OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: McColgan beaten to a retreat: Mike Rowbottom on a disappointing week on the track for Scotland but an encouraging one for the future of British athletics as a whole

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The Independent Online
LIZ McCOLGAN said all along that Elana Meyer was not the only other runner to worry about in the Olympic 10,000 metres final. She was right about that; but she would hardly have expected to find herself behind a Chinese athlete as well as Meyer, Lynn Jennings and the winner, Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia, by Friday evening's end.

McColgan, who left the Olympic village yesterday, made no excuses. 'It was just a bad race. There was no reason for it.'

Certainly there was no one reason for it, but there were a number of factors involved. Firstly the heat and humidity. McColgan has run before in the kind of conditions which prevailed during the final - her world title race in Tokyo last year presented a similar challenge - but she may have been unwise not to take the wet sponges which were offered to runners during the race. Meyer, who had emptied a bottle of water over her head before the start, made full use of them.

The second factor was McColgan's own inability to increase her speed from the steady pace of around 75 seconds per lap after she had taken the lead dutifully from the start. There was no sudden spurt, not even a steady quickening. McColgan became simply an engine, transporting passengers who were planning alternative travel arrangements. Where once she had taken Olga Bondarenko for a ride before the then Soviet athlete took over to earn the gold medal at the last Olympics, now she had a crowd. The strain brought to her face an almost oriental aspect as she pressed grimly on, head down, elbows flailing from side to side.

Last week, soon after McColgan arrived in Barcelona, she announced she was stronger than she had been in Tokyo and sharp enough to run below the fastest 3,000m time of the year, 8min 36.63sec, set by Yvonne Murray in beating her in Edinburgh two months ago.

That appeared to be encouraging news for the people who had argued this season that she had over-trained and over-raced, suffering an uncomfortable number of defeats at distances below the one she ran here.

She maintained that all was according to plan - 'the races were just part and parcel of training so I was going into them with tired legs. You can stay at home and train and train and go to the games unbeaten. But I think you have got to go out and race.'

When it came to the ultimate race in Barcelona, however, the legs were still tired. What McColgan could not control was the strength of the performance from Meyer, running in her first major championship since South Africa's return to the international sporting fold, and Tulu.

Meyer - who seems to have lost her strange habit of nodding every five or six steps - simply tracked her Scottish opponent until she was ready to make her break, which she did nine and a half laps from home. With a finishing kick only slightly stronger than McColgan's, she knew she could not afford to leave things too late. When the lone, small figure of Tulu came out of the pack to settle at her shoulder, she could not find the strength to shake her off.

There was some irony in the fact that a runner who was considered to be McColgan's main rival should find herself being shadowed by the girl who had tried to stay with McColgan in Tokyo. On this occasion, Tulu, a 21-year-old who lives 175 miles from Addis Ababa, was not to be denied. She won on her own terms, twice refusing Meyer's invitation to share the running and, just before the bell, producing the change of pace for which her Scottish and South African rivals would sell their souls.

The world champion's defeat completed a miserable Games for the Scots, who had seen Murray and Tom McKean run ragged on the previous Sunday. For British athletics as a whole, however, the Games have offered much in the way of comfort. The spread of medals might not have been so great as it was four years ago, but, unlike at Seoul, there have been golden rewards. It was a neat quirk that the two winners, Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell, should also be the team captains.

Athletes drawing towards the end of their career, such as Kriss Akabusi, who added a bronze 400m hurdles medal to the one he won in Tokyo, have prospered. But the most encouraging factor for Britain has been the emergence of a new wave of Olympians.

Steve Smith, who missed the height which eventually won the high jump by a scrape of his heels, is just 19. So is Dave Grindley, who has broken the British 400m record. Curtis Robb, who ran his own undaunted race in the 800m final, is 20. Four years hence, Atlanta could be an even more comfortable place for the Brits.

(Photograph omitted)