European Athletics Championships: Richardson caps golden games

European Athletics Championships: Britain's 4x400 metres relay team follow winning ways of Backley and Edwards
MARK RICHARDSON anchored the 4x400 metres relay team to victory here last night to put the final touch to what was Britain's finest ever showing in a European Championship.

After earlier victories by Steve Backley in the javelin and Jonathan Edwards in the triple jump, Britain finished top of the medals list, something they have only done once previously, at the 1950 Championships in Brussels. On that occasion, Britain won eight titles - here they won nine, equalling their record total in Split eight years ago.

There were unexpected rewards too last night for Mick Hill, who took silver behind his friend and training partner in the javelin, and for the women's 4x400m team, who took bronze behind Germany and Russia.

The scene in the stadium at 10 to eight local time said everything about the championships Britain has enjoyed. Backley and Hill were just disappearing into the television interviews after perhaps the most lumbering lap of honour ever witnessed.

And the 4x400m team, trailing Union Jacks, were still on their own celebratory tour when Edwards emerged on to the track with a double clenching of fists after seeing his last possible challenger fail to record a jump.

Once again, three British golds had arrived within the space of an hour. It was one of those nights. Just like Saturday night. Just like Friday night.

Edwards, a devout Christian, had assured his fellow worshippers at Holy Trinity Church in Jesmond that they would be able to get to the church on time for the evening service having had their worries about the result put at rest.

The vicar relayed a message from Edwards to the congregation at yesterday's morning service. "If you are worried about missing the triple jump," he told them, "I have it on good authority that Jonathan is going to jump a big one in round one."

Jonathan did so and with all the opposition beaten, put in a last jump of 17.99m that was just two centimetres short of his mark which leads this year's world rankings. "It's almost like a dream," Edwards said. "You would not have written a night like this. It has definitely put Britain on top of the pile in terms of sport in Great Britain."

Iwan Thomas, who leaves here with two golds after his individual 400m win on Friday night, was equally taken with the occasion. "Everywhere you looked in the stadium you saw a British flag," he said. "It's an experience I'll never forget." Thomas had warned that the relay could not be considered a foregone conclusion, even though it had been won with ease two months earlier when Britain's men retained the European Cup in St Petersburg.

Two things had altered in the meantime. Roger Black, team captain on that occasion, had retired, and was now watching from the BBC TV commentary box on the rim of the stand. And the Poles, who have had an impressive championships which left them in fourth place overall behind Britain, Germany and Russia, had produced an outstanding relay performance in the Goodwill Games behind the United States.

"They are determined little buggers," Thomas had said. "We can't take anything for granted."

He was proved right. After opening legs from Mark Hylton and Jamie Baulch had sent him off on the third leg neck and neck with his Polish opponent, Piotr Haczek, the powerful 24-year-old, who had schoolboy rugby union trials for England, needed to draw on all his strength to hand over a two- metres lead to Mark Richardson.

The Windsor athlete, who had been shattered by his failure to do better than bronze in the individual, was facing the man who beat him to silver, Robert Mackowiak, who shadowed him all the way. Richardson had to draw on all his reserves to hold the Pole off, crossing the line a metre clear in a time of 2min 58.68sec.

Britain's women earned their second medal of the championships with a bronze in the 4x400m relay after an inspired third leg of 50.4sec from Katharine Merry launched Allison Curbishley on to the final leg with a five-metre gap on the fourth-placed Romanian which she stretched to 10 metres as she finished in 3min 25.56sec behind Germany and Russia.

Earlier, Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan, wearing a black ribbon to mark yesterday's memorial service for the Omagh bomb victims, completed the only individual double of the championships by adding the 5,000m title to the 10,000m gold she had won on Wednesday.

For O'Sullivan, winning one event at a championship no longer seems to be enough. Yesterday she pulverised a 5,000 metres field which included Romania's own feared kicker, Gabriela Czabo, by bursting into a leggy gallop around the final bend, just as she had on Wednesday. Result: two golds to match the pair she won at the World Cross-Country Championships in March.

First is best for Backley, results, page 18