ATHLETICS; Black's Britain clinch victory

THE WINNERS' rostrum was crowded with jubilant Britons. Team captain Roger Black, clutching the European Cup which the men had retained for the first time in their history, stood alongside the youngsters who represent Britain's rising generation - Ben Challenger, Ben Whitby, Nathan Morgan. And they all began to sing: "It's coming home, it's coming home..."

If those in charge of British athletics could have dreamed a dream, the events of yesterday - coming after eight months of anxiety and financial turmoil - would probably have been it.

In the city where the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, this felt like a British revolution.

With eight points awarded for victory down to one point for eighth place, this competition always involves fluctuating fortunes and sweaty arithmetic. Yesterday was no different as the lead changed hands eight times before resting with Britain.

Going into the last event of the day, the 4 x 400 metres relay, Britain's quartet of Black, Jamie Baulch, Iwan Thomas and Mark Richardson, had two aims - to win, and to be two places ahead of the Germans, who held a one and a half-point lead.

By the time Richardson set off on the final leg, 25 metres clear, the Germans were labouring in fifth - which was where they finished - and the Union Jacks in the main stand were already madly waving.

Before crossing the line, Richardson raised the baton to his lips as if sounding a victory salute. Afterwards, however, he explained that the mime had had a different meaning. "I was smoking a cigar," he said.

He and his colleagues could afford some sheer enjoyment after earning a success that few had forecast.

With Linford Christie, who had led Britain to victory in Munich the previous year, retired, and with three established performers - Steve Smith, Steve Backley and Nick Buckfield - dropping out late with injuries, the statistical predictions pointed to third place.

That would have been a double disappointment, as only the top two teams here qualified for the four-yearly World Cup in Johannesburg in September. But the predictions were proved pessimistic.

"We came into this competition knowing it was going to be a lot harder than last year because of all those we were missing," Black said. "We knew we would have to scrap for every point, and we did.

"The key was that all those who should have won did, and those who should have been fifth, sixth and seventh came second, third and fourth.

The women's team, for whom the newly installed captain, Paula Radcliffe, won the 5,000 metres on Saturday and came second in yesterday's 1500m, could also feel satisfied after finishing fifth, well clear of the relegation places.

Those contributing a full eight points to the men's cause yesterday, apart from the 4 x 400 metres relay team, were Colin Jackson, who maintained his rejuvenated form at 31 by winning the 110m hurdles in 13.17 sec, Doug Walker, who lowered his 200m personal best to 20.42 sec, and Jonathan Edwards, who won the triple jump with 17.29 metres.

Saturday's victories came from Richardson, who won as he pleased in the 400 metres, and the sprint relay team anchored by Julian Golding.

Walker, whose selection ahead of Golding had caused much deliberation, exemplified the spirit of those competing here. He had been up until 3 am with a stomach disorder and was violently sick after his race.

Saturday's unexpected achievers were 20-year-old Challenger, who equalled his personal best of 2.28m to finish second in the high jump, Anthony Whiteman, third in the 3,000 metres, and 19-year-old Nathan Morgan, who endured official blundering before earning third place in the long jump with an opening leap of 7.85m which was belatedly credited to him.

Yesterday the bonuses came from 21-year-old Whitby, who made up two places on form to take sixth position in the steeplechase, Mick Hill, who produced his best javelin throw of the year to take fourth place, and most dramatically Andy Hart, who moved from last to third in the final stages of the 800 metres. Asked afterwards if he felt elated, he replied: "Elated? Knackered is the word that comes to mind..."

Proud was the word that came to mind at the end of the day for David Moorcroft, chief executive of UK Athletics 98 and the man who has shouldered the main burden of recovering the fortunes of the domestic sport since the British Athletic Federation went bankrupt. Moorcroft, so often a pensive figure recently, was entitled to wear the broadest of smiles, although he was barely able to make himself understood. "I am hoarse," he said, "but for all the right reasons. This is a fantastic lift for the sport after the year we have had. I have achieved some great things in my career, but today is comparable with any of them."

All that remained was for rituals to be maintained. Britain's performance director, Max Jones, found himself hoisted onto the shoulders of two team members and transported to the steeplechase water jump where he was deposited to loud applause from the surrounding team members. It was a fitting end to a day on which Britain had made another satisfyingly big splash in Europe.

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