Black Sunday dents British optimism as medal hopes flop

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The Independent Online

Simon Clegg, the chef de mission of the British Olympic team, talked optimistically last week about an opening weekend which would set the tone for another successful Games. While he did not expect a repeat of the 11 gold medals won in Sydney four years ago, Clegg confidently expected Britain to win a total of 25 medals, between six and nine of them gold.

Simon Clegg, the chef de mission of the British Olympic team, talked optimistically last week about an opening weekend which would set the tone for another successful Games. While he did not expect a repeat of the 11 gold medals won in Sydney four years ago, Clegg confidently expected Britain to win a total of 25 medals, between six and nine of them gold.

Last night that prediction was looking decidedly wayward as Tim Henman and Nicole Cooke headlined a series of disappointments over two days of mostly under-par British performances. Henman, a silver medallist eight years ago and Britain's only tennis representative here, was beaten in straight sets by Jiri Novak, while Cooke, one of the favourites to win the women's cycling road race, finished fifth.

Another British medal hope, the gymnast Beth Tweddle, will not even compete in the final of her best event, the asymmetric bars, following yesterday's preliminary competition. Tweddle, the European silver medallist, appeared to perform well, but was reckoned to have paid the price for an early draw, the judges tending to mark conservatively in the initial stages.

Ian Peel, a shooting silver-medal winner four years ago, saw his chances of reaching the trap final evaporate, while there was further British despair on the judo mat. Georgina Singleton, chasing a bronze in the women's 52kg competition, lost in the repêchage final to the Belgian, Ilse Heylen, which added to the failure of her boyfriend, Craig Fallon, who had been fancied to perform well in the men's 60kg category on Saturday.

There was also a lack of British celebration in the swimming pool, where Katy Sexton and Sarah Price failed to qualify for the final of the 100m backstroke. To add to her problems, Price cut her leg in yesterday's warm-up on an underwater camera. The mood was in strict contrast to the previous night across the road in the diving pool, where Leon Taylor and Peter Waterfield won Britain's first medal of the Games, a silver, in the 10m synchronised diving competition.

Henman had high hopes of success here but never mastered the windy conditions. The British No 1 made mistake after mistake, despite having broken his Czech opponent's serve in the opening game.

Of all the British disappointments, however, the greatest was probably Cooke. The 21-year-old from south Wales was one of the favourites to win the women's road race but was left cursing some of her rivals after finishing fifth at the end of a dramatic final lap.

A group of eight riders, including Cooke, had pulled 18 seconds clear as they began the climb of Lykavittos Hill on the last of the nine 13.2km circuits around some of the most famous landmarks in the Greek capital.

Sara Carrigan then made a break and was quickly followed by Germany's Judith Arndt, who soon caught the Australian, enabling the two riders to work together. Cooke led a pursuit but received little support from her fellow chasers, and when the Briton almost came off her bike as she hurtled around a corner the game was up.

The sprint finish was no contest between the two leaders, 23-year-old Carrigan easily outsprinting Arndt, who had done most of the work keeping the pair clear of the chasers. Cooke, meanwhile, found herself badly placed in the race for the bronze and finished behind Russia's Olga Slyusareva and Australia's Oenone Wood.

Cooke, who had geared her whole year around her long-held ambition to win an Olympic title, was left bitter and frustrated. "The moment I really rue was when I pulled off the front and the Australian attacked and the other six did nothing," she said after the race.

"There was still a chance. The fact that the Australian had attacked wasn't necessarily a problem. The problem was that nobody took up the chase. Having just done a turn on the front myself, it's not really up to me to go and chase her."

Cooke's greatest supporter is her father, Tony, who was stopped by police as he painted her name on a road before the race. His daughter said: "The Greek police don't know about cycling. They should come to Verona for the World Championships in October and they'll see the road without one spot of clear tarmac."

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