By Mike Rowbottom

As Britain’s leading athletes set about gaining their places for the European Championships at the Aviva European trials and UK Championships in Birmingham, here’s the question: Who’s it going to be?

Because every year someone, in some event, pops up with something gloriously unexpected. And that uncertainty adds immeasurably to the anticipation of this annual examination of athletics credentials.


Well here are a few of my favourites. May there be similarly memorable occurrences at the Alexander Stadium this weekend…

In 1992, Birmingham saw what looked sure to be the future of British middle distance running in the form of Curtis Robb. And it worked. But only for a couple of years.

Robb was a 20-year-old medical student who had made a promising impact earlier in the year, with victories at the UK Championships and in an international match in Edinburgh where he beat the home hero, European champion Tom McKean, and two top Kenyans. But he had yet to manage the Olympic 800 metres qualifying standard of 1min 46.20sec.

After Martin Steele had led to the bell in 50sec, Robb looked out of it.But halfway down the back straight he began to move up, overtaking on the outside round the bend and taking the lead in the home straight before running himself into a state of exhaustion to win in 1:45.16, a personal best by more than one and a half seconds.

"The first lap was so fast that I couldn’t keep up," said Robb in his lilting, Liverpudlian accent. "But I had to go at 300 metres. I gave it some stick in the back straight. I didn’t want to watch the Olympics on television."

At 6ft 1in and 11 stone, Robb was built like an Ovett rather than a Coe. Accordingly, he saw his future at the 1500 metres; as did his dad, who had already placed a bet of £200 on his son to win the 1996 Olympic 1500m title at odds of 500-1.

And lo; it didn’t come to pass...

Robb did reach the Atlanta Games, but he was still racing over two laps, and was knocked out in the semi-finals. Injuries, and the increasing demands of his medical career, had already taken their toll on a talent which prompted even the normally gruff British promotions officer Andy Norman to describe as "quite exceptional".

But Robb certainly achieved his ambition of avoiding becoming a TV viewer at the Barcelona Games - he reached the final, giving it more stick to finish sixth. A year later he came even closer to a place on the podium at the World Championships in Stuttgart, finishing fourth in the 800m.

Robb was one of those athletes who was great to watch, exhilarating in his boldness. But then he was always willing to take a risk or two. In an interview in The Lancet in 2005 Robb, then a specialist registrar in orthopaedic and trauma surgery working in the West Midlands, recalled how his first experiment as a child involved putting his finger in a light socket at the age of 10 "to see what would happen." And what happened, he added, was: "A massive electric shock and loss of hair nine years later..."

The lure of the Olympics produced another stand-out performance in the trials of 1992, although in this case it came from an athlete at the other end of their career from Robb - Tessa Sanderson (pictured), the 1984 Olympic javelin champion, who won her event with a relatively conservative throw of 63.26 metres which earned her an extravagant distinction of becoming an Olympian for the fifth time.

But Sanderson did not leave the arena without hurling a verbal spear into the side of Norman, who was engaged to be married to her big domestic rival Fatima Whitbread. Her unhappiness related to the placing of her event at 11.30 in the morning.

"Andy Norman knows that this event was never on so early when Fatima Whitbread was competing," Sanderson said. "I’m sick to death of being victimised in my event. As one of our medal-contending events it should have had a lot more respect."

Sanderson reckoned 68 metres would be enough to take the title in Barcelona, adding that she was "absolutely certain" she was capable of that mark.

The golden girl of 84 turned out to be half right. Gold was earned with 68 metres - the 68.34m achieved by Germany’s Silke Renk, but Sanderson could only manage a marginally better effort than she had made in Birmingham, throwing 63.58 for a nevertheless highly creditable fourth place at the age of 36.

The trials two years earlier, for the European Championships in Split, were provided with dramatic action and words through one unlikely figure - Tony Morrell.

Running in a 1500m final from which Steve Cram, the reigning European champion, had withdrawn because of the after-effects of gastro-enteritis, the born-again Christian seemed to forget his calling halfway through the final lap when he became involved in an altercation with fellow runner Steven Halliday after a collision which had put both out of the running.

As Neil Horsfield earned a place in Split by winning, most eyes were still on the two stranded competitors on the backstraight, who exchanged comments before Morrell appeared to lose his rag completely and clout the Yorkshireman round the head.

Morrell felt Halliday had barged him off the track. But the authorities later disqualified Mark Rowland, the 1988 Olympic 3000m steeplechase bronze medallist, for barging Halliday into Morrell.

Morrell later said he had merely put his hand towards Halliday’s head and said "Why don’t you use this?" The owner of the head commented: "I thought he was going to hit me but he didn’t make contact."

With Olympic silver medallist and Commonwealth champion Peter Elliott virtually certain of automatic selection, the third and last place appeared to be between Morrell, on the basis of his general form, and Cram. Morrell had his own colourful view of the dilemma: "Cram has only raced twice this season. You don’t pick a lame horse for the Grand National. I would have to rethink my future as a full-time athlete if I don’t get selected."

The selectors went with Cram. Despite not being at full fitness, he had a real crack in the final, finishing fifth.

The 2003 World Championship trials saw the unexpected re-emergence of the long-limbed, graceful Julian Golding (pictured in black top), who had appeared to be on the cusp of further glories after winning the 1998 Commonwealth 200m title in Kuala Lumpur, holding off the challenge of the double world junior champion Christian Malcolm as he ran a personal best of 20.18.

But while Malcolm went on from there to establish himself on the international scene, Golding, a talented keyboard player at his local Pentecostal Church in Cricklewood, encountered little but athletic disharmony after reaching the final of the following year’s World Championships in Seville.

"In 2000 I had a virus which left me with a low blood count and made me constantly lacking in energy," Golding said. "The following year I had three haemorrhages in my groin. And last year I had a badly bruised heel which stopped me training until April, so I wasn’t fit at all."

But 2003 was kinder to Golding, as he finished clear of Malcolm and the third-placed Darren Campbell to register a winning time of 20.37. The keyboard player was back in tune with the track - but he was unable to make much of a noise in Paris as he was knocked out in the quarter-finals.

The following year the Athens Olympics trials saw another unheralded victory. And although this emerging athlete did not go on to do great things in Athens, she went on to become Olympic champion four years later in Beijing, and world champion a year later, having already won the Commonwealth title.

It was, of course, Christine Ohuruogu.

The 20-year-old linguistics student at University College, London produced the kind of run which would become familiar in the space of the next few years as she overhauled the leader of the UK rankings, European bronze medallist Lee McConnell, over the final 50 metres of the 400m final.

Her winning time was 50.98, well inside the Olympic A qualifying standard of 51.50 and faster than she had thought possible, even though she had taken several seconds off her personal best after choosing athletics over a career as an international netball player.

Stunned and tearful at the close, Ohuruogu admitted she had no idea what the Olympic qualifying mark was before the race. In retrospect, it appears evidence of the scattiness that would subsequently lead her to be suspended for a year in 2006 for failing to be on hand for three random doping tests.

Ohuruogu presented an awkward, reticent figure at the post-race press conference. Unlike so many winners, you felt very strongly that she would rather not be talking at all, and found the whole media business bemusing, not to say a little ridiculous. Having begun the season with a personal best of 54.21, she reduced it to 52.20 at the Loughborough meeting, and she described her latest performance as being "scary".

The Stratford athlete’s win had come despite the fact that she was still a part-time athlete, fitting training sessions around her studies. Asked what she might achieve if she pursued athletics full-time, she responded: "I don’t know. It’s frightening." She wasn’t wrong there…

The 1998 trials, ahead of the European Championships in Budapest, involved a high quality 400 metres which included the two in-form athletes, Iwan Thomas and Mark Richardson, and the Olympic silver medallist Roger Black (pictured), whose omission from the previous year’s World Championships after his preparations had been disrupted by a viral illness had provoked a controversy which found its way into the day’s main news bulletins and front rather than back pages of the national newspapers.

There was also a 200 metres specialist with a one-lap best of 46.55sec, two whole seconds slower than the three established men - Solomon Wariso.

Wariso, whose name had come to wider prominence four years earlier when his unwise decision to take a pick-me-up purchased while training in Florida, named Up Your Gas, proved calamitous as it turned out to include a banned stimulant, with the result that he served a three-month ban.

The circumstances, however, were particularly harsh for Wariso, as the decision was revealed after he had flown out to take part in the European Championships in Helsinki and received massive attention.

Four years on, the enigmatic, and erratic sprinter earned himself more attention as he produced an extraordinary performance, setting a - literally - staggering personal best of 44.68 to take third place behind Thomas - who would go on to win the European, Commonwealth and World Cup titles in an annus mirabilis which may in retrospect have been horribilis as injuries prevented him ever reaching such heights again. Richardson, who had beaten the great Michael Johnson earlier in the season, was second.

And Black, having fought a familiar battle with injury earlier in the year, could only manage a straining fourth place, even though in doing so he lowered his season’s best from 45.18 to 44.71. 

It was a great effort from a proven championship performer. Wariso, meanwhile, lost little time in insisting that he wanted to do the 200m in Budapest. "I’m a 200 metres runner," he said. "I’m a sprinter. I only entered the 400m for a laugh."

Black was not laughing when the selectors went with the one-two-three on the night, choosing not to take up a place in the relay and instead announcing his retirement from the sport. "I am devastated," he said, "but also mystified at how the selectors have come to this decision and shown so little understanding of me as a performer. I guess three hundredths of a second, the margin I was beaten by, are worth far more than 13 years of hard facts…"

Wariso - affectionately described by Richardson after the race as “an absolute space cadet” - had hardly forced the issue against the double European champion. 

"I wouldn’t mind being left out of the 400, if they gave me a place in the 200," he said. "I would understand. Because Roger’s the boy, isn’t he? He’s a national icon."

But the icon remained home, and Wariso travelled - not in the 200, but the 400. After narrowly escaping a first round exit, having slowed to early in his opening heat, the Londoner made the final - only to be disqualified.

What next? Watch and learn…something will surely turn up. 

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames