Olympic Games: Time to invest for success

Mike Rowbottom, in Atlanta, asks what the future holds for British athletics
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The French sports paper L'Equipe carried a cartoon last week featuring the massive form of David Douillet, the heavyweight judo player who earned France's first gold of the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Douillet's huge head and shoulders served as a base for other French medallists to stand on; the words underneath read: "When the podium is so solid..." France's startling success at the Games - on the first weekend alone they earned nine medals, as many as their total at the 1976 Olympics - involved a number of factors.

French athletes receive direct government funding - 0.19 per cent of the national budget - and have access to a Central Institute of Sport in Paris as well as Centres of Excellence scattered around the country and a high-altitude centre at Font Romeu, in the Pyrenees.

Top performers also receive a performance-related subsidy designed to prevent them over-competing, which adds an edge when major championships come round. But those who have followed France's fortunes over the years give a Gallic shrug when asked to identify the main reason why there have been so many medals for them in Atlanta.

That intangible, the Douillet factor in France's case, appears to have created a spiral of success. Seven years ago, Kriss Akabusi's surprise 400m hurdles victory in the opening event of the European Cup had a similarly stimulating effect upon a British men's team which went on the win the trophy for the first and only time.

The man who lifted the cup at Gateshead, Linford Christie, has performed a similarly inspiring function at a succession of major championships since then, albeit that his wins became expected rather than hoped for. Christie's ill-starred performances here left the British searching elsewhere for inspiration. Those to whom they would have looked in recent years - Sally Gunnell, Colin Jackson - were undermined by injury. There was no Douillet podium on to which others could leap.

Christie has said for several years that he will only be truly appreciated when he is gone. In terms of international championship competition, that is now the situation. When the big tree comes down, it gives the little trees around it more light, and Britain's up-and-coming sprinters are likely to grow in stature. But when it comes to occasions such as the Olympics, that light will become the glare of expectation that Christie has had to operate in for most of his career.

The task facing Britain's young sprinters, such as Ian Mackie, who was prevented from contesting the 100m semi-finals because of a hamstring injury, Darren Campbell, Jason Gardener and the junior talent Dwayne Chambers is daunting. They have a big gap to make up before they reach the top level, but Britain's chief coach, Malcolm Arnold, believes it can be done.

"We have a good crop of young sprinters," he said. "Ian Mackie has a big future, as does Darren Campbell if he can be persuaded to concentrate on training this winter rather than playing football. He has run 10.17sec after starting his proper training in February."

The situation in the 400 metres is different in that a new generation of talent has already made the transition from promise to achievement. Three of the four silver medallists in the relay, Iwan Thomas, Jamie Baulch and Mark Richardson, are in their early twenties, with potential for further improvement.

And there are others: David Grindley, the former British record holder, is 24 and is due a run of good fortune after injuries; Mark Hylton, Richardson's training partner who ran in the first round of the relay, does not turn 20 until next month. Angela Thorp, the 23-year-old Yorkshire athlete, is another for whom further good things appear to be in store after her performance here in beating Gunnell's eight-year-old 100m hurdles record. Although Thorp is still some distance from the peak of her event, she could take some significant steps between now and the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

If things work out according to plan, she could be joined there by the junior high hurdler Natasha Danvers, who will compete at the World Junior Championships in Sydney later this month before taking up an athletics scholarship at the University of California.

Others who have competed here can look towards Sydney with growing confidence. At 23, Nick Buckfield is still improving in the pole vault. At the same age, the high jumper Steve Smith already has a collection of major medals, including the bronze from Atlanta, and he is likely to be even stronger four years hence.

Kelly Holmes, whose medal ambitions were crucially hampered by a hairline fracture in her leg, has the talent and attitude at 26 to come back to more profitable effect in the 800 and 1500 metres.

At 27, Steve Backley, too, looks as if he will continue to win javelin medals at the highest level for many years to come following his silver here after a remarkably swift recovery from an operation on his Achilles tendon.

Jonathan Edwards, Britain's sole world champion, can retain his triple jump title in Athens next year with a little fine tuning. Frustratingly, Edwards failed to sort out his technique for most of the final, invalidating two huge efforts because his foot had impinged the Plasticine marking the take-off board. But if he feels happy to continue - and there were times this season when that did not appear to be the case - he has all the ability he needs.

With a little more luck - especially with the timing of injuries - Britain's athletes might have come out of these Games with a golden rather than a silver lining. But if the relative lack of success prompts the Government to direct some more funds towards the sporting arena, it will have served a larger purpose.

Matters need to be attended to in earnest, however: the new financial year for the British Athletic Federation begins on October 1, and Arnold has no idea at present of what kind of budget he will be operating with.

"The Government simply has to decide whether it wants excellence or not," Arnold said. "If it does, it is going to have to pay for it."

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