Athletics: Most unlikely lad strikes precious medal

Devonish still cannot believe day the US and logic were defied
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The Independent Online

Back in July, in the cold, windy shadow of the Manchester Regional Arena, the sprinter in the crimson-and-gold Coventry Godiva leotard could hardly have cut a more disconsolate figure as he trudged from the track towards the changing rooms. His head bowed, his hands clutching his running spikes, he appeared not to hear the occasional shouts of consolation. Fourth in the 200m final at the British Olympic Trials, he had just seen his dream of competing in his specialist event at the Athens Games broken beyond repair.

Five months on and Marlon Devonish, the speed merchant in question, is perched on a stool in the bar at The Sanderson, a chic hotel in central London, sipping lemonade and lime and attempting to articulate the feeling of winning an Olympic gold medal. "I could sit here for hours and hours trying to explain how I felt," the beaming Coventrian says, casting his mind back not to that bleak July day in Manchester but to the balmy August night in Athens when Britain's 4 x 100m relay runners struck gloriously unexpected gold.

"It's a feeling you can't really express... I could blow up into a million billion pieces and come back together again, and that would be a fraction of how I felt. It's something I can't really describe. It's lovely to be able to share it with three other athletes."

And with a nation, he might add. Even cynical Brits on the press benches in the Olympic Stadium leapt out of their seats and stood wide-eyed in the aisles - half cheering, half disbelieving - as Devonish handed the baton and a one-metre lead to Mark Lewis-Francis and the young man with the double-barrelled name managed to prevent Maurice Greene from gunning him down in the home straight. It was one of the great upsets in Olympic track and field.

Not for 28 years had British sprinting been at such a low ebb. For the first Olympics since the 1976 Games in Montreal, no Briton had qualified for the 100m final. Then all three 200m representatives also came to grief before the final in the longer event. The hamstrung Chris Lambert failed to get around the bend in his heat; Darren Campbell limped across the line last in his semi-final; and Christian Malcolm emerged from five days of treatment for kidney failure to place seventh in his semi. One newspaper suggested that the relay team should be wheeled around the track in hospital beds, passing thermometers instead of batons to one another.

The prognosis was certainly not promising for Britain - and then there were the Americans, in the rudest of health. The US quartet for the final comprised three of the first four finishers in the 100m final - Justin Gatlin, Greene and Shawn Crawford - plus Coby Miller, a 9.98sec 100m runner. And yet they were beaten by Jason Gardener, Campbell and Lewis-Francis, who all failed to reach the final of the 100m in Athens, and by Devonish, who failed even to qualify for selection for the 200m.

Of the four British heroes, Devonish was the most unlikely lad. Hit by injury at the start of the season, he was only ranked 107th in the world at 200m. At 100m, he was ranked joint 162nd, behind 46 Americans. And yet, when it came to that third leg in the final, he flew around the bend like an Olympic champion - which he became some 10 seconds after passing the baton on to Lewis-Francis with just enough room to spare.

The official margin of victory was 0.01sec, the thickness of a Great Britain vest. Not that Devonish was best placed to appreciate the closeness of the contest. "Watching from behind, I thought Mark had won by a metre," he says now, laughing. "I was jumping up and down and celebrating as he approached the line. I had no idea it was so close.

"I've watched the race time and time again, and the difference between us and the Americans was the time spent in giving the baton. With us, there was no breaking or messing about with the baton. It's all part and parcel of relay racing. Their flat speed was potentially a lot quicker, but we were better at the changeover. Putting them under pressure was the main reason why we won.

"We were confident that we could do it because we pushed them close in the semi-finals, and we had been in lane one, which is not the best of lanes, and we did not have the best of changeovers. We knew if we got it right in the final we would put the Americans under pressure. We really were confident that we could beat them but only ourselves and Steve Perks, the relay coach, thought we could do it.

"We had taken a slating. Colin Jackson and Michael Johnson had their opinions on the sprinters after what happened in the individual events. It was against all odds. It was almost like Muhammad Ali when he went into the Rumble in the Jungle and everybody thought he was going to get beaten up. We had to stick together and be strong, because nobody believed in us. That just amplified what we did. It made it even more special to us."

And made it special to the nation, too. Prior to the Olympic relay final, Devonish had long been the unsung hero of British sprinting. A 200m medallist at the Commonwealth Games and European Championships in 2002, even a victory on home soil at the 2003 World Indoor Championships in Birmingham had failed to propel him to high-profile status.

Since Athens, though, the unassuming 28-year-old has been happily enjoying the fruits of his shared Olympic success. He has been dressed for the Mobo awards by bespoke tailor Ozwald Boateng, turned on the Christmas lights in Oxford Street and in Coventry and started the annual Barbados Marathon.

"People have been so enthusiastic, it's almost scary," he says. "I keep hearing the same story again and again: people watching the telly, thinking we might get a bronze medal if we're lucky and ending up screaming at the TV, jumping up and down. When you hear that kind of passion you know you've touched a nat-ion. It's quite a shock, because at the time you're caught up in the whole Olympic experience. You don't realise what you've done until you get back home and people tell you how special it was for them. It's like a fine wine. As time goes on, you get to appreciate it more and more."

Not that the satisfying bouquet has gone to Devonish's head. After six weeks of back-slapping functions, he was back on the training track at the Thames Valley Athletics Centre in Eton, under the punishing charge of his coach, Tony Lester, a former sergeant in the Royal Marines. "Ooh, the first session back," he says, wincing at the memory. "I had to do a fitness test over 800m, just to see where I was at. For me, that's a marathon. It's four times my distance.

"That brought me right down to earth. All the partying and celebrations... I felt it then. I realised I had to knuckle down, but I'm back into it now. I know it's the training that has got me where I am today."