There hadn't been a gold rush quite like it in these parts since traces of the precious metal were first discovered on Australian soil, back in 1851. It was an Englishman, one Edward Hargreaves, who was credited with the find. A century and a quarter later, his descendants from the old country were mining the stuff all over the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Or so it seemed.
Around the apron of the track, on the final night of the Commonwealth Games athletics programme, Phillips Idowu, draped in a flag of St George like some caped crusader of the triple-jump, was obliged to halt his lap of honour because Nick Nieland, his England team-mate, was being presented with the gold medal for the javelin. Soon afterwards, Idowu had his own gold medal around his neck as he leaned against a barrier in what is known as "the mixed zone", the area leading from the track where the athletes run a gauntlet of media microphones en route to the kit collection point.
"Oh, man, 2012 is going to be great," he said, when he was stopped in mid-flow by an English journalist keeping an eye on the final of the women's 4 x 400m relay that was unfolding on the television monitor behind Idowu. "Gold! Gold!" the hack exclaimed. "The Jamaicans have dropped the baton."
They had indeed, at the end of the second leg, leaving England's Natasha Danvers-Smith clear in front and Tamsyn Lewis of Australia chasing her shadow. Idowu turned to watch Danvers-Smith maintain the lead and pass the baton on to Christine Ohuruogu, who cruised around the final lap and crossed the line 10 metres ahead of Australia's Rosemary Hayward.
A lap of honour later, the English golden girls - Kim Wall, Nicola Sanders, Danvers-Smith and Ohuruogu - were in the mixed zone, getting ready to collect their medals. "This girl is out of sight," Danvers-Smith said, gesturing towards Ohuruogu, the 21-year-old Londoner who beat Tonique Williams-Darling, the reigning world and Olympic champion, to win the individual 400m final on Tuesday night. "To win another gold medal after all the rounds she's run."
At which point Danvers-Smith and her broadly-grinning team-mates were rudely interrupted by a woman from BBC Radio. "Australia have taken the gold," she said. "Someone has come across the lanes and obstructed Tamsyn Lewis."
Suddenly, the grins were non-existent. And then followed the kind of fuss that has periodically punctuated fair play in the MCG. Think Ashes and Douglas Jardine's Bodyline bowlers of 1932. Think Benson and Hedges World Series Cup final and the underarm bowl Greg Chappell ordered his brother, Trevor, to deliver with the final ball.
This time, the underarm delivery came courtesy of Lewis, it emerged. For eighteen months the quarter-miler has been in a running battle with Jana Pittman, accusing her Aussie team-mate of being "a drama queen" when she threw away her crutches in front of the television cameras after undergoing an operation at a London hospital on the eve of the Athens Olympics. Yesterday, it was Lewis who prompted the drama, protesting that Danvers-Smith had lined up in lane two rather than lane three at the vital changeover.
The rules stipulate that outgoing relay runners should position themselves in the lane corresponding to the rank in the race in which their incoming colleague happens to be at the 200m mark. Halfway round the second leg, Sanders was in third, behind Caitlin Willis of Australia, although by the time she reached the changeover she was a clear second to Novlene Williams.
Once the reason for the disqualification had been explained to her, Danvers-Smith was non-plussed. "They're saying I was supposed to get the baton after Tamsyn," she said. "They're saying that I obstructed her."
At this point, Pittman came across to console her fellow 400m hurdler and to address the English media. "I'm not associating myself with that decision," she said. "England won the gold medal."
"That's Australia talking," Danvers-Smith said. "What else can I say? As far as I'm concerned England are the Commonwealth Games women's 4 x 400m champions. It's a home decision." It was not the only one. In the ultimate race of the night, the final of the men's 4 x 400m relay, England's third leg runner, Marlon Devonish, was impeded when Chris Troode of Australia stopped dead in the lane in front of him instead of stepping off the track upon the completion of his lap. The referee ruled that it was not "wilful." The Australian men were allowed to keep first place. Devonish and Co stayed medal-less in fourth.
The decision left Chris Rawlinson shaking his head. "It's a joke," the former English 400m hurdler said, two days into his retirement, and seven days ahead of his marriage to Pittman. "How could that protest get turned down and the one against the girls be upheld? Even Jana says the English girls won fair and square. They were so far clear it didn't matter. It's a rule that's not always applied. It depends if a nation decides to lodge a protest."
While the future Mrs Rawlinson was out in the centre of the arena reluctantly collecting her defaulted second gold of the Games, Brad McStravick, head coach of the England team, was taking the track referee's verdict on the chin. "The rules are the rules," he said. "It's up to another country if they decide they want to apply them and Australia have decided to do that."
As for Lewis, who numbers Sebastian Coe and Daley Thompson among her list of former coaches, she was thoroughly unrepentant. "I'm not complaining about the way we won," she said. "Relays have rules, and rules are rules." In this case, Aussie rules, perhaps.Reuse content