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'I let country down' laments Pickering

Craig Pickering is nothing if not honest, so it was hardly surprising that he brushed aside all well-meaning attempts from his team-mates to take joint responsibility for the dropped baton that put an end to Britain's defence of the 4x100m relay title almost as soon as it had begun here on a night of heats which, bizzarely, saw 11 countries come to grief.

The 21-year-old former European junior champion, running the last leg, took off too early as Marlon Devonish approached. Realising his mistake, Pickering slowed up and looked back at the increasingly desperate figure of his team-mate, who almost fell over his heels as they fumbled a changeover that eventually took place outside the designated area. Although Pickering ran on to finish second to Jamaica's former world champion Asafa Powell in the next lane, the look on his face as he crossed the line made it obvious he knew the consequence of his misjudgement - disqualification.

"I feel like I've let the team and the country down," a despondent Pickering said. "Unfortunately for the next four years I am going to be remembered as the guy who messed up."

Pickering's suspicion may not be strictly accurate, as the highest profile erring figure on the night was Tyson Gay. The world 100 and 200m champion had dropped the baton on the last changeover in the previous heat, thus ending the pursuit of a 16th Olympic sprint relay title for the United States men's team. If it was a bad day for Britain, it was even worse for the Americans, whose women also came to grief on the final leg of their relay heat, with Torri Edwards and Lauryn Williams combining to disastrous effect.

Gay had closed his hand as third leg runner Darvis Patton placed the baton on it, only to find he was grasping nothing. The image was emblematic of Gay's miserable Games, following his failure to reach the 100m final.

Both runners involved strove manfully to take the blame. "I dropped it," said Gay. "It's my job to make sure he had it secure," said Patton. Let's hope they don't come to blows over who is sorriest.

And all this on a night when the American poster girl, Allyson Felix, was beaten into silver medal position in the 200 metres final by Jamaica's Veronica Campbell-Brown, just as she had been four years ago in Athens.

Devonish, the only remaining member of the British team which earned unexpected gold in 2004, gave vent to his feelings of frustration at a mishap which mirrored the team's baton fumbling at the 2000 Sydney Games.

"We're bitterly disappointed, totally gutted," he said. "There's been a lot of expectation on this team. We didn't come here to play games but it's a team event and we all take full responsibility. There are no excuses.

"I'm not sure if I didn't go quick enough or if Craig went early, everything happens so quickly in the relay."

But there is a spark of hope for Britain in the progress of their women's quartet, whose chances of earning something here have been significantly improved by the absence of the United States, France and Italy.

The British quartet of individual 100m finalist Jeanette Kwayke, Montell Douglas, Emily Freeman and Emma Ania finished in second place behind Belgium to raise hopes that they might be the ones to deliver the fifth British medal in athletics which would match the target set by UK Sport.

"We played it safe and there is a lot more to come from the team," Kwayke said. "I'm pretty sure we can win a medal. It is the best team since the 1980s and we are ready."

Perhaps all the errant relay runners would do well to take notice of the Japanese men's team which secured the third fastest qualifying time behind Trinidad and Tobago and a Jamaican team that has still to add a modicum of extra speed to its line-up in the form of the Olympic 100 and 200 metres champion Usain Bolt. Asked about handover technique, team member Naoki Tsukahara responded: "We have no special strategies, just some eye exchanges and telepathy."

Sounds worth thinking about.