Perhaps it was just as well that the Great British athletics team left Barcelona yesterday having already become acquainted with that "after the gold rush" feeling. Over the six days of the European Championships at the Montjuic Olympic Stadium, they may well have amassed a record haul of 19 medals and plundered sufficient Spanish gold to put a glint back into the public image of British track and field, but the cold truth beyond the heat of the Catalan capital is that, in global terms, there has been no significant change in the standing of our runners, jumpers and throwers.
At the World Championships in Berlin last summer, only Jessica Ennis and Phillips Idowu emerged at the top of the global pile. Twelve months on, only Ennis is sitting at the summit in the world rankings. Idowu lies second in his event, although he can claim, with some justification, to be the world number one in the triple jump, having beaten the French prodigy Teddy Tamgho to the European gold.
After this summer's gold rush at continental level, the World Championships in the South Korean city of Daegu next August loom on the horizon as a global reality check. Charles van Commenee was appointed as the head coach of UK Athletics in the aftermath of the Beijing Olympics with the sole aim of getting home athletes on the podium in the showcase Olympic sport in London in 2012 and, of the many who finished in the medal frame in the Montjuic arena, only Ennis and Idowu are firm bets two years out.
Of the rest, Mo Farah and the 400m hurdlers, Dai Greene and Perri Shakes-Drayton, appear to have fighting chances of bridging the gap from the continental heights to the global top three. Farah might have become an overnight hero back home with his thrilling victories in the 10,000m and 5,000m but in the world rankings for those events he sits 14th and 24th respectively.
"Quite pleased," was Van Commenee's measured verdict on the performance of his squad. "I'm happy that a good number of athletes stepped up a level at the right time of the year. Athletes already at the top, like Jessica Ennis and Phillips Idowu, delivered with excellent performances. A few who are slightly down on a global level, like Mo Farah, definitely stepped up. Youngsters coming up, like Perri Shakes-Drayton, produced. So, overall, I'm quite pleased because it gives a good platform for the next two years and we keep the momentum going."
If Van Commenee was not exactly in the mood to dance on the table in front of him, it was understandable. If last year's World Championships in Berlin had incorporated a European competition, there would have been eleven British winners. Still, the squad that produced six winners in Barcelona was missing such luminaries as Paula Radcliffe, Christine Ohuruogu and Mara Yamauchi. And that was five wins more than Britain enjoyed – if that is the right word – at the previous European Championships in Gothenburg.
In 2006, for the first time in history, there was not one individual gold medal winner from Britain. The only success came on the last day, in the men's 4 x 100m relay, and the shine was taken off that when Darren Campbell refused to join Dwain Chambers on a lap of honour, in protest at the selection of the reinstated drugs offender. That was when the British team were led by a performance director without any background as an athlete or a coach.
The left-field appointment of Dave Collins after the Athens Olympics in 2004 set British athletics back four years. The influence of Van Commenee, the Dutch coach who guided Denise Lewis to Olympic heptathlon gold, was clear to see in a revealing snapshot moment at the team hotel in Barcelona on Sunday morning. In one corner of the lobby, the British press corps were quizzing Ennis about the heptathlon success she had completed the night before. In another, Van Commenee was talking to the women's 4 x 100m relay team, who had exited in the first round heats the previous day. To put it mildly, he did not sound very pleased.
"It is not in the British culture to accept criticism, maybe," Van Commenee said, when asked about the incident, "but in elite sport it is necessary. Coaches need to be able to play a lot of cards. Toughness is one but you must always have empathy. If you don't have empathy – if you don't understand what drives a person, their weaknesses – then coaching is impossible. If you have only one card, you'll be successful with one person in a thousand.
"It also has to be fun. All of the athletes started the sport because it was fun. It is easy to lose that because winning and losing becomes completely dominant. Injuries don't make you too happy. Expectations are not always welcome. It's important we have some fun as well. That helps. It gives them relaxation.
"In our holding camp in Monte Gordo, we had an evening programme: a quiz, a speech or a game. The athletes wanted it. Last year, I didn't pay enough attention to that. It was only eating, sleeping, resting, training. It's not like you're going to work in the coalmines of Azerbaijan. You're going to Portugal and to the sun in Barcelona. This is what it's about. Sometimes you have to remind them of that."
Can this year's European medallists become Olympic champions in 2012?
Gold in 2010:
Showed his aptitude for championship racing with his 5,000m and 10,000m wins but the next step is to start knocking on the medal door at global level against the might of the Ethiopians and Kenyans.
Was pushed to the last 200m of the final heptathlon event, the 800m, but at 24 the Sheffield woman continues to improve every year. Britain's biggest hope for gold in 2012.
Seized his chance to win the 110m hurdles last Friday but failed to get beyond the heats at the Olympics in 2008 and at last year's World Championships. Ranked eighth in the world.
The Welshman's commanding 400m hurdles victory, in 48.12sec, puts him sixth in the world but he needs to get significantly faster. The top three have all run 47.72sec or quicker.
The 31-year-old triple jumper rose to the big occasion in Barcelona, as he did at the World Championships in Berlin last year, but his 21-year-old French rival Teddy Tamgho looks to be the future of the event.
Silver in 2010:
Surprise 100m runner-up will have a better chance as a relay man in 2012.
Men's 4x400m relay
Messed up on the gold front in Barcelona, but should be close to the medal picture in London.
Might have won the 400m. Could be a 2012 medal contender.
Brilliant 10,000m silver but a long shot for an Olympic medal.
Making up ground in 400m hurdles. Can't be discounted for 2012.
Just beaten by Chrisatophe Lemaitre in the 200m but has Bolt, Gay and company to face at global level.
Bronze in 2010:
Women's 4x400m relay
With Christine Ohuruogu to come back into the team, should be London medal contenders.
First outdoor major long jump medal – needs improvement and consistency for 2012.
Third in 400m hurdles. At just 21, a genuine medal hope for 2012.
Sixth in the 400m in Beijing. Capable of a few steps higher in London.
Snatched his chance for high jump bronze. Long shot for London.
Showed grit to get 800m bronze after injury in build-up. Strong medal hope for London.Reuse content