Athletics: Relay bronze disguises Britain's failings

UK Athletics performance director warns of funding cuts after 'unacceptable' showing
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The Independent Online

Just as the end of the end of the world was nigh for British athletics - the end of the World Championships that might have been from hell rather than from here in Helsinki - a silver or, more precisely, a bronze lining appeared. It took seven days, 11 hours and 40 minutes, but on the penultimate evening of competition in the 1952 Olympic Stadium the British medal cupboard finally had something to save it from the same fate as Old Mother Hubbard's superfluous storage unit.

They might not have summoned the same Midas touch that took three of them to a famous Olympic victory in Athens 12 months ago, but Jason Gardener, Marlon Devonish, Christian Malcolm and Mark Lewis-Francis had enough speed in their collective tank to clinch a place on the 4 x 100m relay final podium. Only just, though. As France sped to an unexpected gold and Trinidad and Tobago to silver, Lewis-Francis held off Jamaica for bronze, by 0.01sec - 38.27sec to 38.28sec. In Athens, the Britons beat the Americans to gold. In Helsinki, they had to thank the US disqualification from the heats for helping them to bronze.

With the promise of another medal to come from Paula Radcliffe in the women's marathon today, and the prospect of strong challenges in both 4 x 400m relay finals, at least the shortcomings of track and field in Britain have not been laid quite as starkly bare as a Lady Godiva. Not quite. As well as the struggle for precious metal, the lack of British challengers for places on the podium has been an equally acute cause for concern. With one day remaining, there have only been four instances of British athletes finishing in the top eight - the 4 x 100m relay boys; Kelly Sotherton, who was fifth in the heptathlon and eighth in the long jump; and Tim Benjamin, who continued his breakthrough season with an excellent fifth place in the final of the 400m on Friday night. Barring disqualification in the two relay finals today, that figure will rise to at least six, but at the previous worst World Championships for Britain, in Edmonton four years ago, there were two medal winners and 15 top-eight places.

Approaching the end of his first major championship assignment as performance director of UK Athletics, Dave Collins could do nothing yesterday but concede that the British performance in Helsinki has been "unacceptable." "If we get a few medals by Sunday night I won't feel that I'm out of the frying pan," he said. "It won't change my opinion that this has been an unacceptable performance. We've had a range of people through the team whose commitment and attitude could be questioned.

"Me or my staff will be having one-on-one meetings with every single athlete you've seen perform here, and with every single coach of those athletes. If I have athletes who are flat-lining in terms of progress, then maintaining their funding is clearly unacceptable. I will stop funding if it's necessary."

Not that there was any flat-lining from the men's 4 x 400m relay quartet last night. Indeed, a medal in the final today looks a realistic possibility, with Benjamin to come into the quartet after being rested from a heat in which his colleagues - Robert Tobin, Martyn Rooney, an inspired Malachi Davis, and Graham Hedman - were comfortable winners, clocking 3min 01.95sec. The British women's 4 x 400m team were also impressive qualifiers for their final, Lee McConnell, Donna Fraser, Nicola Sanders and Christine Ohuruogu taking second place in their heat in 3:26.19.

For Jo Pavey, though, there was disappointment in the 5,000m final. The Exeter Harrier was far from her feisty self, struggling home 15th and last in 15:14.37. Up at the business end, it was a repeat of the 10,000m final of seven days previously, Tirunesh Dibaba unleashing another formidable 58-second last lap to outsprint a fellow Ethiopian - in this case, Meseret Defar - with her elder sister, Ejagayou Dibaba, again picking up the bronze medal. The younger Dibaba entered the record books when she won the 5,000m in Paris two years ago, becoming the youngest-ever world champion at an age declared to be 18 years and two months. Last night she became the first athlete, female or male, to complete a 5,000m-10,000m World Championship double - officially at 19 years and 10 months, her date of birth having been amended from June to October of 1985.

A definite 30 years of age, Dan Robinson ran the race of his life in the men's marathon earlier in the day. The Gloucestershire man advancedfrom 72nd place after 10 kilometres to finish a fine 12th - and second European - in 2hr 14min 26sec. With Bedford's Huw Lobb back in 44th place, Jaouad Gharib of Morocco retained his title, clocking 2:10:10. Stefano Baldini, the Olympic champion from Italy, was among the many who failed to reach the finish line, although the biggest loser yesterday was the Indian discus thrower Neelam Jaswant Singh.

She was provisionally suspended by the International Association of Athletics Federations after testing positive for the stimulant pemoline. Ironically, the drug was not stimulating enough to get her through the qualifying round last Sunday.

The substance or liquid seen to have been injected before the decathlon 1500m by Roman Sebrele and Tomas Dvorak has yet to be identified, although the IAAF announced yesterday that the Czech's urine samples had all tested negative and the investigation is now over.