Fallon blocks out talk of sparking a British gold rush

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The last wave of British Olympians did not waste much time in getting their medal-winning ball rolling in Sydney four years ago. Before the opening Saturday of competition was out, Jason Queally had struck gold in the Olympic velodrome.

Craig Fallon struggled to recall the moment yesterday. "I watched the Games on television but I can't remember seeing that," he said. The young man from Wolverhampton will have little trouble recollecting the first day of competition at the Athens Games - especially if he manages to put Great Britain on the medal board on Saturday.

Having won a silver medal at the judo World Championships in Osaka last September, Fallon is highly fancied for a place on the podium in the 60kg category in the Ano Liossia Olympic Hall. He is expected to be battling against the clock and the synchronised diving pair of Leon Taylor and Pete Waterfield for the first British medal of the Games.

But yesterday, as he relaxed at the British training camp in Cyprus, the pride of the Hardy Spicer Judo Club in Birmingham was thinking only of the struggle he will face on the mat - against opponents such as Min-Ho Choi, the South Korean who beat him to the world title in Osaka, and Tadahiro Nomura, the brilliant Japanese who will be challenging for a hat-trick of Olympic golds in the weight division.

"I'm trying to block out all this talk of being a big medal hope on the first day," Fallon said. "The fact that it's the first day or the last day doesn't matter. Everyone wants to go to the Olympics for the same reason: because it's one of their dreams to win a medal. The publicity is not something you think about. You just think about your own competition.

"It's my first Games and there's been a lot of hype because of how well I've done, but I'm just approaching it as if it's a normal competition. As soon as you get into the stadium and you're in the warm-up room, you'll realise it's just the same people around that you've been fighting the rest of the year."

Fallon might not have been fighting anyone in Athens had his coach, Fitzroy Davies, not lured him out of premature retirement. After a promising career in the junior ranks, he drifted out of the sport for two years. "I'd just lost interest," he reflected. "I wanted to do other things, to hang around with my friends and stuff.

"I didn't plan on coming back to compete again. I was planning to go into graphic design. But my coach kept coming round my house, dropping my sister off from judo, and at the end of 2000 I got back into it again."

At 21, Fallon is the "baby" of the eight-strong British judo team. At 31, Kate Howey is the veteran. She would have hung up her judogi four years ago, had the Cuban Sibelis Veranes not beaten her in the 70kg middleweight final. With a bronze medal from Barcelona in 1992, the Dartford woman wants to complete a full set of medals in what will be her final fling on the global stage.

"That's why I'm here: to win a gold medal," she said. "And if I wasn't capable of winning it I wouldn't be here. To have two Olympic medals is fantastic, but to get a third as gold would be the icing on the cake."

No Briton has ever won Olympic judo gold, although Diane Bell, the women's team manager in Athens, and Sharon Rendle both won at the Games - when women's judo was introduced as a "demonstration" sport in Seoul in 1988. "I did get a medal," Bell said, "but it wasn't a proper Olympic one."

Still, at least one member of the squad knows what it is like to break new ground. Back in 1993, Sophie Cox made it into the Guinness Book Of Records as a participant in the first rugby league match contested by women at Wembley Stadium.

The European 57kg silver medallist played at full-back for Rochdale Schools against Sheffield Schools in a curtain-raiser to the Challenge Cup Final. "We won 12-6," she proudly recalled.