Relay men pay for their blunder day

World Athletics Championships: For Backley, Hansen, Rawlinson and then the sprint team, it's a tale of woe
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The Independent Online

Black Friday was followed by Shaky Saturday here for Britain's athletes as a calamitous non-changeover between Christian Malcolm and Jon Barbour on the final leg dropped the sprint relay team out of their World Championship first-round heat.

Less than 24 hours after Steve Backley had failed to qualify for today's javelin final, Ashia Hansen had only managed seventh place in the triple jump and Chris Rawlinson had bumped into a hurdle and out of contention for a 400m hurdles medal, the British 4 x 100m team contrived to spike themselves at a point when qualification for today's final seemed assured.

After Dwain Chambers and Marlon Devonish had moved the baton round without undue distress, the bleached-blond Malcolm, who was so disappointed with finishing only fifth in Thursday's 200m final, was left straining with increasing desperation to pass it on. Barbour ­ one of Chambers' training partners ­ already seemed too far advanced, waving his hand vainly behind him.

Once it became clear that another British sprint-relay campaign had come to a premature end ­ following the débâcle of the Sydney Olympics, where the quartet finished last in the first round and were subsequently disqualified for not one but two illegal changeovers ­ Barbour turned to face the frantic, frustrated figure behind him. Malcolm flung the baton down before hurling himself in the same direction.

It was cold comfort indeed when news came through that the US quartet, who had won their opening heat despite the fact that Jon Drummond was clearly afflicted with a hamstring problem during the opening leg, had been disqualified for lane violation.

The decision to include Barbour, the European Under- 23 100m champion, on the last leg was made after Mark Lewis Francis, the 18-year-old who reached the 100m semi-finals, had suffered from a tight hamstring in training.

Britain's chief coach, Max Jones, who oversaw selection in concert with sprints coach Graham Knight and Britain's former 200m runner John Regis, said that Lewis- Francis was due to have taken a fitness test today to see if he was ready to take the anchor leg in the final.

As Jones bitterly reflected, Lewis-Francis no longer needs to worry himself. "This is the second time we should have won a medal in the relay and we didn't," Jones said. "Things had been going so well. We had brought John Regis in and I just thought it was going to be a stroll into the final." Clearly the set-up needs a little adjusting.

If Britain's early exit had a faintly predictable feel about it, that of the US quartet, who looked capable of winning gold here despite missing the injured Maurice Greene, was far more of a shock.

Britain's 4 x 400m runners made a better job of things, with both men and women reaching today's final, although it took an outstanding finish from Mark Richardson to secure the second qualifying place behind the USA after taking over the baton in fourth place.

Backley's chances of securing his first global javelin title, which had apparently soared when he threw over 90 metres at Crystal Palace in his last meeting before these World Championships began, fell to earth here as a throw of 81.50m failed to earn him a place in today's final.

It was not a good night," Backley said. "I didn't get hold of it ­ it's as simple as that. My season has been a bit like that, either great or nothing."

Backley's friend and training partner Mick Hill, who qualified with an effort of 84.88m, commented: "I'm staggered. Normally Steve can throw 81.50 in his sleep. He will be mortified. I don't know what went wrong. Maybe he had his eye on the final."

Backley's failure set the tone for what turned out to be a dismal day for Britain at these championships. "To get this far and make such a basic and silly mistake is unforgiveable," said Rawlinson, who finished fifth in 48.54sec. "I should have got a medal and instead I've got a bruised knee."

The title went to Felix Sanchez, who ran the world's fastest time this year of 47.49sec to earn the Dominican Republic its first World Championship medal.

Hansen was philosophical. "It just wasn't to be," she said, after a best of 14.10m that was 41cm below her qualifying distance. "But it's good to be back competing at this level. I will be back stronger and fitter next year. I will bounce back."

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