Olympics Games : Britain just short of a gold conclusion

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The Independent Online
Britain's 400 metres relay team lived up to expectations on the final day of the track and field programme; Steve Backley surpassed them.

The result was two more silver medals which brought British athletics a final total of four silvers and two bronzes.

Once Edwards had proved unable to recapture his very best form in the triple jump on day two of the programme, Britain's prospects of a earning an Olympic victory in the Centennial Olympic stadium were severely diminished.

But for a few heady moments on Saturday night - as Backley established a big first-round lead in the javelin with 87.44m, and as Roger Black, anchoring the relay, came to the shoulder of the American runner Anthuan Maybank entering the final straight - there was a tantalising glimpse of a golden conclusion for Britain.

Reality intervened. Maybank, whose personal best is more than 0.3sec better than Black's, accelerated away to re-establish the lead he had inherited on the final changeover. And Backley had to give best to the reigning world and Olympic champion, Jan Zelezny, whose second round throw of 88.16. proved enough to retain his title.

Even to be at the Olympics was an achievement for Backley, who underwent an operation on a ruptured Achilles tendon just over two months ago.

He was still on crutches when he heard that Zelezny had extended his world record to 98.48m on 25 May. "It was pretty tough," Backley said. "I threw my crutch about 99 metres when I heard.''

On Saturday night, however, it was the javelin which got the treatment, as he took advantage of a draw which had given him the first throw to employ his favourite tactic of putting pressure on his opponents.

"I loved the draw, I knew it was destiny to do something," Backley said. "It wasn't a great throw... It wasn't a pretty throw by any means. But I gave it a good spank, basically.

"I knew I had to go big in the first round. The training I had missed meant that I was out of condition and I wasn't in the kind of shape where I could bang out lots of long throws. So that was it. It was a long shot. First round.

"To have gone closer to 90 metres would have made more of an impact. When I saw Jan's first throw I thought maybe it was enough. But once he popped that 88 I thought he might go even further.''

Zelezny, whose next project is a two-day trial as a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves baseball team, did not need to go further as the expected challenge from the German pair of Boris Henry and Raymond Hecht, who led the world rankings last year with 92 , failed to occur.

Thus Backley, who took silver behind Zelezny in last year's World Championships and retained his Commonwealth and European titles the year before, had another major medal for his collection - and of a better colour than he had managed at the last Olympics.

He paid tribute to assistance he had had in his recuperation from the team physiotherapist, Kevin Lidlow, and the masseur, Mark Zambada. "I put my faith in them," he said. "They told me I would be all right, and I was."

He admitted, however, that he did not expect to end up on the rostrum. "I thought a medal was a long shot," he said. "I've done myself proud, and that's what it's all about. I'm very content.''

The same was true of a relay team in which the experience of the 30-year- old Black was integrated to telling effect with the younger talents of Iwan Thomas (22), Jamie Baulch (23) and Mark Richardson (24). Du'Aine Ladejo, the European champion, was the unlucky man who had to make way for Black as he came in after the semi-finals.

Before the race, Black assembled the team in his room at the Village and spoke about what was to come.

"I told them this was the very first time when the top four guys in Britain were healthy at the same time. I'd never experienced that before. I told them, 'this is a unique moment, a unique opportunity.'

"I went through a little bit of history with them, a few names - Garry Cook, Todd Bennett, Brian Whittle. It scared Jamie and Iwan a bit actually, but they had to know what kind of an opportunity was out there.

"I had every confidence in them. I wish I could have found another five metres and won the Olympics for them. As I came on to his shoulder I thought, 'We can win this, we can win this.' But he was just too strong.''

In the end, American one-lap running was too strong. Despite lacking the world record holder, Butch Reynolds, because of a hamstring injury, and the Olympic champion, Michael Johnson, who decided to rest the hamstring which twinged five metres from the line in his historic 200m run, the host nation had more than enough talent to retain the title they have won on very occasion since 1976, not counting their boycott year of 1980.

Thomas, with an opening leg of 44.92, kept Britain in contention, and Baulch, whose split time was 44.19, briefly headed Alvin Harrison - fourth in the individual event - before handing over to Richardson in second place.

Richardson, whose hopes of an individual place were undermined by an untimely illness before the trials, has since reduced his personal best to 44.52sec, putting him fourth on the British all-time list. He responded with the fastest split of any of the finalists - 43.62sec - but Black was still five metres adrift of Maybank, a 44.15 runner, on the final leg.

Five years earlier in Tokyo, the British quartet had taken advantage of American mistakes to win the world title, provoking Black to his famous victory statement: "We kicked their butts.''

The butt was on the other foot last night, but there was much to celebrate from a British team that is likely to get better and better. As it was, they beat the European record of the Tokyo quartet - 2min 57.53 - in 2:56.60. The Americans won in 2:55.99.

Earlier in the evening, the US had seen their traditional domination of the sprint relay interrupted by Canada - they have never lost a final other than by disqualification - for whom the individual gold medallist, Donovan Bailey, ran a final-leg split of 8.95sec.

After a day of frantic negotiation and fevered rumour, Carl Lewis was not given the opportunity to win a record 10th gold medal by being drafted into the American squad. Had the decision been otherwise, however, he would still not have had his gold. With a best this year of 10.03sec, even this master of the comeback would have failed to make any impression upon the Canadians.

"To be blunt," said the US third-leg runner Mike Marsh, "we got barbecued out there." In retrospect, Lewis ought to be glad he did not get his perfect record singed.