Athletics: Britain left exposed by absence of leading lights

World Athletics Championships: Performances struggle to match expectations as team weakened by withdrawals fight to bring home medals
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The Independent Online

The headline in yesterday's L'Equipe spoke of French pride in their performance at these World Championships - "Le compteur a quatre". Inside the sports paper, the French trainer Robert Poirier spoke of his satisfaction over the fact that the host nation had beaten their record at the event by gaining two silvers and two bronzes, pointing out that the objective before the championships got underway was three medals.

Should Britain end up matching France's performance at these championships, their achievement is unlikely to be celebrated in similar fashion, although four medals was the forecast given on the eve of the competition by the UK Athletics performance director, Max Jones.

Britain's performance here, at least up to last night's competition, has been coloured by a sense of disappointment. It was a perception that was already in place before the championships got underway, because of the absence through injury of at least four major championship achievers in Katharine Merry, the Olympic 400m bronze medallist, Ashia Hansen, the world indoor triple- jump champion, Dean Macey, who has won silver and bronze in World Championship decathlons, and Paula Radcliffe, who has run into illness and injury after a period when she couldn't run without winning.

With Radcliffe unable to get Britain off with a golden flourish in last Saturday's 10,000m - not that that would have been a formality given the quality of the race - an extra weight of expectancy descended on to the broad shoulders of the next potential winner, Dwain Chambers. And when he failed in the 100m, despite the fact that Darren Campbell got a bronze medal, there was a huge sense of anti-climax.

It is not fair on Chambers, who has to go away this winter and work out how to run to his full potential at next year's Olympics, but had he won the blue riband event of the 100m, the perception of Britain's overall performance in Paris would have been transformed.

Britain's performance since the World Championships began in 1983 has been relatively consistent, save for the peak of 1993, when 10 medals were won - including three golds from Linford Christie, Sally Gunnell and Colin Jackson - and the trough of Edmonton two years ago, when only two medals were secured - gold by Jonathan Edwards and bronze by Dean Macey.

British athletes won seven medals in 1983, eight in 1987, seven in 1991, five in 1995, six in 1997 and seven in 1999. Save for Edmonton, when they finished ninth in the medal points table, they have always been fourth or fifth.

However, the Paris performance looks in the final reckoning, British athletes will not be able to say that they are receiving insufficient support following the establishment of National Lottery funding before the previous Olympics.

"The system now is better than it's ever been," Edwards said earlier this week, when asked to reflect from retirement on Britain's uninspiring start to the championships. "Fifteen years ago, the medical and administrative support was nothing compared to what it is now. I couldn't ask for more. I don't think any British athlete could ask for more. I don't think it's a problem with the system.

"Athletics isn't grabbing hold of talent in the way it did 10 or 15 years ago. There are so many other sports that take young people's attention now. Both my sons are mad on football. Things go in cycles. We have been unfortunate with injuries. Paula could have started us off with a gold medal. And Dwain will know he's missed a great opportunity. It was there to be won."

There has been much discussion within UK Athletics about the possibility of exerting greater control over funded athletes by tying them into contracts directing their coaching and competition, but this has been strongly resisted by athletes.

Ultimately it is an individual sport, and the will to succeed must come from within individuals. Whether an increasingly sedentary lifestyle is beginning to produce less young competitors with that inner drive is something that will become clear over the next few years.

What is of immediate concern to Max Jones is the bid he will have to submit to UK Sport this October seeking Lottery funding for UK Athletics over the next four-year cycle. Britain's medal performance at these championships will colour judgements back home as the UK Athletics' bid is being assessed, although the final decision on funding will not be made until after next year's Olympic Games.

That is where British athletics has to be functioning at its peak efficiency. Jackson and Edwards will not be competing in Athens - but if Radcliffe, Hansen, Macey and Merry can get there fit and healthy, along with the bulk of the team here, the potential is still within this generation for Britain to match its healthy performance at the Sydney Olympics.

But there, as in any global championships, a glimmer of gold will have a disproportionatly large effect on how things play back home.