Athletics: Will Radcliffe gold end summer blues?

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The Independent Online

OK, let's take stock for a moment. Our rugby world champions have gone downhill Down Under.

OK, let's take stock for a moment. Our rugby world champions have gone downhill Down Under.

Our footballers have been knocked out of Euro 2004 by Switzerland (Thought we'd beaten them? Not so. Their ref came back for revenge, disallowing Sol Campbell's potential winner on the flimsy grounds that Portugal's goalie had John Terry climbing all over him.)

And now Tim Henman has once again failed to win Wimbledon, just when we all thought he probably wouldn't.

But are we downhearted? As the soldiers marching back from the Somme replied wearily when that question was put to them by fresh-faced newcomers travelling in the opposite direction: "Yes."

To be fair, there are incidental positives from seeing England and Henman fail to reach the semi-finals. (You do begin to wonder whether it is significant that the flag of St George comprises four quarters, all white.)

Now that the patriotic factor is out of Euro 2004 and Wimbledon, championships which - weather permitting - reach their climax this weekend, it is possible to view them in a calmer fashion.

If Ronaldo is looking tricksy as ever, and Figo is returning ominously to the wily form of old, then great. It's not bad news for England, so bring it on, and let's enjoy it for what it is.

If Roger Federer appears ever more likely to steer past any opponent, that's wonderful. In his own quiet and intense way, he is as angry about missing shots as that other silken stylist, John McEnroe, ever was. So let's relish the passion and the craftsmanship.

We can now observe the final stages of these two sporting fixtures with the morose but not unpleasant detachment of a party-goer whose favourite girl has gone home early. We can afford to curl our lip in scorn at the anxiety of those supporters whose teams or players are still involved. ("All right, keep your wig on, it's only a game...")

Sport for sport's sake, eh? It's not the taking part any more, it's the watching ... Feels good, doesn't it? But only up to a point. Then it becomes a bit dull. Like a sausage sandwich without brown sauce, or a glass of alcohol-free alcohol. Where are those E-numbers we all crave? And that means, I suppose, it's all down to the Olympics.

Paula Radcliffe is a sensible and patient young woman, which is just as well given the amount of times she has been asked this question as next month's gathering in Athens draws nearer: "Paula, do you feel any extra pressure going into the Olympics as British athletics' only realistic gold medal prospect?"

In response, Radcliffe applies a bat so straight that England's cricketers might do well to note her technique: "Nobody puts more pressure on me than I do myself," she replies, with a tight smile. And that, as they say, is a stopper.

A victory in Athens for the nicely-spoken girl with the sensible hair and the first-class degree from Loughborough University (European languages) is something middle England would embrace with almost as much fervour as Timmy triumphing in SW19.

At least Henman has been able to have a crack at the thing he wants most every year, even if British hopes that he will have his day are ever more forlorn. (The day after his latest exit, I overheard former British prospect John Lloyd observing on BBC TV that, although Henman was now 29, he was "a young 29".)

Despite the intervening triumphs on road, grass and track, Radcliffe has had to wait four long years to have a chance of expunging the memory of her despairing wail after being overhauled in the closing stages of the Sydney Olympic 10,000 metres final: "Nobody remembers who's fourth!"

Fingers, and everything else, crossed. At least Radcliffe can't go out in the quarter-finals.

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