Athletics: Collins defends sending sprinter to Gatlin's coach

On the top floor of the Gothia Towers Hotel, with its pan-oramic views of Sweden's second city, the guests are drinking their afternoon coffees in the Heaven 23 Bar. All of them, that is, except two athletes in Great Britain tracksuits leaning on the bar drinking bottles of Mariestads, the favoured tipple in these parts. It is 3.15pm.

Whether Dave Collins clocks the pair as he enters the room is difficult to tell. If he does, their next report sheets may well have minus marks on them and "See me" comments.

The performance director of UK Athletics is in the Heaven 23 Bar to give his thoughts on a week in which British athletics has plummeted to hellishly low depths. "I'm the man in charge, so I'm where the buck would stop," Collins says of presiding over the worst performance by a British team in the history of the European Championships. "Coming here and having our worst medal haul doesn't please anybody. But if that's part of the process that's taking us in the right direction as quickly as we can do it, then it's a fair price to pay."

That direction, already steeply downward after two decades of European prominence, could well, Collins concedes, continue through the Beijing Olympics two years hence, without a British gold on the track or in the field.

"Would it worry me to go to Beijing and not get a gold medal?" he ponders. "I wouldn't necessarily be throwing myself out of the window if that happened.

"If we went to Beijing with a really good gold medal hope and we didn't complete then I'd be worried. What would faze me would be that we've put in the changes but we're not seeing people step up to the plate, that we're not seeing performances starting to rise."

On his own performance 18 months into his job, Collins reflects: "If you're saying on how this programme is doing, it's 6.5 out of 10. I can honestly say that I don't think I can work much harder. It's a frustration that we're not making progress at a faster rate, but when I came into this job there were lots of things that needed to be addressed - coach education, even silly things like the distribution of kit."

It is a sign of progress, then, that the vests and shorts have managed to reach the athletes here. It is rather less encouraging that Collins cannot seem to appreciate the error of his decision to grant the teenage sprinter Harry Aikines-Aryeetey permission to train with Justin Gatlin and his coach, Trevor Graham, in North Carolina in April. It might have been three months before Gatlin tested positive for excessive testosterone, but the doping bans received by 10 of Graham's athletes were already public, as was testimony from C J Hunter and Tim Montgomery implicating Graham in the investi-gation into the Balco drugs case.

"We've got to compete against these people and we have to learn how can we beat them, and that means you look at what else they do," Collins says. "I've competed against people who've been on drugs [as a judo player]. I beat them sometimes. Is there something else we can learn from what they do, bar the pharmaceuticals? Of course we can. You look widely around the world at people who have been effective and you see if you can get them involved. We have got to look at international best practice.

"I was aware of some aspects of the record [Graham's record]. But for me, you would say, 'There is a successful coach. Can we learn from that situation?' Because they are doing things that are effective over and above pharmaceuticals. Being successful as an athlete is not just about pharmaceuticals, is it?"

It is a question that the "mentor coach" whom Collins chose to introduce at a press conference down the road at the Hard Rock Café on Wednesday might be qualified to answer. Back in 1999, Linford Christie registered 100 times above the legal limit for nandrolone.

In a week which started with Christine Ohuruogu being suspended for missing three drugs tests, it is enough to make you turn to drink - and that's not just the athletes.

SUNDAY BEST

Men's Marathon

Olympic champion Stefano Baldini of Italy is favourite, Dan Robinson looks to build on his Commonwealth bronze.

Men's 800m

Michael Rimmer (20) was fastest in the heats and Sam Ellis (24) assured in the semis. Both could figure in top five.

Women's Long Jump

Carolina Kluft faces in-form Russian opponents but, with a home crowd, don't rule out the untouchable heptathlete.

Men's 5,000m

Mo Farah looks more like the real international-class deal with every race - a medal does not look beyond him.

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