TEN years ago today, Nelson Mandela was languishing in his twenty-fourth year of imprisonment under apartheid, incarcerated in Cape Town's Pollsmoor Prison, after 20 years on Robben Island.

Meanwhile, having fled her native South Africa, Zola Budd was skipping barefoot through the freezing mud of Neuchatel before mounting the winner's rostrum at the World Cross-country Championships - her second such flag-of-convenience victory for Britain.

This afternoon at Stellenbosch, just up the road from Pollsmoor, Mandela will have the guest of honour's seat in the tribune at the championships, and Budd, who led England to team victory a decade ago, will also be there.

Now Zola Pieterse and a mum, she is still running - sole survivor from that team. This time, however, she represents the land of her birth in the first world athletics championship hosted in the new South Africa, and admits she will be an also-ran.

The outcome is almost incidental. More important is athletics' recognition of the dawn of hope in that troubled land. Some things do not change, however, and that is the certainty of an African victory in the men's event.

Paul Tergat will defend the title he won last year at Durham, and hopes to extend Kenya's 10 unbroken years of team success, but he will be under threat from Ethiopian Haile Gebreselassie who has recently shattered the world indoor 3000 and 5000m records, and Moroccan Khalid Skah.

Paula Radcliffe, a pale blonde English rose, is the flower of British cross-country running, and the leading UK medal hope, but a blistering foretaste of the conditions which competitors will face in the Atlanta Olympics has caused British prospects to wilt.

Temperatures this week have regularly been in the high eighties, and the poverty-stricken Brits are shocked, regretting their inadequate acclimatisation - only five days, in defiance of the 10 to 14 requested by team manager Dave Clarke.

He has expressed concern at peaches-and-cream Radcliffe's ability to cope with the heat never mind worries over a calf-muscle pain on top of her bout of food-poisoning last week, and Helen Titterington withdrew yesterday with a back injury, being replaced by Andrea Whitcombe.

Scotland's Commonwealth team captain, Vikki McPherson, making her fourth appearance in this event, is more positive. She finished fourth at 10,000m in the World Student Games in Buffalo three years ago.

The only other Scot in the UK team, Glasgow University's Sheila Fairweather, has recovered from blistered feet, and is looking forward to her UK cross-country debut.

McPherson, meanwhile, is one of three Scots chosen by Britain for the World Relay Championships in Copenhagen next month. She and Kilbarchan's Robert Quinn, are named for the 7.2-mile anchor leg of the relay, while Karen Macleod has been selected for the 10,000 stage.

q DIANE Modahl, Michael Johnson, and Carl Lewis, will be more interested in proceedings outwith the contest.

The IAAF council will consider evidence which could end the doping agony of former Commonwealth 800m champion Modahl - though they could refer her case to arbitration - and they look set to amend the Olympic timetable and allow Johnson to double at 200 and 400m, and Lewis to do the 200m and long jump.