Athletics: Britain hold revivalist convention from first event

After a wretched performance in the European Championships last year, the medal haul in Osaka comes as a pleasant shock, writes Simon Turnbull
Click to follow
The Independent Online

So it's "Sayonara, Osaka" but not quite "Goodbye, British athletics". Not by a long chalk.

Instead of returning back to Blighty with an Old Mother Hubbard of a medal cupboard, there will be something of a haul to stow away in the hold of the team flight from Kansai Airport to Heathrow. One gold, one silver and three bronzes adds up to Britain's biggest World Championships tally of the millennium.

The five chunks of precious metal – won by Christine Ohuruogu (gold) and Nicola Sanders (silver) in the 400 metres, Kelly Sotherton in the heptathlon (bronze), the men's 4x100m relay team (bronze) and the women's 4x400m squad (bronze) – beat the three gained in Helsinki two years ago, the three in Paris in 2003 and the two in Edmonton in 2001. Not since Seville in 1999, and a tally of seven, have the British track and field team been quite so bemedalled on the world stage.

Any way you care to look at it, this has been a nine-day revivalist convention for the runners, jumpers and throwers of Great Britain. Last summer, for the first time, there was not a single individual British winner at the European Championships in Gothenburg. There was no British athlete in the top six in the world rankings. Here, there have been 12 British placings in the top six.

There have also been 18 personal bests and 17 season's bests. In Helsinki in 2005 there were no personal bests and six season's bests. Never mind London and 2012, the road to Beijing and the Olympics of 2008 suddenly looks like it has had an overnight makeover from the local council.

"It was interesting to read some of the predictions beforehand," Dave Collins, the British team leader and performance director of UK Athletics, reflected, with no trace of triumphalism on his face. "I never believed this was the worst team to leave our shores and I did not think we'd come back without a medal. I thought it was a possibility, though.

"For me, the most satisfying statistic is to compare this team to one of our earlier very successful ones, in Tokyo in 1991. There were 91 in that team and they got 34 season's bests, of which 17 were personal bests. Here, we had 18 personal bests and 17 season's bests. So it's very satisfying, with a team of 56. The outcome is very good. It's better than we were shooting for."

The bar of overachievement was set in the very first event. Dan Robinson was 45th fastest on the start list for the men's marathon but finished in 11th place. Then, at the end of the opening day, there was Jo Pavey's inspirational run in the 10,000m. She finished out of the medals, in fourth place, but laid down a benchmark for the rest to follow on the track.

All three individual medallists exceeded expectation – Sotherton arrived in Osaka in 12th place in the world rankings, while Ohuruogu was just three weeks' down the comeback trail following her year in the wilderness and Sanders' form had been diminished by injury. Both relay medals were won with performances of the highest order: bronze in the men's 4x100m with 37.90sec, faster than the time that struck Olympic gold in Athens; bronze in the women's 4x400m with 3min 20.04sec, a new British record.

For Collins, having borne the brunt of the critical backlash for the underachievement of the previous two years, there is good reason for personal satisfaction. "I feel pleased that we've done it, because that is the mission," he said. "There are moments of 'Yah, boo, sucks' but, frankly, we haven't arrived yet. The targets are nowhere near where we want to be, so there's a moment of wry smile but then we get back to it. This is going to take a while. It's more than a two-year, three-year process.

"I can't stress too much: there is more to come. This is work in progress. I'm certainly not going to be sitting here popping the champagne corks. I would suggest that the super-tanker has turned and it's steaming into clearer waters, thank God. But I'd like it to steam a bit quicker, please."

GB medals

Gold Christine Ohuruogu (400 metres).

Silver Nicola Sanders (400m).

Bronze Kelly Sotherton (heptathlon); Christian Malcolm, Craig Pickering, Marlon Devonish, Mark Lewis-Francis (men's 4x100m relay); Ohuruogu, Marilyn Okoro, Lee McConnell, Sanders (women's 4x400m relay)