Exit Craig as Britain miss the 'Buster' bus

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The Independent Online

As the 22nd and final event drew to a conclusion at Crystal Palace late on Friday night, an open-topped double-decker bus entered the arena with "Athens" displayed on its destination board and with Britain's track-and-field Olympians sitting aloft waving to the crowd.

As the 22nd and final event drew to a conclusion at Crystal Palace late on Friday night, an open-topped double-decker bus entered the arena with "Athens" displayed on its destination board and with Britain's track-and-field Olympians sitting aloft waving to the crowd. Quite how Yelena Isinbayeva came to be among them was a mystery. The woman who had earlier raised her pole-vault world record to 4.90m was born and bred in Volgograd. She will be vaulting for Mother Russia in Athens in three weeks' time.

As the vehicle circled the track in the wrong direction, confirmation came from the warm-up area that Britain had in fact missed the bus with regard to securing the competitive services of an athlete with genuine Olympic medal potential. Unlike the celebrated Malachi Davis, who finished a barely noticed seventh in the 400m in the Norwich Union London Grand Prix, Craig Mottram has held a British passport for quite some time now. He was born and raised in the Australian state of Victoria, but his father is a Londoner and his mother a Scot. His father, Brian, played as a centre-half for Wimbledon in the Southern League days of Dickie Guy and Dave Bassett.

For the past three years, Mottram Jnr has spent the European summer training in London. Three months ago he bought a flat at Hampton Wick. At the same time, he mooted the possibility of transferring his allegiance to Britain, as a dispute raged between his training group, coached by Nic Bideau - the long-term partner of Sonia O'Sullivan, Ireland's Olympic 5,000m silver medallist - and Athletics Australia, their national federation.

On the strength of the stunning performance he produced in the 5,000m on Friday night, the former Australian junior triathlon champion would have been a powerful addition to a fading force of a British track-and-field team. No British-born runner has ever got remotely within striking distance of Haile Gebrselassie, but in the little emperor's final track race on these shores the hugely inspired Mottram came tantalisingly close to taking the prized scalp of the greatest distance runner of them all.

With 500m remaining, he hit the front, and Gebrselassie only just managed to get past him in the home straight. The Ethiopian had to run the fastest-ever 5,000m time in Britain to win, clocking 12min 55.51sec. And Mottram's time as runner-up, 12:55.76, was the fastest by a non-African runner who has not infringed the doping rules; the Moroccan-born Belgian Mohammed Mourhit and the German Dieter Baumann were both quicker, prior to suspensions.

It was easily the finest display of the night by a British-passport holder. But, to the relief of the Australian press corps gathered at trackside, Mottram emphatically proclaimed he would be holding on to his green-and-gold vest. "You can't have me," he shouted to a lone Briton enquiring about his international intentions. "It's pretty good here in London, but it's not really home to me. I'm an Aussie."

It is a great pity for Great Britain, because the towering 24-year-old - known to his mates as "Buster", after Buster Mottram, the former British tennis player - happens to be a big, burgeoning talent. That much was reflected by the reaction of the diminutive Gebrselassie. "The big guy really gave me a hard race," the two-time Olympic 10,000m champion said. "Wow, he's fantastic! He went past me like a whippet."

The trouble for British athletics is that, in the metaphorical sense at least, the male side is in serious danger of going to the dogs. Of the 58-strong combined men's and women's team chosen for Athens, only two athletes are ranked in the world's top three - Paula Radcliffe (first at 10,000m, second at 5,000m, though intending to concentrate on the marathon in Athens) and Kelly Sotherton (third in the heptathlon). Kelly Holmes (at 800m and 1500m) and Hayley Tullett (at 1500m) are also serious medal contenders, but in the men's team not one athlete happens to be placed in the world's top five.

Such a depressing statistic begged the question yesterday, as the British squad moved on from their night at the Palace to a send-off in Trafalgar Square, as to whether the male red, white and blue Olympians of 2004 could be on course for a place in the history books. Never before have a British men's track-and-field team failed to win at least one medal at an Olympic Games. (Britain declined to send a team to the 1904 Games in St Louis, though Tom Kiely, who won the inaugural decathlon, and John Daly, who finished second in the steeplechase, were Irish athletes pedantically listed as representing "Great Britain and Ireland", because Ireland was not recognised as a separate competitive entity at the time.)

In the continued absence of a spark from the British 100m men of today, none of whom made it past the heats to the final on Friday night, the biggest flicker of hope at Crystal Palace came from Phillips Idowu. The 25-year-old Londoner recaptured the form that pushed Jonathan Edwards to the limit in the Commonwealth Games triple-jump final in Manchester two years ago, winning with 17.47m - a 47cm improvement on his previous best for the season which hoisted him from 20th to sixth in the world rankings.

Chris Rawlinson also timed his competitive send-off to Athens with a confidence-boosting win, finishing two strides clear of James Carter, the American who heads the world rankings in the 400m hurdles. In his younger days, Rawlinson was an unsuccessful contender on the Gladiators television show. At 32, he has been a failed challenger for a global championship medal for five years now. This time it might be different for him.

Like Mottram at Crystal Palace, Rawlinson will find the Olympic Stadium in Athens something of a home from home. For the past three years he has been a member of the Athenian club Panellinios. "I'm told I've got my own supporters' club out there," he said. "They've done some reports on me on Greek television. It's nice to think you can have that kind of support and recognition from people in a foreign land."