Stunning triumph vindicates relay team

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Four British athletes sat together on the poolside terrace of the Politia Tennis Club yesterday, the realisation of what they had done the previous evening soaking into them like the sunshine that blazed down from a cloudless Athens sky.

Four British athletes sat together on the poolside terrace of the Politia Tennis Club yesterday, the realisation of what they had done the previous evening soaking into them like the sunshine that blazed down from a cloudless Athens sky.

Jason Gardener, Darren Campbell, Marlon Devonish and Mark Lewis-Francis had earned their country its first Olympic 4x100m title since 1912, when the event began, doing so by the closest margin in Games history, officially one hundredth of a second.

But for this group of sprinters, the morning after the night before, all the statistics in the world evaporated in the warmth of one simple fact: they had won gold. As they toyed and stared at the medals hanging round their necks, they were like children on Christmas Day who had got the one thing they most wanted.

As they explained once again how their self-belief had allowed them to overcome a powerful United States team, each one in turn faltered at the enormity of their achievement.

"I mean, Olympic champion," said Gardener. "I've got goose pimples now. I keep pinching myself and...", leaning over to two of his team-mates, "pinching him and pinching him." Campbell stared down at his medal, his eyes beginning to mist up: "This is an amazing thing. This is an amazing thing..."

For the 30-year-old athlete from Manchester's notorious Moss Side, perhaps more than any of the others, Saturday night's victory came as a vindication after a week in which he had endured media criticism harsh enough to make him question whether he should carry on with the relay, or even his career.

Campbell has been in contact with his solicitors over comments made by Michael Johnson, working here for BBC TV. The United States' former Olympic 200 and 400 metres champion questioned the validity of the hamstring tear which Campbell - who moved out of the Olympic Village in order to receive intensive medical treatment - reported on the eve of the track-and-field programme.

As for Colin Jackson, who maintained that British sprinters would not win any medals at these Games and would struggle to reach any finals, Campbell had a teasing response in the wake of a victory that had not been predicted by anyone - "I've got a gold medal", he announced with a wide grin.

Jackson, in truth, was not far wrong, given that the only British sprinter to reach any final here was Abi Oyepitan in the 200m. But Saturday's result came like a blinding knock-out from a battered fighter.

There was also for Campbell the reflection that the 200m silver medal he won in Sydney four years ago behind Konstadinos Kederis, whose embroilment in a doping scandal prevented him defending his title on home soil, might by rights have been a different colour. "Maybe this is the way it should have been four years ago," he said. "We'll have to see what happens."

All logic suggested that Britain had no chance of winning a title the Americans had secured on 15 of the 19 previous occasions. The US quartet was individually formidable. Shawn Crawford was 200m champion here and had a time of 9.88sec to his credit this season. And although they lost John Capel from their line-up because of a positive test for cannabis, in Darvis Patton and Coby Miller they had runners who had both gone under 10 seconds, something only Gardener of the British team had managed. Then there was Maurice Greene, who took 100m bronze here to go with his gold of four years ago and formerly held the world record with 9.79sec.

But the Britons' semi-final qualification, despite a potentially terminal handover between Devonish and Lewis-Francis and an awkward inside lane draw, generated genuine hope in the camp, to the point where, in Campbell's analysis, victory was virtually unavoidable...

Thus Britain took the chance it spurned against a weakened US team lacking Greene at last year's world championships in Paris. On that occasion, Dwain Chambers failed to carry home the last leg he had been offered against a 200m specialist, JJ Johnson. And yet, paradoxically, Chambers played an influential part in Saturday's victory.

When the European champion received his two-year ban in February for taking the designer steroid tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), all the previous summer's relay runs in which he had taken part were declared null and void and the silver medals from Paris had to be returned.

It left the British team perilously close to the cut-off point of sixteen nations eligible to compete at the Games, and extra competitive opportunities had to be set up earlier this summer in order to bring the quartet back up the pecking order.

Steve Perks, the sprint relay coach, reckoned in the aftermath of victory that there had been three dedicated training gatherings and four races.

Greene stumblingly revealed the US had had only two get-togethers, before and during a race in Munich earlier this month. As they warmed up, it was reported that they were doing so in two groups. Their cause was ultimately damaged by a poor changeover between Patton and Miller.

The US weakness was there again, and this time Britain capitalised on it, just as they did 13 years ago at the Tokyo world championships, where Kriss Akabusi hung on to secure victory in the 400 metres relay.

For the runner who played the Akabusi role here, Lewis-Francis, the result could yet restore him to the gilded path he followed as a junior athlete after three years of bewildering, and bewildered, under-performance.

In maintaining a half-metre lead on the last leg against Greene, bringing Britain home in 38.07sec, the 21-year-old Birmingham athlete demonstrated the uninhibited talent which once prompted Canada's Olympic 100m champion of 1996, Donovan Bailey, to predict that he could win gold in Athens.

Bailey turned out to be both wrong and right. But for Lewis-Francis, the intensity of this experience could yet prove sufficient for him to justify Bailey's confidence four years on in Beijing. "I've never been so excited in my life," the former world junior champion enthused. "Now I just believe I can be a major contender in the world. I can look at this medal every time I'm training and think 'nothing's impossible'."

Perks said one last thing to the four men before they went out onto the track for their final - "Seize the day". They duly did. But as they sat, still dazed, by the pool, it was as if the day had seized them.