Athletics: Britain enter bronze age with Williams, Lyne and Devonish

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The Independent Online

Three reasons for British athletics to be a little more cheerful ­ all of a bronze hue ­ turned up at the 19th European Championships here last night. Goodness knows, they were sorely needed.

Within the space of quarter of an hour, two of Britain's brightest young things, 22-year-old Rhys Williams and 24-year-old Rebecca Lyne, produced inspired charges down the finishing straight to force themselves into medal positions in the 400 metres hurdles and 800m respectively. And the night ended with Marlon Devonish, the 30-year-old sprint relay gold medallist from the 2004 Olympics, bringing the UK Athletics medal count here to four with third place in the 200m.

There are still another six to come if the prediction of UK Athletics' performance director, Dave Collins, is to be proved correct. There is still no clear hope, either, of a Briton making it to the top of the podium. But Collins will have slept a little more easily last night having seen exactly the kind of performances which generate genuine hopes for the Beijing Olympics, and the London 2012 Games beyond.

It was bronze rather than gold for Williams and Lyne, it was Europeans rather than Worlds ­ but both are young enough and good enough to have realistic hopes of challenging when the biggest sporting show on earth arrives in Stratford.

A few more welcome shoots of hope had emerged earlier in the day for Britain as 23-year-old Mohammed Farah, second in the European rankings, qualified authoritatively for Sunday's final, and 20-year-old Michael Rimmer showed similar promise in winning his 800m first round heat.

Lyne made up around 10 metres over the final 50 to beat Tetyana Petluk, of Ukraine, to third place, having been balked when entering the final straight by Russia's Olga Kotlyarova, who won in 1min 57.38sec.

The young woman who runs for Hallamshire Harriers ­ the same club as that other noted 800m exponent, Sebastian Coe, represented ­ thus gave further evidence of the determined finishing which has earned her a breakthrough on the European circuit this year.

After finishing in 1:58.45, Lyne dedicated her medal to the last woman to win a European 800m, Lillian Board, who was dead of cancer within a year of winning that title at the Athens Championships of 1969, aged just 22.

"I read a book about Lillian's life a couple of years ago, when I was the same age as she was when she died," Lyne recalled. "I really connected with her and what she had achieved.

"I spent the winter on a exercise bike desperately trying to get fit from an Achilles tendon injury, and if somebody had told me then I would win a medal here I would have told them they were crazy."

Having been disappointed at missing selection for the Commonwealth Games in March, she started to get noticed three months later with victory in the Hengelo grand prix followed by second place at the Oslo Golden League meeting, and at the Gateshead grand prix on 11 June she became the third-fastest British woman of all time after Kelly Holmes and Kirsty Wade by recording 1min 58.20sec.

Williams, son of the former Wales and Lions winger J J Williams, appeared to have lost all hope of a medal before the 400m hurdles final was halfway through as the gap between himself and the Greek in the lane outside him, Periklis Iakovakis, widened with ominous swiftness. But the Greek ­ fastest in the field with a best of 47.82sec ­ was en route to a clear win in 48.46.

As he entered the final straight, the Welshman was no better than sixth, but he produced a sustained charge to finish in 49.12, wresting the bronze from France's Naman Keita by one-hundredth of a second. It was so close that any celebration had to wait upon the evidence of the scoreboard. "I knew the Greek was going off, so I tried to do my own race," Williams said. "But it was not a good race because I started too slow ­ I was so nervous. When I crossed the line I thought, 'Fourth again, just like at the Commonwealths'. But I was wrong ­ this is just amazing."

Third place for Devonish, who clocked 20.54sec in a race where Portugal's Francis Obikwelu completed a sprint double here in 20.01sec, was not quite such an amazing experience.

"I am happy to have achieved a medal," said Devonish, who was overtaken by home runner Johan Wissman in the last 50 metres. "But I must admit that after the bronze in Munich four years ago I was thinking about the silver here. Now I want to get another medal in the relay." He is not the only one who will be hoping for a further medal.