OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Canoeing: Fox snared at gates of wrath

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RICHARD FOX had just blown a lifetime's ambition. At 32 his one and only chance of an Olympic gold medal had slipped him by. 'I can handle it,' the slalom canoeist said yesterday, 'I think. I think.' With that he paddled slowly and sadly away to be consoled by a team-mate.

Britain has very few world champions and Fox is one of the greatest. Four times he has stood at the pinnacle of his sport - 1981, '83, '85 and '89 - on another three occasions he has won the World Cup. The greatest canoe racer of his era will be denied an Olympic title, however, courtesy of a conspiracy between age and circumstance.

The canoe slalom last appeared in the Games in 1972 when Fox, now a design and marketing consultant from Nottinghamshire, was 12. Between Munich and Barcelona the sport, deterringly expensive to stage, was absent from the Olympics, an omission that coincided with his prime years. He was fourth yesterday and as he said: 'I would like to think I'd have done better in 1984 and 1988.

'There was only one competitor older than me here and 1996 is a long way ahead. I badly wanted to win gold but I accept I probably won't now.'

Fox gambled and lost. The slalom consists of two runs, the better counting, and he elected to go flat out in the first over a Seu d'Urgell course, high in the Pyrenees, hungry to catch the under skilled or over bold. His time, 104.73sec, was the best by a mile and had it not been sullied by penalties his opponents would have been wrestling the water for silver. But he touched three gates, adding 15 seconds to his time.

He went last in the second run, his sights set on Italian Pier Paolo Ferrazzi's 106.89. At the split he was a second slower than his first attempt on a course perilous enough to merit lifeguards every 20 yards, but he had incurred no faults. If he could avoid the gates of wrath, the prize would be his.

Gate 23, an innocuous name hiding evil intent, trapped Fox. Placed with malevolent precision to force the canoeist against the current towards black, jutting rocks, the hazard had claimed victim after victim. Some had been swept beyond the gate altogether, too anxious to tackle it and too slow to fight the force of water, and even Ferrazzi had so misjudged his getaway that he had all but capsized, thrusting his body against gravity to keep his craft upright.

Fox swung into the eddy, passing the bow of his canoe under the perpendicular poles but did not have the momentum to defeat the torrent quickly. He stalled, plunged his paddle into the water again to halt the downstream inclination and got forward motion with only the third great heave of his powerful arms. The race had been jettisoned, he missed a bronze medal by a third of a second.

'I lost time at gates 11, 15, 23 and 24,' he said. 'I was confident I'd succeed but it wasn't to be. I'm proud of my performance but very disappointed. Ferrazzi is a great paddler, he has immense strength.' He was nominating the Italian a worthy champion while others were talking of Fox as the greatest canoeing champion the Olympics will never have.

As Fox was quietly confronting defeat, Juan Antonio Samaranch was holding a press conference. 'It is 90 per cent certain,' the IOC President said, 'that slalom canoeing will be an event at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.'

For a man like Fox who has campaigned on behalf of his sport for a decade it was a moment of triumph. But it intensified the sense of loss even more.

(Photograph omitted)