British sprinters earn chance of an upbeat finish

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Britain's beleaguered sprinters took a positive step forward here yesterday by reaching today's 100m relay final - but not before a miscued baton change on the last leg had caused palpitations in the hearts of all their supporters.

Britain's beleaguered sprinters took a positive step forward here yesterday by reaching today's 100m relay final - but not before a miscued baton change on the last leg had caused palpitations in the hearts of all their supporters.

The misunderstanding occurred between Marlon Devonish, whose smooth bend running had established the British team in second position behind the US quartet, and Mark Lewis-Francis.

The 21-year-old Birmingham runner appeared uncertain as Devonish approached, looking round anxiously and stuttering briefly to a halt before setting off again, thankfully with baton in hand, in pursuit of the US anchorman, former Olympic champion Maurice Greene.

The US team underlined their traditional status as favourites for sprint relay gold, brought home in 38.02sec by a Greene who, albeit that he only managed a bronze medal in the individual 100m final, appeared to have all the swagger of old.

Brazil took the third automatic qualifying place, in 38.64sec. In the first semi-final, Nigeria claimed first place in 38.27sec, with Poland, always dangerous contenders, second in 38.47sec and Australia third in 38.49sec.

The British have had a fitful record with batons in the sprint relay. In recent years, their best result was a silver medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but they have failed to make the podium since and in Sydney their quest ended in tears because of a faulty baton exchange in the first round.

Despite the potentially disastrous hesitation on the last changeover, Britain maintained second place behind the Americans, finishing in 38.53sec, their best time of a season in which they have struggled to register top quality times.

Once Dwain Chambers, the European 100m champion, received his two-year ban in February for taking the banned designer steroid THG, all the British sprint relay performances involving him, including the silver medal run at last year's World Championships in Paris, were ruled ineligible.

At one point, Britain was down to the 16th and the last Olympic qualifying spot, but domestic performances last month enabled them to come here in a happier state. The build-up to these Games has nevertheless been a traumatic one for a group of athletes who, just a couple of years ago, seemed poised to make an impact at global level.

The loss of Chambers was a blow to the relay team's chances, but even with him they had been unable to beat a weakened United States team in Paris, just when it seemed they had a rare chance to get one over on them, just as the 400m relay team led home by Kriss Akabusi did in the 1991 World Championships.

While Chambers went off for a different event, Gordon Ramsay's TV show Hell's Kitchen, one in which he failed to reach the finishing line, his colleagues set about preparing for an Olympics which it seems the Gods did not want them to enjoy.

Jason Gardener won the world indoor title in Budapest, but in doing so exacerbated an injury and required an operation for a double hernia which seriously undermined his build-up to Athens. At one point he wondered if he would be able to compete here at all, but his brave performance in winning the national trials at Manchester ensured that he would.

Gardener, ultimately, did all he could here despite not reaching the final, getting quicker between the rounds and finishing with a season's best of 10.12sec.

Mark Lewis-Francis has not shown his form of three years ago, even though he did miss out on a final place by just one position. Chris Lambert has suffered a hamstring injury, as has Sydney 200m silver medallist Darren Campbell, although in the latter case it has not prevented him performing.

Nor, however, has it prevented him being strongly criticised by certain sections of the media, not least BBC TV's Michael Johnson, to whom the British sprinter squared up here when they chanced to meet.

The 30-year-old had hoped for a final trip to the Olympic podium in Athens, but the injury came at the worst time. UK Athletics, annoyed at Johnson's criticism, offered to give the American a copy of the scan which had shown up Campbell's problem. All things considered, Johnson has probably got the message by now.

Campbell ran a good second leg yesterday, carrying the baton from Gardener to Devonish.

Earlier in the day, Robert Korzeniowski laid claim to being the finest walker in history as he earned his third consecutive Olympic 50km title and his fourth in all.

The Pole finished more than four minutes ahead of the next man, Denis Nizhegorodov of Russia, who almost finished his race outside the stadium as he faltered and swayed to a halt, before staggering on after being encouraged by spectators around him.