Superstar Johnson sees veteran stars still dominate athletics while teenager Thorpe set to scoop seven golds in the pool

Wednesday, July 24th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MANCHESTER, England (AP) _ Ian Thorpe's not the only sports superstar at the Commonwealth Games, except that the other has retired and wouldn't be able to compete anyway.

Michael Johnson, winner of five Olympic and nine World Championship golds for the United States at 200 and 400 meters, is here to give his expert view on the athletics competition for host broadcaster the British Broadcasting Corporation.

It's a good job he's here because these games are short of really big stars.

Thorpe, at age 19 probably the highest profile swimmer since Mark Spitz who won seven golds at the Munich Olympics, is attempting to match that ``mark'' here while defend four titles at the same time. Grant Hackett, Olympic, world and Commonwealth champion as well as world record holder at 1,500 meters, defends one of his titles too.

Among the track stars world record holder Colin Jackson is bidding for his third Commonwealth Games gold in the 110 hurdles while Jonathan Edwards, Olympic and world champion and world record holder in the triple jump, bids to win his first Commonwealth title after being runner up twice.

Frankie Fredericks, 200 meters gold medalist for Namibia eight years ago at Victoria, British Columbia, and silver medalist at 100 at Kuala Kumpur in 1998, returns once more and is expected to run both.

Maria Mutola of Mozambique is back to defend her 800 meters title, London Marathon winner Paula Radcliffe is favorite for the 5,000 meters and the men's pole vault looks like a good battle between world champion Dmitry Markov of Australia and South Africa's Okkert Brits who have both cleared 6.00 meters.

Cathy Freeman, who lit the torch at the Sydney Olympics and then won the 400 meters, is running only the 4x400 relay and Canada's Bruny Surin, just turned 35 and a five-time finalist at the Worlds, runs in the 4x100.

Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago is short of fitness and form and isn't here to defend his 100 meter title. Olympic heptathlon champion Denise Lewis is still not back to competition three months after giving birth to a baby girl while sprinter Merlene Ottey, who won two medals for Jamaica back in 1982, now competes for Slovenia which is not a Commonwealth country.

Even though he finished competing 11 months ago at the Goodwill Games, 34-year-old Johnson appears in good enough shape to continue winning 200 and 400m races and wouldn't have that much opposition here, at least in the 400 meters.

He has no intention of putting the spikes back on, however.

``When you are a professional athlete you have the opportunity to do what you love and work every day to get better,'' he said two days before the start of the Games. ``There's not a lot of jobs like that. Because of that, there are all these tragic stories of people who go into retirement and then come back and try and do it again or stick around too long or, once they've finished, do crazy things because they have this withdrawal.

``When you go out on your own terms as I was able to do, it's not so hard,'' said Johnson, whose world records at 200 and 400 meters are likely to remain for many years. ``Unfortunately, a majority of us don't get to do it that way.

``At some point you might say, like I did, 'OK, I don't want to be the best in the world any more'.''

Concentrating on events at the City of Manchester athletics stadium, Johnson isn't likely to see many of the other 16 sports at the Games, which involves some 3,600 competitors from 72 Commonwealth nations.

Australia is expected to collect most of the golds medals and could even sweep in the pool, while England and Canada should be second and third in the table.

But the games give the opportunity for India and Pakistan to thrust their field hockey teams into the public limelight, Malaysia and Pakistan to excel at squash, New Zealand's rugby stars to enhance their reputation outside their game's usual arena, and sports such as badminton, table tennis, netball and lawn bowls to share the glory.

It's also a rare chance for British competitors to face each other in the colors of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Unlike the Olympics or European Championships, Britain is carved up under the banners of the four teams.

Peter Nicol, the world's top-ranked squash player, is seeded No. 1 for the competition and is defending champion. He won for Scotland, the place where he was born, but now competes for England, where he lives.

On Tuesday, the Commonwealth Games Federation tightened its eligibility rules so that competitors can't jump from country to country without having lived there for less than two years.

Canada's Jonathon Power, silver medalist four years ago, is seeded to meet Nicol in the final while the top women's seed is world No. 1 and four-time world champion Sarah Fitz-Gerald of Australia, who is unbeaten in 51 matches since last August.

Competing for Pakistan is 20-year-old Carla Khan, whose grandfather, Azam Khan, was four-time British Open champion _ effectively world champion _ between 1959 and '62. Azam and his brother Hashim, who won seven British Open titles before than, dominated the sport in the 1950s.

Born in west London, Carla Khan competed for England as a junior and needed to get clearance from the Games Federation to line up for Pakistan.