After six days of striving in vain for a Midas touch, British athletics finally had a golden girl at the European Championships yesterday. Sadly for the Great Britain team and officials, Paula Radcliffe had only flown in from Monte Carlo to work in the BBC television commentary box. Like Radcliffe's career as the world champion and world record holder in the marathon, the British team in Sweden remains stuck at a pregnant pause.
With just one day of action remaining in the Ullevi Stadium, the best of Britain are still panning for gold. The prospect is looming of a first European championship without the most precious of track and field metals. Four years ago in Munich, Radcliffe won the first of seven golds with a tour de force in the 10,000m.
The British medal tally rose to two silvers and four bronzes yesterday, Nathan Douglas taking the runner-up position behind the 24-carat home-town favourite, Christian Olsson, in the triple jump and Andy Turner - one of four British athletes sitting on two missed drugs tests - snatching third place in the 110m hurdles. After Jo Pavey's spirited challenge in the 5,000m came to grief on the last lap, the long-time leader fading out of the medals to fourth place, the hope now is that Mo Farah, in the men's 5,000m - or the relay teams - can salvage a face-saving gold on the final day.
The new wave of Greg Rutherford, Rhys Williams and Becky Lyne, and now the 23-year-old Douglas and Turner, 25, may have provided a glimmer of hope for the future, but even four years ago minor medals were an after-thought for Britain at continental level. Second behind Russia in the medal table in Munich in 2002, and never out of the top three since 1982, Britain, with its class of 2006 marked daily by their headmaster-cum-performance director, have dropped into detention territory. They start the final day lying 17th in the championship table for 2006.
Only the defunct track and field superpowers of the USSR and East Germany stand above Britain on the all-time medal table but in Gothenburg, Britain have slipped below mighty Belgium, whose national anthem was aired twice at the start of yesterday's programme after two of their athletes - the bespectacled heptathlete-turned-high-jumper Tia Hellebaut and the sprinter Kim Gevaert - struck gold in the space of five minutes on Friday night.
Success for Gevaert in the 200m having followed victory in the 100m on Wednesday, the Belgians now boast three gold medals. For a nation with a population of eight million and an annual athletics budget of less than £750,000, that puts the lack of success here for Britain (with its population of 60 million and its £50m injection from Norwich Union) into further depressing perspective.
"It's not just Belgium," Wilfried Meert, the leading Belgian official, manager of Gevaert and Hellebaut, and director of the Ivo Van Damme Memorial Meeting, said. "Sweden is a country of more or less the same size."
When the action got under way yesterday, Olsson duly delivered gold number three for Sweden, raising the rafters at the track where he abandoned his duties as a 15-year-old selling programmes at the 1995 World Championships to sit in row 15 of the main stand and watch Jonathan Edwards triple jump to two world records. Yesterday, the wheel turned full circle, Olsson jumping 17.67m in the second round to win by a distance, with Edwards watching from the commentary box - with the rest of the retired or with-child British golden boys and girls.
At least Douglas had a silver lining for his pocket. A year ago the Oxford City athlete ranked third in the world ahead of the World Championships but failed to get through the qualifying round in Helsinki. This time he delivered when it mattered, with a 17.21m in the fourth round. "I'm not in the best of shape," he said. "I'm delighted to get second." Phillips Idowu was less than pleased to get fifth place with 17.02m, the Commonwealth champion of five months ago maintaining his reputation as a model of inconsistency.
As for Pavey, having stepped on to the major championship medal rostrum as a Commonwealth runner-up in Melbourne in March, she maintained her reputation as a fighter to the last, making a long strike for home with five and a half laps remaining but, try as she did, failing to drop the Spaniard Marta Dominguez, the Russian Lilya Shobukhova and the Ethiopian-born Turk Elvan Abeylegesse, who all swept past in the final 250m to claim the medals. Fourth in 15min 01.41sec, the Devon woman said: "I tried to win it but I just didn't have it. The legs fell off on that last lap."
Turner, though, had the staying power in the high hurdles final, the one-time Notts County youth-team footballer finishing strongly to snatch bronze by 0.05sec, clocking 13.52sec behind Stanislav Olijar of Latvia and the German Thomas Blaschek. It was different when he failed to make the second of the drugs tests he has now missed.
"I had a flat battery going to Crystal Palace and when I got there the tester had gone," he said. "I'm a training partner of Christine Ohuruogu. What's happened with her is completely unfortunate." It is indeed. After three missed tests, Ohuruogu, a big hope for gold in 2012, is facing the threat of a drugs ban. Forget all the British losses on the gold front in Europe, losing her would be the biggest blow of all.
The Euro Zone: Winners and losers in the British team
Men's long jump: A European junior champion in 2005, Greg Rutherford, 19, becomes a European senior silver medallist in 2006, finishing runner-up to Andrew How, a 21-year-old American-Italian who lists Carl Lewis amongst his advisors.
Men's 400m hurdles: Rhys Williams, a former European youth, junior and Under-23 champion, earns bronze with a storming finish and a desperate lunge at the line - rather like his father, JJ, for Wales and the Lions.
Women's 800m: Despite being bumped sideways as she prepares to launch her attack, Becky Lyne comes through the field for bronze: another middle-distance honour for the school, club and uni- versity attended by Sebastian Coe.
Men's 100m: With Mark Lewis-Francis fifth and the less than fully fit Dwain Chambers seventh, Britain fail to win a medal for the first time since 1982, though Joice Maduaka comes within a whisker of the first medal by a Briton since 1974 in the women's final.
Heptathlon: Kelly Sotherton, suffering from a minor back problem, produces another darts-standard javelin throw to miss out on a medal, as she did at the World Championships in Helsinki last year. The Olympic bronze medallist finishes seventh.
Men's 400m: Tim Benjamin, short of race fitness, finishes in sixth place. Britain fail to claim a medal in the one-lap event for the first time since 1982.