Athletics: A party without a champion

Simon Turnbull looks at the athletes desperate for some British consolation today
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Instead of the hoped for coronation ceremony, British athletics turns back the clock to the dark days of 1976 at the Palace this afternoon. The boys in red, white and blue having fallen short of the gold standard in Athens, the post-World Championship party booked for Crystal Palace - the Spar Challenge meeting - could be more like a wake. Only 6,000 track and field die-hards turned up for the corresponding engagement 12 months ago and though Britain had no sparkling gold medal winner from the Atlanta Olympics to put on display at least the world champion status of Jonathan Edwards could provide a lingering glimmer of home pride. Not so this afternoon. Even the reflective golden glory has gone.

Not since 1976, when Mary Peters' reign as Olympic pentathlon queen came to an end and the British team returned from the Games in Montreal with only Brendan Foster's 10,000m bronze medal to show for their efforts, has Britain been without a champion track and field athlete at world level. Ian Stewart needs no reminding of that. He was one of the near-missers in Montreal. He led at the bell in the 5,000m final but finished seventh as Lasse Viren completed his second Olympic double. A week later, in front of a capacity 15,000 crowd at Meadowbank Stadium, Edinburgh, Stewart was one of five home runners who beat the Finn in a two mile race in the first British meeting after those gold-less Games. This afternoon he will be praying for a similar display of public support, and for some heartening domestic success.

As promotions manager of the British Athletic Federation, it is Stewart's job to promote a sport which has found itself without a golden boy - or girl - once again. "I don't think you can judge British athletics strictly on gold medals at the World Championships," he said. "You've got to look at our youngsters and the gold medals won at their level this summer. And you've got to look at the medals and the personal bests and the way the younger athletes performed at the World Championships. I think the team did very well. Judged on points for placing in the first eight in finals, we still finished fourth overall. For a country of Great Britain's size that's an excellent achievement. The fact that we didn't get any gold medals in Athens was disappointing but you can be a world-class athlete going well and then something happens that you can't control."

The sod's law injury scenario accounted for the golden shots of the absent Kelly Holmes and the below-par Jonathan Edwards and Iwan Thomas, yet the British medal tally of six (five silver and one bronze) still matched the collective deeds of Canada, France and Greece. More encouragingly, had continental championships been incorporated in the 10-day competition, Britain would have won six European golds: courtesy of Edwards, Backley, Mark Richardson, Colin Jackson and the two men's relay teams. That the golden return was precisely the same from the last European Championships, in Helsinki in 1994, puts the perceived Greek tragedy into perspective. It also offers hope, given a cleaner bill of health, of better things to come next summer in the European Championships in Budapest

The presence of a "GB Young Lions 2000" team in this afternoon's meeting, in opposition to a senior Great Britain line-up and an international select squad, confirms that prospecting for gold even further down the line is high on the British athletics agenda. Even without the pounds 2.6m lottery cash for which Malcolm Arnold, the BAF's director of performance, has been waiting to launch a basic national coaching and athletes' services fund (roughly half the booty that was paid out on Wednesday night at the Weltklasse meeting in Zurich), budding Brits have amassed a staggering 33 medals in Europe this summer at under-18, under-20 and under-23 level.

The best of the bunch will be on display at the Palace, notably Dwain Chambers, the Finsbury Park teenager who smashed the world junior record when scorching to the European junior 100m title in Ljubljana last month. Linford Christie is the only British sprinter who has ever run faster than the 10.06sec the 19-year-old clocked in Slovenia. Donovan Bailey, the world champion and world record holder alongside whom Chambers lines up this afternoon, did not run quicker than 10.36 until he turned 26. His best time as a teenager was 11.37.

Which brings us back to 1976 and all that. At another of the post-Olympic meetings, the Gateshead Games, a 19-year-old Briton had the audacity to pull clear of John Walker in the mile. The Newcastle Journal reported that, with 50 yards remaining, the newly crowned 1500m champion "still trailed well behind Stephen Coe". Young S Coe of Hallamshire Harriers faded to third place behind the fast-finishing Walker but went on to make a bit of a name for himself - a more accurately recorded one, and one that was inscribed in gold.