Judo: Birch tops the bill: Sweatman's remarkable gold medal

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FIVE medals from the women's team, including a gold from Rowena Sweatman, and two medals from the men, with a gold from Ryan Birch, at the European Championships here indicated that, midway through the Olympic interval, the British squad is in good health.

When the established stars of the team such as the world lightweight champion, Nicola Fairbrother, and the Olympic light-heavyweight silver medalist, Ray Stevens, took silvers, this demonstrates a real depth of talent.

After a spectacular year in 1993, when she won both the world and European titles, it was almost too much to expect Fairbrother to be on top form. Nevertheless, she was combative enough to strangle Ursula Myren, from Sweden, in the semi-final. She lost to Jessica Gal, of the Netherlands, in the final yesterday more by making mistakes (conceding seven points) than any serious default.

Saturday's gold medals were unexpected: both coming from fighters who had yet to win medals in senior competition. Birch, the 25-year-old from Hull, produced the perfect record, winning every fight with ippon, judo's top score. The final, against Johann Laats, of Belgium, a former world silver medalist, was over in 15 seconds. Laats totally underestimated Birch, launching a throwing attack which the Briton countered.

Sweatman, a 26-year-old engineering graduate, was less dramatic but no less sure. She beat Portugal's Catarina Rodrigues on a decision in the semi-final, and in the final she wore down Anneliese Angleburger, of Austria, scoring five points from a hold.

Stevens was the favourite for the light heavyweight title, but he was caught by Pavel Nastula, of Poland. Diane Bell was thrown cleanly in the light-middleweight final by Gella van de Cavaye, of Belgium. The light-heavyweight, Kate Howey, won a bronze.

Results, Sporting Digest, page 31