Alan Campbell sets his sights on a gold reward


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The Independent Online

While everyone else in Coleraine is doubtless preparing to paint the town red, the Royal Mail may yet be ordering a few cans of a very different hue.

“They told us if we win a gold we’ll get a gold postbox in the town,” Alan Campbell said today. “Hopefully, we’ll get three.”

The Ulsterman was speaking after an authoritative performance in his solo sculls quarter-final and moments before bolting to gain a vantage point as the men’s lightweight four — including two brothers from his home town, Richard and Peter Chambers — began their semi-final. And he shared the euphoria of an exuberantly partisan crowd as the British boat wore down their Swiss rivals in a thriller.

High time, perhaps, they stopped calling themselves Team GB and gave these men due acknowledgement as Team UK instead.

The Swiss gained a narrow lead with a strong start but it was neck and neck soon after halfway and the two crews flashed over the 1,500-metre line in unison. Roared on by the galleries, the Chambers brothers, Rob Williams and Chris Bartley gradually inched clear and the Swiss, spent by their brave effort, were hard pressed to hold off Holland for second place.

The winning time of 5min 59.68sec compared with 6min 3.53 sec by Denmark, winners the other semi-final.

Judging from his own experience, Campbell could have no doubt that his compatriots had been spurred by the swelling din of encouragement. “It’s phenomenal,” he said. “The last 750m today was just a wall of noise.

“They’re talking about empty seats at other venues— that’s because everyone is here! They’ve been like the Willy Wonka golden tickets. I wish I was a rock star and could get more of my friends and family backstage passes. Win or lose, I’ve got the best support.”

Campbell controlled his quarter-final throughout, clear by halfway and holding out by a comfortable length from Germany’s former world champion, Marcel Hacker. His time was quicker than both Mahe Drysdale and Ondrej Synek, in their quarters, though none will have been anxious to reach the bottom of the barrel with only 24 hours before the semi-final.

But if Drysdale and Synek remain favourites, on past meetings, Campbell is plainly on a roll. “I feel in very good form but I do have to keep a lid on it,” he said. “I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. When it comes to the final, the gloves come off.”

Both the other British boats on the water today made it through to their respective finals, though any ambition beyond a bronze looks fanciful.

Bill Lucas and Sam Townsend held on for the third qualifying spot in their double sculls semi-final, in the slowest time of six qualifiers, while the ladies’ eight only made it through by dint of a repechage that sieved out just one of five crews. The Germans obliged by soon dropping away but even those who finished clear of GB seem doomed as cannon fodder for the United States.

The British eight include Townsend’s fiancee, Natasha Page, who admitted: “I think we need to be a bit more gutsy, have a bit more belief. It’s a question of piecing it all together, and being a bit stricter on ourselves. But we’ll be giving it all we’ve got.”

Home crews apart, the loudest cheer was reserved for Hamadou Djibo Issaka, who wrote another chapter of his surreal Olympic adventure.

Christened “Issaka The Otter”, the 35-year-old novice oarsman from Niger again received rapturous encouragement as he trailed in a distant last in his final eliminator from the single sculls.

Issaka, who received his first rowing lesson only three months ago, was palpably feeling the effects of his first two races as he finished the 2,000 metres course in nine minutes 7.99 seconds — much his slowest time yet — having started out on Saturday in 8mins 25.56secs and faded to 8 mins 39.66secs on Monday.

But the galleries, having greeted a winner from Hong Kong with polite applause 83 seconds earlier, once again rose to roar home their increasingly laboured hero. Sir Steve Redgrave is not impressed but the organisers stress  Issaka was given a wild card in the Olympian spirit of inclusivity.