Athletics: Better funding can turn silver into gold

WORLD ATHLETICS CHAMPIONSHIPS: British competitors once again performed creditably at the highest level but they still failed to bring home the top prizes. As Mike Rowbottom reports from Athens, a continuing lack of investment remains the underlying problem
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The Independent Online
For Britain, at the sixth World Championships which ended here on Sunday, golden expectations became silver consolations.

If winning is a habit, then so, evidently, is finishing second. Since Jonathan Edwards won the world triple jump title in 1995, Britain has claimed 20 silver medals in global championships and no gold.

The medals table - which recognises first place as the deciding criterion - tells its own story. Britain finished 26th, below Sweden, Mexico and New Zealand.

These were the first World Championships not to produce a world record - despite the fact that, for the first time, there was a bonus on offer of $100,000 (pounds 63,000). Even the man most expected to raise the standard in his event, Wilson Kipketer, failed to pocket any extra cash in winning the 800 metres.

Neither Kipketer nor any of the middle-distance runners were helped by a hard Mondo track which favoured the sprinters. After the bold, or rather, Boldon claims made beforehand about the inevitability of there being a new 100 metres record, Maurice Greene's victory in 9.86 sec, 0.02 sec outside the existing record, was faintly anticlimactic.

Boldon's winning time in the 200m - 20.04 sec - was the slowest at these championships since 1987. It was a statistic which this assiduous student of his event, the self-styled "Nerd of the Sprints", was the first to point out.

There was more disappointment in the sprint relay - but it was confined to the United States team, whose brash ambitions were reduced to nothing as they failed to convey the baton through one exchange of their first round.

Hours earlier, Greene had forecast that the Americans would "whup the Canadians' asses" in the final, and take the world record of 37.40 down to 36sec.

The Greeks have a word for it: hubris.

Waiting to run the last leg, the individual gold medallist became a bemused bystander as a mistake by Tim Montgomery halted the US progress in its tracks.

The US dismay was in complete contrast to the joy exhibited by Britain's sprint relay quartet, who ultimately profited from the favourites' early exit by taking the bronze.

It was, in one sense, Britain's highest point of the championships - a moment when things went unexpectedly well for them rather than unexpectedly badly.

Their five silver medal performances involved varying degrees of hope and expectation.

Denise Lewis's ability to combine commitment and vivacity in the heptathlon did much to change the tone of the British involvement here following the traumatic early departure of the injured Kelly Holmes.

Lewis had beaten her main rival, Sabine Braun, at the previous summer's Olympics but this year the German led the world standings, and she simply performed to the top of her ability.

Lewis faltered on the opening events of each day, which may not have been coincidence. She was one of many athletes who complained of the early morning starts here, which sometimes necessitated competitors getting up at four in the morning.

In fairness to the organisers of what was a well-run event, something which will do no harm when the Athens campaign for the 2004 Olympics comes to a head next month, they had little option but to straddle each day's programme over the blazingly hot noon period.

Steve Backley, desperate to secure his first global title in the javelin, was desperately unfortunate to encounter a relatively unknown South African, Marius Corbett, who secured the gold when he improved his personal best by five metres - an extraordinary performance.

Colin Jackson, who had not won a major 110m hurdles race all season, gained a medal no one had expected of him before the championships began, although there was no arguing with the fact that Allen Johnson, whose winning time was just 0.02 sec outside Jackson's world record, remains the leader in the event.

Britain's 400m relay runners also had to give best to a US team which had enough strength in depth to retain its title despite missing the individual champion, Michael Johnson, and being unable to call upon the world record holder, Butch Reynolds, who was not fit.

Edwards, so sanguine about winning the silver medal at the Olympics, was close to tears after doing the same here. Despite having missed five weeks of training immediately before his competition because of a heel injury, he was fiercely critical of his performance. "Real champions come through despite the odds, and I didn't," he said.

By that yardstick, Britain does not have any real champions. It does not even have many old champions - in the course of the week's activities, three Olympic gold medallists of recent times, Linford Christie, Sally Gunnell and Tessa Sanderson, announced their retirements within the space of three days.

Where are Britain's champions of tomorrow, then? There was genuine hope for the future in the performances of, among others, Lewis, Allison Curbishley and the sprint relay team, which had a brief contribution from the world junior record holder, Dwain Chambers.

But if the potential evident here is to be fully realised, something important must be forthcoming: money.

Malcolm Arnold, Britain's chief coach, says he will consider resigning if the cash he has been promised through the National Lottery to set up a national coaching and athletes' services scheme has not come through by 1 October.

Arnold bid for pounds 4.3m plus money for athletes' subsistence. He was offered pounds 2.6m for the scheme, and has yet to receive any of it.

"The British athletics team has been underfunded for seven years," he said. "That is the reason my predecessor resigned, and the situation has not improved.

"The fault lies in bureaucratic process. For the 2000 Olympics we are already having to play catch-up." He contrasted the annual budget available to athletes from other nations here - Germany has pounds 4m purely for coaching, Spain pounds 8m and Italy pounds 10m.

"Britain gets a darn sight more than it deserves from its athletes," Arnold said. "It puts little in and gets a darn sight more out."

Malcolm Brown, Britain's team doctor, is seeking pounds 500,000 to set up a screening and physiotherapy scheme which will help prevent the niggling strains and injuries which have undermined the team's challenge in Athens.

But he denied suggestions that the British team was unusually injury- prone. "We normally expect around 25 per cent of our athletes to experience some kind of problem at major championships," he said. "It's just that the majority have affected our high-profile athletes."

To some extent, the British failure to do better here came down to simple bad luck. Unfortunately, the National Lottery Fund does not provide recourses in that area.

GREAT BRITAIN'S OLYMPIC AND WORLD ROLL OF HONOUR 1983-97

1983 World Championships (Helsinki)

Gold: (2) Steve Cram (1500m), Daley Thompson (decathlon).

Silver: (2) Fatima Whitbread (javelin), women's 4x100m relay.

Bronze: (3) Colin Reitz (3,000m steeplechase), Kathy Cook (200m), men's 4x100m relay.

1984 Olympic Games (Los Angeles)

Gold: (3) Sebastian Coe (1,500m), Thompson (decathlon), Tessa Sanderson (javelin).

Silver: (6) Coe (800m), Steve Cram (1,500m), Michael McLeod (10,000m), David Ottley (javelin), Wendy Sly (3,000m), Shirley Strong (100m hurdles).

Bronze: (6) Charlie Spedding (marathon), Keith Connor (triple jump), Kathryn Cook (400m), women's 4x100m relay, Susan Hearnshaw (long jump), Whitbread (javelin).

1987 World Championships (Rome)

Gold: (1) Whitbread (javelin).

Silver: (3) Peter Elliott (800m), Jon Ridgeon 110m hurdles, men's 4x100m relay.

Bronze: (4) Jack Buckner (5,000m), Linford Christie (100m), Colin Jackson (110m hurdles), John Regis (200m).

1988 Olympics (Seoul)

Gold: none.

Silver: (6) Christie (100m), Elliott (1,500m), Jackson (110m hurdles), men's 4x100m relay, Liz McColgan (10,000m), Whitbread (javelin).

Bronze: (2) Mark Rowland (3,000m steeplechase), Yvonne Murray (3,000m).

1991 World Championships (Tokyo)

Gold: (2) Liz McColgan (10,000m), men's 4x400m relay.

Silver: (2) Roger Black (400m), Sally Gunnell (400m hurdles).

Bronze: (3) Kriss Akabusi 400m hurdles, Tony Jarrett 110m hurdles, men's 4x100m relay.

1992 Olympics (Barcelona)

Gold: (2) Christie (100m), Gunnell (400m hurdles).

Silver: none.

Bronze: (3) Akabusi (400m hurdles), Steve Backley (javelin), women's 4x400m.

1993 World Championships

(Stuttgart)

Gold: (3) Christie (100m), Jackson (110m hurdles), Gunnell (400m hurdles).

Silver: (3) Tony Jarrett (110m hurdles), Regis (200m), men's 4x100m relay.

Bronze: (4) Jonathan Edwards (triple jump), Steve Smith (high jump), Mick Hill (javelin), women's 4x100m relay.

1995 World Championships

(Gothenburg)

Gold: (1) Edwards (triple jump).

Silver: (3) Backley (javelin), Jarrett (110m hurdles), Kelly Holmes (1,500m).

Bronze: (1) Holmes (800m).

1996 Olympics

(Atlanta)

Gold: none.

Silver: (4) Roger Black (400m), men's 4x400 relay, Jonathan Edwards (triple jump), Backley (javelin).

Bronze: (2) Steve Smith (high jump), Denise Lewis (heptathlon).

1997 World Championships

(Athens)

Gold: none.

Silver: (5) Denise Lewis (heptathlon), Jackson (110m hurdles), Backley (javelin), Edwards (triple jump), men's 4x400m relay.

Bronze: (1) men's 4x100m relay.

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