Athletics: Britain slip to third: Christie's inspired World Cup display fails to lift a sport still trapped in the doldrums

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BRITAIN'S defiant opening day performance in the World Cup, in which Sally Gunnell and Linford Christie had continued to wave a flag brought to half- mast by the drugs scandals, was eroded, but not disastrously, at the stadium here, which was typically breezy yesterday.

Christie ran another inspiring race, this time taking the anchor leg of the 4 x 100 metres relay to give Britain victory over Africa in a time of 38.46sec, forcing the European Championship-winning French, here representing Europe, into fifth place. But the British men still dropped a place overall to start today's difficult programme equal-third behind the Africans and the Americas.

The relay victory was the only one of the day for Britain's men, and for a moment early in the race, disaster again looked to be on the cards. Darren Braithwaite, who had been involved in the fumbled exchange that led to Britain's early elimination from the European Championship relay in Helsinki, here seemed hesitant as he passed the baton to Tony Jarrett. No damage, though, and by the time Christie took over from John Regis for the last leg he had an advantage no world champion need be given. He cruised across the line to cap a long and successful season.

The British women, still troubled by the doping controversy, dropped from third to fifth. If all today's events go to form, they still get third place, which in the circumstances would be creditable.

Scepticism over the World Cup's value these days may be justified in the long-term, but the assembly of exceptional athletes at the Palace this weekend has rarely been bettered. A pity then that all of it has been taking place under clouds meteorological and metaphoric.

Early September in London was always likely to bring damaging winds and downpours, but Sally Gunnell shines on. The Diane Modahl affair has hit her harder than most. After all, she more than anyone has to defend the credibility of British women's athletics. Two wins on Friday spoke of her undiminished determination and if, as is becoming more likely, the case against Modahl is unproven, Gunnell's stout defence of the sport will not be forgotten. If the case against Modahl is upheld, however, the achievement of the women in this competition will be annulled.

Only the top Americans and a few mercenaries such as the world pole vault record holder, Sergei Bubka, have failed to turn up. They say it is an event that does not pay enough but it defies logic to believe that the world 1500 metres record-holder, Noureddine Morceli, who usually demands appearance fees of not less than pounds 25,000, came on the promise of a fares- paid long weekend in Croydon.

Another dank, often rainswept afternoon was embellished by Morceli, the Algerian who started out looking as if the weather had got the better of him. But Morceli tends to be a pessimist. Last weekend he had moaned about feeling terrible before the Grand Prix final, which he still won comfortably. Yesterday he allowed Mohamed Suleiman, representing Asia, to take the pace for the first 700 metres before brushing past his shoulder at the bell and pulling out a 40-metre lead over Rudiger Stenzel, of Germany, for what for him was a modest winning time of 3min 34.70sec. Gary Lough did well to cling on to fifth. However, this was a day when the British men needed to pull off unexpected high places if that situation was to be retained.

Julian Golley did his best to ensure that Britain went into the last day in a strong position when unexpectedly finishing second to Yoelvis Quesada of the Americas team in the triple jump with a personal best distance of 17.06m. That compensated for a disappointing pole vault performance by the Welshman Neil Winter, who felt the pain of irony when he failed three times at 5.20m, leaving the South African Okkert Brits and Jean Galfione, of France, to continue with a long, hard, competition. Brits had no-heighted in Victoria to leave Winter with his unexpected victory. This time he reached 5.90m to win.

Du'aine Ladejo's season, which has included a silver medal in the Commonwealth Games and gold in the European Championship, faded into a tired second in the 400m. The race for first place between Antonio Pettigrew, of the United States, and Ladejo ended with Pettigrew comfortably ahead, but the surprise was that the favourite, the African Samson Kitur, slumbered in sixth.

(Photograph omitted)