Athletics: Sprinters hit new low in relay shambles

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The Independent Online

Dave Collins, performance director for UK Athletics, issued a public rebuke last night after England's male sprinters compounded their dismal individual showing at the Commonwealth Games by failing to qualify for today's 4x100 metres relay final because of a faulty baton change. The performance was deemed "totally unacceptable" by Collins, who, unlike many other British performance directors, has chosen not to come out here.

It was left to 32-year-old Jo Pavey, earning the 5,000m silver which was the first major medal of her career, and 19-year-old Steven Lewis, who took bronze in the pole vault, to provide the English cause with reasons to be cheerful.

One might have imagined that Marlon Devonish and Mark Lewis-Francis would be on the same wavelength given that they were replicating the final changeover which saw Britain to the Olympic sprint relay gold medal in Athens two years ago. But no. Lewis-Francis, who had made an ignominious exit from the individual semi-finals after false-starting, appeared to start running too soon as he awaited Devonish, while the latter seemed to be waving the baton at head height rather than directing it towards the younger man's outstretched palm. As a result, a comfortable lead turned into a débâcle that served only to point out the sprinters' underachievement here.

The 23-year-old Birchfield Harrier was almost speechless afterwards as he pleaded with outstretched arms to be allowed to pass uninterrogated. "I'm pissed off," Lewis-Francis said, with tears in his eyes. He wasn't the only one.

Devonish, who failed to reach the 200m final but was the only England athlete to make the 100m final, appeared to blame himself for the failure to progress. "It was all up here," he said, indicating his head as he explained how he had had difficulty delivering the baton to his team-mate. "I just couldn't put it in his hands. I seemed to be waving it around. Before Athens we had a series of four or five races. It's almost impossible to get people together at this time of the year."

The fortunes of the men's sprint relay team have fluctuated dramatically in recent years. Their win at the Athens Games followed two Olympics where they failed to deliver the baton, and they have twice been disqualified at the World Championships.

Darren Campbell, whose individual efforts in the 200m had ended with disqualification for running out of his lane, was unequivocal afterwards, having successfully transferred the baton to Devonish from high-hurdler Andy Turner. He had been drafted into the team at late notice following the back injury to team captain Jason Gardener and a hamstring injury affecting European junior silver medallist Simeon Williamson.

"We messed up," said Campbell who marked his appearance at the last Commonwealth Games in his native Manchester by anchoring the sprint relay team to gold. "It doesn't matter whether anyone went off early. We are a team, and we haven't delivered. That's life. We've had six years of success, so it's the law of a averages that we were going to get it wrong.

"The sprinters have had a disastrous championships and we know we are going to get slated," added Campbell, who went on to acknowledge the recent criticisms of himself and his team-mates by the retired double Olympic champion Michael Johnson, working here for the BBC commentary team. It was quite an admission given the two men almost came to blows at the Athens Games following similar criticisms from the American.

"Maybe some of us have got a little bit complacent," Campbell said. "It's all in the mind. Michael Johnson was right. But if he wants to come out of his nice warm commentary box and help some of these younger guys out, then come on."

Campbell made out a passionate case for his coach Linford Christie to have a formal role within the team to advise its less experienced members. "No one is better than Linford," he said, although he acknowledged the unlikelihood of such an appointment being made by Collins, who acted swiftly in an attempt to forestall a gathering tide of ire over the male sprinters' performances.

"The athletes and the coaches themselves know that today's 4x100m relay performance was completely unacceptable," Collins' statement read. "It comes on the back of other poor sprinting performances and will need to be countered in the European Championships. Sport is a hard taskmaster and these guys have to start serving."

There was no questioning Pavey's commitment as she took up the running three laps from home and was only denied gold by a second final-lap surge from Kenya's Isabella Ochichi. Pavey, who was unable even to exercise for three months after last summer's World Championships because of a virus, sacrificed a traditional Christmas at home in Devon in order to get in extra training at her South African base.

"I was happy at finishing fifth at the last Olympics, because the Olympics is the Olympics," Pavey said. "But I was thrilled with the whole occasion tonight and getting a medal after so long is really special."