Athletics: Idowu can add gloss to gloomy British picture

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The Independent Online

It might feel otherwise for those who have followed Britain's athletics fortunes over the last 20 years or so, but these European Championships are not actually the worst in terms of medals gained.

With Thursday's bronze rush raising Britain's total here to four, the team has done enough to surpass the lowest yield since British athletes first competed at these championships in 1938. The 1966 Europeans in Budapest produced only two British medals - albeit both gold, thanks to Jim Hogan in the marathon and Lynn Davies, present here as president of UK Athletics, in the long jump.

So the next targets, in statistical terms, are the totals of seven medals earned in 1978, eight in 1938 and nine in 1982.

But the statistics only tell the story in one way. Essentially Britain is doomed to a level of performance far below that of the last couple of decades, during which time the least number of titles won has been six.

Unless something unexpected happens over the weekend - perhaps to Mohammed Farah in tomorrow's 5,000 metres - this will be the first European Championships where no Briton has won gold.

Steve Ovett collected Britain's sole gold in 1978 at 1500m and David Jenkins contributed the only victory of the 1971 championships in the 400m.

Thursday night's defiant flourish from Rhys Williams in the 400m hurdles, Rebecca Lyne in the 800m and Marlon Devonish in the 200m was hugely welcome to a team whose modest prospects were lessened still further on the eve of competition when two Commonwealth champions, Christine Ohuruogu and Dean Macey, were denied the opportunity to compete by, respectively, a provisional doping suspension and a cruelly timed injury. The net effect of Thursday's efforts, however, was merely to move Britain from 14th to 13th in the medals table.

Since taking over as UK Athletics' performance director shortly before the dispiriting performance at last year's World Championships in Helsinki, Dave Collins has made the point repeatedly that the bottom line for every activity is the number of Britons making finals and earning podium finishes in either the World Championships or the Olympics. On the evidence of these championships so far there are some good young prospects to provide hope for the next six, crucial years before London hosts the 2012 Olympics.

But there currently is no athlete - save perhaps Paula Radcliffe, absent from competition through pregnancy - whom one could see winning a world title when the global championships take place in Osaka next year. The same holds true for the Beijing Olympics the following year.

Collins, whose prediction of 10 medals from these championships now looks very unlikely to prove correct, has had a bumpy ride. The timing of the Ohuruogu decision could hardly have been more awkward, but it was not of his making.

The decision to offer Linford Christie a role as a mentor for UK athletes was a bold but controversial one, given the former Olympic 100m champion's suspension for a positive nandrolone test in 1999. UK Athletics could argue, justly, that it had cleared Christie before the international authorities overturned its judgment. But the nature of the appointment - in a week when doping was high on the agenda following Justin Gatlin's positive test - laid the authorities open to criticism.

Collins' uncertain stance on the merits of sending Britain's youth sprint champion Harry Aikines-Aryeetey to train with Gatlin's group under the direction of coach Trevor Graham - who is the subject of an investigation into doping - also did little for his image.

And Collins' system employed here - of issuing public marks and comments on all British athletes - was well-meaning but ill-judged. It has backfired embarrassingly.

Brian Clough liked to say that goals change games - medals change perceptions. Phillips Idowu has the opportunity today to add to Britain's medal total in the triple jump, for which he qualified with an ease he has not always managed at major championships.

Andy Turner also has a decent medal chance in today's high hurdles, while tomorrow should see profit for Farah in the 5,000m and, perhaps, a late flurry of medals in the relay events.

That would at least offer a final flourish to an event which has been a grim affair on and off the track. As the song has it, "Things Can Only Get Better". Unless, of course, they don't.

The signs were not good at the start of yesterday's rainswept evening session when the long jumper Jade Johnson did not even get to the qualifying competition in one piece, slipping in the warm-up and being carried off by officials. With no representatives in any of last night's six finals, Britain reverted to 15th place in the medals table.

Meanwhile, reports last night claimed Gatlin could escape a lifetime ban if he testifies against Graham.

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