Atlanta's harsh realities

Time runs out for crestfallen Christie as Black displays the qualities to help Britain rebuild for the next Olympics; Norman Fox looks back at chaos and calamity that clouded the magic
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The Independent Online
Buy the T-shirts, swap the badges, take the kids to Centennial Park to have their pictures taken posing by the flowers marking the bomber's work. Cheer the Yanks and damn the rest. These were the Games of mammon, madness, Michael Johnson and strong evidence of Britain's sporting decline; a time to accept that the years of British children growing up with their playing fields sold off and computer games bought will leave a void - no replacements for Christie, Gunnell and Jackson when they rest on their records.

Significantly, all week Britain has been vying with countries like Kazakhstan in sorry mid-medals table, but from a broader view these were also the Games of Carl Lewis's sense of drama, of Kerri Strug's youthful bravery in the cruel sport of gymnastics and, more than anything, Michael Johnson's majesty. A Games of chaos and calamity yet not without drama; a Games of contradictions, especially for Britain.

Roger Black, as smooth in his running as he is in his demeanour, could not save British athletics from the reality of its situation - the fruitlessness of its search for new blood at elite level. Linford Christie will be badly but perhaps not altogether sadly missed. His rude, unsporting behaviour after being rightfully disqualified from the 100 metres final brought criticism from everyone but the British Athletic Federation who should have been strong enough to immediately tell the deposed Olympic champion that even if he decided not to quit, his team captaincy was at an end. Great athlete though he has always been, Christie here descended below his own standards of churlishness. His attempt to take a bow before Donovan Bailey could take his own was offensive in the extreme.

After Black's exceptional 400m run that brought silver behind Johnson, he should not only be made British captain but, more important, be given input into the building of Britain's next Olympic team. He was the British athletics performer of the Games.

Now that Christie's international career is, presumably, at an end, Sally Gunnell is unlikely to make a complete recovery from her injuries and Colin Jackson seems to be in decline, the sport as a crowd-pulling entertainment in Britain is best served by Jonathan Edwards who could hardly be criticised for performing his best triple jump of the season and still only winning the silver medal. Unfortunately, television companies are not going to renew contracts, and certainly not sign new ones, on the basis of Edwards being the main attraction. The school sports nature of the triple jump is no replacement for the High Noon drama of the 100 metres or the unfolding interest of the middle distances in which Britain has fallen from prominence.

To suggest that the British athletes underachieved would be wrong. The real question is whether those who did their best and failed are going to be succeeded by a generation that can revive the glorious days of Ovett, Coe, Cram, Daley Thompson and Allan Wells. In these Games, Edwards was the only British athlete seriously expected to win gold and came close, but there was always the feeling that his world record breaking form of last season was something he was unlikely to repeat in the demanding conditions of an Olympic final. In defeat he still excelled - you cannot ask for more.

Gunnell's sad recurrence of injury was no fault of hers and Jackson had been below form all season. So all in all it was not a question of under achieving but achieving all that could be expected on their days.

Realistically, in athletics Britain now has to face the fact that for years to come it will have to be satisfied with the sort of worthy performances that here saw Denise Lewis, in the heptathlon, and Steve Smith, in the high jump, become third best in the world. That will not be enough to have the crowds flock to Crystal Palace, Birmingham or Sheffield in the years after the 21st Olympiad.

Contradictions in Atlanta led to curious situations. Roger Black said that unlike Barcelona four years before it was "wonderful" to arrive at the Olympic Stadium in the morning and find it alive with virtually a full house. Even the decathletes, who get used to hearing their own sweat hit the track, had huge crowds to appreciate them. The notion that Americans love an event even if they haven't a clue what is going on has never been better proved. The reverse side of that was their almost frightening xenophobia.

The athletics events also confirmed that the top competitors run too often. Too many arrived here unfit after competing too often on the paid circuit, which made it all the more sad that someone as hitherto supremely fit and capable as Sonia O'Sullivan should have her hopes destroyed by a stomach bug. At least the Irish had the amazing swimmer Michelle Smith, the most surprising gold medals winner of these Games.

Of course there were many examples of grace in defeat and complete domination without boastfulness, of which Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent were examples. Regrettably, though, some people never change and find it hard to enter into what is left of the Olympic ideal. Christie was one, Andre Agassi another. Agassi's foul-mouthed behaviour on the tennis court simply added evidence for those who never wanted this most commercialised of sports brought into the Games anyway. That, though, is to state just one more contradiction. For these were the most commercialised Olympics of all time. And for a Games lacking in records, the final irony would be if they made a record profit.