USA's Dominique Arnold in the 110m Hurdles.

Another Commonwealth champion, Kenya's Janeth Jepkosgei, heads a women's 800m field that includes the fast-improving Briton Rebecca Lyne. Two other improving Brits - Lee McConnell and Tasha Danvers-Smith - clash in the women's 400m Hurdles; Chris Tomlinson and Nathan Morgan take on Brazil's Jadel Gregorio in the men's Long Jump; and Robert Tobin faces double World Indoor champion Alleyne Francique of Grenada in the men's 400m.

Matthew Brown for the IAAF