OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: McNeil wilts under the pressure

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The Independent Online
MAYBE the wrestlers on Montjuc hill yesterday are prone to wearing sequins or gold lame, but if they do it is in the privacy of their homes. Mascara and eye shadow were there in abundance . . . . on the women officials. This was not for television show; arm locks hurt, defeats hurt more. The fighters were about as camp as bulldozers.

If the Olympic grunt and groan is a relation to the vaudeville wrestling being pumped into Britain by satellite from the United States then it is the sort that is mentioned only when Granny gets tipsy at Christmas. Squirms all round follow mention of the World Wrestling Federation.

The athletes in Barcelona would laugh at Hulk Hogan and his ilk in the WWF if the artificial agony and overdone glitz were not a cause of embarrassment by association. They could do it to his face with impunity, too - the larger men are built on the dimensions of tankers. 'Get a grip' was just about the most redundant shout the crowd could have concocted yesterday. Get a grip? They were at each other like large, hostile cats squabbling over a bowl of milk.

Calum McNeil, a 68 kilogram fighter from Glasgow, for one, poured scorn on the bejewelled LA hams of the American professional circus. 'They have about as much to do with our sport as a school egg and spoon race and the Olympic 100 metres final,' he said. 'Just look at the crowd. They're the sort of people who go to dumper truck racing. It's unfortunate we both carry the name wrestling.

'People say I could make a lot of money if I turned professional, but money isn't everything. There's pride too.'

If McNeil had need of any reminder that his sport is no fake, it was laid before him as he entered the ring for his first bout: Ludwig Kung was on a stretcher, screaming with pain. The Swiss had just had his arm torn from its shoulder joint in the previous fight. Welcome to the Olympic Family.

In Barcelona McNeil has had only his own, rather than the sporting ideal, family to lean on. For him Barcelona has not been a claustrophobic fortnight living in the pockets of the team-mates around him but an exercise in self- sufficiency. Britain has nine nutritionists at the Games and only one wrestler and you cannot practise with a man whose fiercest opponent is a Vitamin B deficiency.

'I've had problems getting sparring partners,' McNeil, who is training to be a chartered accountant, said. 'I've not known who I'd be training with until I got to the gym.' Fortunately other countries have helped out. In particular the Canadians who know McNeil from his time studying at university in Hamilton, Ontario.

'There's no team spirit because there's only me,' he added. 'I was in the opening ceremony and I've seen other British athletes in the village but they don't know me. There've been very few social get togethers.'

Even so, British wrestling is wiping the sweat off its brow thanks to McNeil's presence. 'We're just relieved we got Calum here,' Tony Shacklady, the team manager, said. 'Imagine the effect it would have had on youngsters who look to the Olympics as the ultimate sporting achievement if Britain had failed to get anyone to Barcelona. It would have been a disaster.'

The team is firing on one front because the International Olympic Commitee, increasingly anxious to limit the number of participants, decreed at a late stage that a severely reduced number of wrestlers would be allowed into the Games. McNeil was 10th in last year's world championships and began the tournament as the least favoured wrestler. If the same rules applied to tennis it would need a plague fiercer than the Black Death to strike the elite for Britons to get in.

'We had the makings of a good squad,' Shacklady said. 'We've had eight international matches this year and we're very well prepared. If five or six had got here it would probably have been the strongest British team ever.'

But strength is no guard against a bad draw. A wrestler fights all his opponents until he has two defeats. Get an easy sequence and higher ranked opponents begin to knock each other out; McNeil began with the American Townsend Saunders, ranked in the world's top three.

McNeil had the fillip of a win over the American in the past and he began confidently, repelling the shorter, squatter opponent. Then, just short of a minute Saunders struck, wheeling McNeil on to his back. A point had gone and with it the momentun that increased as the fight progressed. He lost 5-0, a preliminary to Olympic elimination and a 4-0 defeat by Nigeria's Ibo Oziti in the evening.

'Representing Britain on my own added to the pressure,' he said. 'I knew if I lost, the country was out of the wrestling. Defeat is always hard to take.'

They probably say something similar when the sequins come off in the WWF. But without the same conviction.

(Photograph omitted)