British team aims to atone for summer of failure

Forget the disappointments of David Beckham's team at Euro 2004. Forget Tim Henman's failure to take one of his best chances of winning Wimbledon. Forget Colin Montgomerie and his annual flattering to deceive at The Open. The time is approaching to celebrate the sporting prowess of Ian Peel, Craig Fallon and Melanie Marshall.

Simon Clegg, chef de mission of the British team, was in bullish mood here yesterday as he prepared for the start of the 28th modern Olympic Games this weekend. "We hope the sorry summer of British sport will be put right here," he said. "The team is highly motivated and focused." Clegg has set a British target of 25 medals, including between six and nine golds, although that would represent a fall on the figures in Sydney in 2000, when Britain won 11 gold medals and 29 in total.

"We knew four years ago that we were storing up real trouble for ourselves four years down the road," Clegg said. "Before Sydney, we only won one gold in 1996. While almost everything went wrong for us in Atlanta, it all went right in Sydney. Here, if we can get off to a good start on the first weekend, when we've got a number of medal possibilities, that could really start the ball rolling. We reckon we have chances of medals in 16 of the 21 sports in which we're competing."

Peel (shooting), Fallon (judo) and Marshall (swimming) are among a host of Britons who are viewed as realistic medal chances. Clegg bristles at any suggestion that the low profile of many of the British team - particularly compared to the apparently never-ending rise in public interest in football - means that the country will not care too much about performances here. "In 2002 one in 10 of the population were watching television after midnight to watch our team win an Olympic curling gold medal," he said. "That tells you everything about what the Olympics means to the British public. It's special, it's history."

The 271-strong team is the smallest Britain has sent to an Olympics since 1980. In four sports - boxing, wrestling, weightlifting and tennis - there is only one British competitor. The team might look particularly thin on the ground at tomorrow night's opening ceremony as the British Olympic Association does not allow competitors in action over the following 48 hours to take part.

Little expense has been spared in guaranteeing the comfort of the team. The BOA brought an electrician and a carpenter here to ensure facilities were up to scratch, while the athletes' rooms in the village are well stocked with BOA-provided televisions, fridges and even ironing boards.

Pippa Funnell, one of the favourites for equestrian gold, said the facilities were better even than in Sydney. "We have more room and lovely big balconies," she said. "We're very grateful to the BOA for putting in the extras. Not that I'm going to have any time free to iron the boys' clothes."

The way British competitors were talking yesterday, you would imagine they would like to hang around even when their own events have finished. Peel, however, revealed that he would be staying on for only three days - "Just enough time to see Richard Faulds win another gold medal". Peel, who has a young family, missed his shooting colleague's golden triumph in Sydney as he was back at work less than a week after winning his own silver medal.

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