Black South Africa breaks through, but Britain trails behind

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From today, Britain has a little more in common with Hong Kong, Finland and Jamaica. It has joined these countries in having harvested one gold medal apiece from the Atlanta games. Now, as the 1996 Olympics draws to a close, questions are being raised over Britain's poor performance. Is the country that produced Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe and Daley Thompson now destined to lurk at the bottom of the medals tables? Or will last month's sporting humiliation prove a catalyst for a sporting revolution?

In the gold medal tables, Britain yesterday trailed behind Kazakhstan, Denmark, and Poland - the worst result since 1976. Thirty-five countries took home more gold medals than Britain, while France and Italy boasted 15 and 13 respectively.

As the inquests began, Malcolm Arnold, Britain's coaching chief, yesterday initially blamed the British press for lowering the morale of the national teams. But he and other British Olympic officials pin the blame more squarely on a lack of resources. "Our annual budget for coaching and development is equivalent to what a second-division football manager might spend on a third-rate striker," he said in Atlanta.

"Taking sport seriously means resources and spending substantial amounts of money." The British Athletic Federation is trying to get help from the National Lottery, but is still waiting to hear if its pounds 9.6m bid has been successful. The bid involves a structured plan up to 2001 when Britain may stage the world athletics championships, and involvestraining grants and back-up services for elite athletes.

Mike Whittingham, who put together the plan as a consultant for the federation, described the current situation as "a political nightmare". With the structure of the proposed British Academy for Sport still under discussion, there is uncertainty about whether applications will be considered from federations, or even individual competitors, once the emphasis for lottery funding shifts from capital projects to providing revenue. Whittingham, who coaches Britain's double-silver medallist Roger Black, believes a central British Academy of Sport will also make it difficult to cater for the needs of all Britain's elite performers. "You could be talking about 6,000 athletes. The academy. . . will have to rely on the governing bodies."

In an interview today with The Independent, Craig Reedie, chairman of the British Olympic Association, describes the athletes as "victims of our system".

He says: "We'll have to convince the paymasters of British sport the rest of the world takes sport more seriously than we do."

Britain's poor performance has become the focus of a political row. Just days after the Prime Minister launched the annual pounds 300m Raising the Game programme, an initiative to improve the chances of sporting success, Labour seized on reports that the Government might withdraw funds from programmes which prepare people for leisure-time occupations.

Reedie interview, Sports Section