Tactical mistakes send British medal target off track

He's a 6ft 5in speed machine and he has been getting faster all summer. Sadly for Britain, though, Martyn Rooney could not quite do the Lightning Bolt and shoot the men's 4 x 400m relay quartet into the medal frame on the final leg of the final track event in the Beijing Bird's Nest. The Croydon Harrier made a valiant effort, but with three runners to get past and some 25 metres to make up he could not quite nail the bronze medal spot. At the finish line he was still 0.75 seconds shy of Denis Alexeev, who anchored Russia to third, behind the United States and the Bahamas.

So that was it: fourth place in 2min 58.81sec and the last chance gone of the British athletics team hitting their Beijing target of five medals. The last realistic chance, at any rate, with hopes of a top-15 finish for Dan Rob-inson in the men's marathon early today but not quite a serious medal challenge. There were four British track and field medals at the Athens Olympics four years ago and five at the World Championships in Osaka last summer, when Dave Collins, the performance director of UK Athletics, ventured to suggest: "The supertanker has turned and it's steaming into clearer waters."

With 2012 now on the horizon, and other British sports sailing ahead, this stalling on the Beijing rocks will have sent out signals of some distress on behalf of the traditional showcase Olympic sport.

There was British disappointment all around yesterday, not least for Lisa Dobriskey. When it came to the crunch in the women's 1500m final, when Mary-am Jamal got a jump on the field with some 500m remaining – the Commonwealth champion was boxed in near the back of the field. With 150m to go she was making ground, but fight as she did down the home straight she couldn't quite get to Natalyia Tobias in the bronze medal position. Dobriskey finished 0.32sec down in a time of 4min 02.10sec, as Nancy Langat of Kenya took gold in 4:00.23 and Iryna Lishchynska and Tobias claimed silver and bronze for the Ukraine. "I was just so desperate to get that medal," a tearful Dobriskey lamented. "I feel like I've missed an opportunity. I just missed out tactically."

The same could be said of the women's 4 x 400m quartet. In tactical terms, the decision to run Christine Ohuruogu on the first leg was akin to playing Fernando Torres at the heart of the Liverpool defence. His strong suit is finishing and so is Ohuruogu's – when she has rivals to gun down and the finish line is in her sights. The British winner of the individual 400m was unable to gain any advantage, returning the fifth-fastest opening split.

And that – after the baton had been fed onwards to Kelly Sotherton, Marilyn Okoro and Nicola Sanders – was where the British team finished: fifth in 3min 22.68sec as Sanya Richards, beaten by Ohuruogu in the 400m final, surged past Anastasia Kapachinskaya to claim American gold. "I just go where I'm needed and trust the judgement of the selectors and the coach," Ohuruogu reflected. "We expected a better result. We did not get one. But I wouldn't necessarily say it's back to the drawing board." Whether it will be head on the chopping board for Collins remains to be seen.

As the inquest loomed for British athletics, there was unbridled joy for Belgium. On Friday they won their first Olympic track and field medal in 32 years with silver for their women's 4 x 100m relay team. And yesterday, in a gripping women's high jump final, the bespectacled Tia Hellebaut soared to a national record of 2.05m to inflict the first defeat in 35 competitions on the Croatian favourite Blanka Vlasic. It was the first Belgian success in an Olympic athletics event since Gaston Roelants sped to steeplechase gold in Tokyo in 1964.