Athletics: Britain dig in to find the silver lining: Africa retain men's World Cup while hosts' beleaguered women eventually finish fifth

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THE British men saved their best until last in the World Cup here yesterday with four victories in the final six events through John Regis, Tony Jarrett, Steve Backley and the 400 metres relay team.

It was a performance to please the crowd of 25,000 and reassure the domestic sport as it endures the current doping test controversies - but it did not prevent the holders from retaining their overall title. Out of Africa, it seems, always something familiar.

Britain's women, who aspired to third place, finished fifth. Yvonne Murray's assured victory in the 3,000m stands to be annulled with all their other achievements if Diane Modahl, who contributed crucially to their qualification, should fail to avert a retrospective four-year ban for a doping offence.

Britain's refusal to withdraw the women's team pending Modahl's possible appeal denied Russia's women - who finished one place behind them at the European Cup - the opportunity of stepping in. But the Russians contributed tellingly to an overall victory by the European team, with Irina Privalova - competing at 400m as a late replacement for the injured Marie Jose Perec - adding a further maximum score to her first place in the 100m and second place in the 200m.

Saturday's performances - notably victory in the sprint relay and a 400m second place by Du'aine Ladejo - kept Britain's men in with an overall chance, but the feeling within the camp overnight was that the Africans would have to falter in one or two events to give the 400m relay team something to run for.

As it turned out, the quartet of David McKenzie, Ladejo, James Baulch and Roger Black went into the final event needing to make up six points on the Africans. Second place saw Africa finish on 116 points, with Britain on 111.

The United States, which responded to this competition with something midway between apathy and disinterest, did not turn up for the 400m relay. The offical reason was this: Marco Morgan, their 400m hurdler, had a virus. By the time they found out he could not run, the replacement, Ron Clark, did not have time to warm up. One very senior International Amateur Athletic Federation official described it as 'a humiliation'.

For Regis and Jarrett, training partners in California and London, the World Cup offered a chance to bring seasons of relative disappointment to a successful conclusion, although both have their final race in Tokyo on Thursday.

Regis, awkwardly drawn in the inside line, arrived in the home straight ahead of the world champion in the outside lane, Frankie Fredericks. The Namibian - who beat Regis comprehensively to take the Commonwealth title last month - accelerated in customary fashion, knees rising like a man on a bicycle. But Regis, whose progress in contrast was like that of a runaway roller, maintained his form to cross the line first in 20.45sec. 'I've missed out on the major championships this year,' Regis said. 'So I'm obviously disappointed. When I raced against Frankie at the Commonwealths I was only 85 per cent fit, but the experience did me good because it gave me back momentum.'

Jarrett - a replacement in 110m hurdles after Colin Jackson's withdrawal - held off the American champion, Allen Johnson, to win in 13.23sec, which equalled his 1994 personal best. Despite winning European and Commonwealth silver medals, Jarrett still considers his season - and in particular, his times - to have been 'so so'. With a grin, he offered his thanks to

Jackson - 'for giving me the opportunity to win something'.

Backley's season - which was in jeopardy because of injury two months ago - has been like a wonderful dream as he has retained his European and Commonwealth javelin titles. A throw of 85.02m yesterday, his second best of the season, saw him finish ahead of Raymond Hecht of Germany, who has thrown 90m this year. Backley's one regret is that he has not yet been able to return to that kind of distance himself. If he can stay injury-free this winter, those days will surely come again.

Murray demonstrated her intent in the 3,000m by moving clear with just over three laps to go before winning in 8min 56.81sec. In the men's 5,000m, John Nuttall raised one of the biggest cheers of the day in outsprinting Martin Bremer of Germany for second place behind Brahim Lahlafi, the African winner in 13:27.96.

The IAAF reacted indignantly yesterday to the legal marker put down by Modahl's solicitor, who accused the governing body of prejudicing her forthcoming hearing by failing to release information about her initial test and failing to supply the remains of the sample used for the B test to her medical advisers. 'This is arm- twisting,' the IAAF spokesman, Christopher Winner, said. 'We will turn over these requests to our legal counsel.'

(Photograph omitted)