Athletics: Britain foiled on treble trail

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S ATTEMPT to retain the European Cup, begun in traumatic circumstances, ended in failure here yesterday. Despite a general wish to do well in this competition in memory of Ross Baillie, the 21-year- old Scottish hurdler whose sudden death was announced on Friday, the men's team finished outside the first two places for the first time since 1987.

The women were saved from a relegation place through the intervention of their captain, Paula Radcliffe, who provided Britain's only individual win of the second day in the 5,000 metres.

It was a far cry from the excitement this competition generated in the previous two years, when inspired performances had brought Britain the men's trophy against the odds. This time they were a distance third behind a German team which won by the biggest margin in the event's history - 23.5 points.

"It was very disappointing," said Dave Moorcroft, the chief executive of UK Athletics. "We were not just beaten, we were hammered. If we had beaten the Germans by that margin... "

His voice trailed away - much like the mens' performance. Despite wins on Saturday by Dwain Chambers in the 100m and Mark Richardson in the 400m, they had finished overnight in third place, 10 points behind the German leaders. Max Jones, Britain's team manager, admitted afterwards that there had been little realistic hope within the camp of overtaking the Germans.

The task of completing a hat-trick was always likely to be a formidable one, however, given the number of withdrawals through injury - particularly in the field events, where the absence of Steve Backley (javelin), Nick Buckfield (pole vault), Darren Morgan (long jump), Mark Procter (shot) and Bob Weir (discus) exposed Britain's lack of depth.

"There were some good performances, but some people didn't reach the level we would have expected them to," Moorcroft added.

It was certainly not a good day for Julian Golding, who finished third in the 200m despite gaining a place following the disqualification of the French competitor. In the women's 200m Katharine Merry had an even worse time, finishing last and being forced to pull out of the 400m relay with a hamstring problem.

Jonathan Edwards, who launched his career to a spectacular new level of achievement at the European Cup in Lille four years ago, will carry away far less happy memories from Paris. "I jumped terribly," Edwards said after finishing second to the Russian, Dennis Kapustin, who won with a jump of 17.40m, almost a metre less than the Briton's 1995 world record. "I jumped 17.43 at Nuremburg last week in my first competition of the season and I hardly got out of first gear," said Edwards, who had trouble with his run-up and only managed 17.24m. "I didn't expect to lose here, and certainly not to 17.40. I just put it down to having a bad day."

Someone pointed out that he had improved with each of his jumps. That raised a smile. "It wasn't difficult was it? Not when you start at 16.89."

Tony Jarrett, running the 110m hurdles following Colin Jackson's withdrawal, pushed the German favourite, Falk Balzer, close before taking second place in a time of 13.31sec. Jarrett said afterwards that he would be dedicating all his races this season to Baillie, and he expected that Jackson - who was Baillie's flatmate and training partner - would do the same.

The 400m relay team, taken from third to first place thanks to Solomon Wariso's explosive third leg, concluded the overall event with their customary victory. A year ago, Richardson had rounded off the last leg in St Petersburg by using the baton as an imaginary cigar; this time the mood - for many reasons - was anything but celebratory, although the Windsor athlete did kiss the British logo on his vest.

There was satisfaction, too, for Keri Maddox, the 26-year-old former European junior high hurdles champion. She finished strongly in the 100m hurdles, knocking 0.14sec off her personal best with a time of 12.97sec, just 0.01sec slower than the French winner, Patricia Gerard. Maddox has spent a number of years concentrating on the 400m hurdles, but now she appears to have the best of both worlds. The strength she has gained in endurance training paid off for her yesterday.

But Radcliffe's was the outstanding British performance of the day. She broke the rest of the field with a mid-race surge and ran on strongly for a winning time of 14min 48.79sec, the fasted in the world this year. That lifted the women into sixth place and confirmed the relegation of Poland and the Czech Republic - although, had Britain failed to escape, they would have avoided the drop because next year's competition will be hosted by Gateshead. The women's captain, who like the rest of the team sported a black ribbon in Baillie's memory, also carried a red ribbon on her shirt - underlining her willingness to be blood-tested at any time.

The gesture was thought of by the French 5,000m runner Blandine Bitzner, who wrote in the French press this week of the need to introduce more stringent measures to combat doping abuse in distance running. Bitzner, also wearing a red ribbon, accompanied Radcliffe on a lap of honour.

Afterwards Radcliffe referred to what she described as "a number of dodgy performances" which had taken place in women's distance running in the course of the last year. Whether that message will be heeded by the authorities remains to be seen.