Cold turkey for Olympic TV addicts: Millions face withdrawal symptoms after 250 hours of almost non-stop coverage, writes Giles Smith

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THE OLYMPIC Games ended in Barcelona last night, leaving millions of British television viewers with nothing to watch. In all, 250 hours have been screened over the past 16 days, encouraging mass addiction. The BBC says it has no plans for a counselling and support system for victims.

Not since the Munich Games in 1972 have the time zones so favoured the British viewer. Live coverage from Seoul in 1988 and Los Angeles in 1984 bounced off satellites in the middle of the night. Barcelona was merely an hour ahead. Serious viewers could turn on just after breakfast and, with some judicious channel-hopping, watch uninterrupted until midnight. Today, bar a repeat of last night's closing ceremony, they face a blank schedule.

Withdrawal symptoms are likely to take many forms, but may include the disconsolate humming of Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe's 'Barcelona', the theme music which the BBC has played a minimum of five times daily for two weeks. Some may also resort to impersonations of the commentator David Coleman, whose voice, shattered by excitement, marked many of the fortnight's key moments: 'Gunnell goes for gold, and Gunnell gets the gold]' 'And Linford Christie] It's Linford Christie]'

For many viewers, the addiction has followed a recognisable pattern. Until the qualifying rounds for the women's 10,000 metres, they did not imagine they could find the sight of 15 people running in a circle for half an hour so enthralling. Once hooked, it was only a matter of time before they started experimenting with the harder sports - the weightlifting, the parallel bars, the small-bore rifle shooting.

From that point on, they would rarely leave their sitting rooms and would find themselves entertaining passionate opinions about the future of the carbon-fibre javelin, the peculiar scoring system for boxing and why it is that Cubans make such good volleyball players.

Televised sport looked more alluring than ever. The technicians had stashed cameras in every available nook. There was one on a level with the high-jump bar, there were several at the bottom of the swimming pool and there was another positioned right behind the basketball ring.

Perhaps only the hockey proved resistant to television. Occasionally, by flattening your nose against the screen, you could make out a blurred white object, which the commentator referred to excitedly as 'the ball'. But this was where not even slow-motion replays - the addict's particular weakness - could assist.

On Friday night, in an act suggesting self-assurance to an almost arrogant degree, the BBC offered us a short documentary piece about how the Olympics were being shown in other countries. The Algerian presenter seemed to be broadcasting in front of an old television set in an attic somewhere. The Japanese preferred to commentate in pairs, but both talked at the same time. Though there was some debate about the favouritism of our own commentators, it was as nothing compared with the Australian front-man as his team shot forward during the rowing: 'Six metres to go, you little beauties.'

By contrast, the BBC's coverage looked slick and comprehensive. By the time of the Atlanta Games in 1996, they may not find the exclusive rights to the Olympics so easy to secure. For now, they can celebrate what amounted to a blitz of the opposition. Early on, the anchorman Desmond Lynam started referring, not to 'BBC 1' or 'BBC 2' but simply to 'the other channel'. 'Back on the other channel within a few seconds,' he would say. For a fortnight, ITV and Channel 4 didn't exist. For a fortnight, there was nothing else on.