Athletics: Lewis-Francis is lone bright spot for Britain

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The Independent Online

The final flourish of a sprint relay victory, anchored by Mark Lewis-Francis, who had earlier taken second place in the individual 100m, could not disguise an unpalatable truth for Britain's men here yesterday. They are facing the prospect of relegation from the European Cup Super League for the first time since the event took its current form in 1985.

Relegation was not supposed to be an issue for Britain's men this weekend, even though no one seriously expected them to win. But after a series of lukewarm-to-freezing performances in temperatures rising to 35 degrees, there emerged a real possibility that the men may yet be swapping places with the women, whose attempt to regain Super League status got off to a good start in Portugal yesterday.

"Nightmare. Absolute, unadulterated nightmare," was the unofficial response of one member of team management, who could not see any way in which the gap could be bridged during the final day. As Performance Director for UK Athletics, Dave Collins had to put a more diplomatic slant on matters.

"There have been disappointing performances and we've got disappointed athletes," Collins said. "With notable exceptions, individuals have underperformed, and in this level of competition those small losses add up."

The maths at close of play on day two was pretty gruesome. Britain are plumb last, 13 points adrift of sixth place and notional safety. It gets worse. If Spain, who are not fancied to thrive here, slip into the bottom two positions, a team above them would have to go down, as they are exempt from relegation because next year's Cup will be in Malaga.

The music playing persistently in the interludes here at the Luigi Rodolfi stadium grew increasingly apt for Britain, who had started the day as the back-marker - 'Stop the Rot'.

After Emeka Udechuku had finished last in the discus and Chris Rawlinson had faded to fifth in the 400m hurdles, Lewis-Francis at least stepped up to the mark.

So disappointing in Athens five days earlier, when he had failed even to reach the final where Jamaica's Asafa Powell reduced the world 100m record to 9.77sec, the 22-year-old produced his fastest time of the season, 10.10sec, to take second place behind France's European indoor record holder, Ronald Pognon.

It was not ideal - he pronounced himself as "gutted" to lose - but seven points were seven more than he had contributed at the previous year's event, where he false-started and lost the chance to help Britain to what could have been overall victory.

"I'm happy," said Lewis-Francis, who was stripped of his European indoor medal following a positive test for cannabis. "I've had a pressurised season and I've had a lot of weight on my shoulders. After only running 10.36 in Athens I can't complain at that. I wanted to go out there and redeem myself. If I could just have relaxed I would have won it."

Just over an hour later he clearly enjoyed the winning feeling as stopped the clock at 38.67sec, bringing home a sprint team in which Christian Malcolm, winner of the 100m B race the previous evening in 10.25sec, replaced the out-of-form Darren Campbell.

The team captain accepted the decision graciously before taking himself off to BBC Radio Five Live to commentate on the day's events. "We needed that result for the team," he said.

That was something of an understatement. Although James Thie did well enough to take fifth in the 1500m, better than fifth places were expected of Carl Myerscough in the shot and Malachi Davis in the 400m. Nathan Morgan, called up for the long jump following injury to Chris Tomlinson, also had a miserable day, only avoiding the ignominy of failing to score by jumping 7.30m to earn one point. Having jumped 8.00m this season, he would have been expecting more.

In the excitement of victory, Lewis-Francis talked buoyantly about Britain's chances. "We can definitely come off the bottom," he said. "I'm going to pray for the team tonight, because miracles do happen." Now that really would be a contribution...