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Women's 400m PREVIEW

The women’s 400 metres, a truly glittering highlight of the Sydney 2000 Olympics and Atlanta four years before that, with Marie-Jose Perec’s second Olympic title and Cathy Freeman’s breathtaking moment of destiny, appeared to have lost some of its lustre going into this year.

Freeman had long since retired, Perec formerly announced that she would not longer be competing earlier this year, Sydney silver and bronze medallists Lorraine Fenton and Katharine Merry are sidelined this season. It seemed the very great demands of preparing for and competing at this event managed to grind down all-comers.

“It is a tough event,” Freeman, now an ambassador for the London 2012 Olympic bid, says, “possibly the toughest. You need to have a tough body to withstand all the training, but also a tough mind, too.”

By the start of the 2004 track season, there was possibly only one candidate for Athens gold: Ana Guevara, the first Mexican woman to have won any medal at the IAAF World Championships when she took bronze in 2001, and unbeaten in 23 finals thereafter.

And then along came Tonique Williams-Darling of the Bahamas (click here for related story).

The 28-year-old has made a tremendous breakthrough this summer, and as well as the fastest time of the year, 49.15, she has three of the top six marks. And possibly most importantly of all, Williams-Darling dealt Guevara her first defeat in nearly three years (in Gateshead) and in Zurich recently did it again.

“The field is a bit more level now that Ana has lost,” Williams-Darling told IAAF.org recently. “She has been beaten so people are thinking they can win.

“We have some 49s this year – at least five people. The Russians always come out running, Ana will come out running.”

Williams-Darling will have been referring to Natalya Nazarova, the 1998 IAAF World Junior champion, and the leading American, Monique Hennagan.

But it will be the re-match with Guevara that will offer the greatest fascination. Guevara’s form this season has been determined by the loss of nearly three months’ training earlier this summer through injury.

But the World champion goes into Athens in positive mood. “I feel very well. I’m not in the same rhythm as last year, but coming back from injury I think I’m doing very well.”

In her last race over the full lap, she was second in 50.18 in Zurich. “I made a mistake in Zurich,” she said. “I started very badly in the blocks, then ran too fast in the early part of the race.” It may be different in Athens.