Why the golden age of British athletics is a thing of the past

After the glory...why Britain's athletes will struggle in Athens

With just over a week to go before the centrepiece of the Olympics, the track and field programme, gets under way in Athens, Britain's athletes face an alarmingly barren prospect. Will these be the no-medal Games?

When the main British athletics team was announced last month, much was made of the fact that it was the smallest since the 1976 Olympics, when the return was a solitary 10,000m bronze courtesy of Brendan Foster. The addition of a further 11 names may have altered the statistic but it has failed to change the growing feeling within the sport that this is a team of which little, if anything, can be expected.

The prevailing mood of pessimism was reflected in the recent observation by Dave Moorcroft, the chief executive of UK Athletics, that British athletes could win between six and nought medals in Athens - with the latter a grim, but all too real, possibility.

As Foster put it recently: "The English football team had 'won' Euro 2004 before they lost it; the athletics team have 'lost' the Olympics before they have even started."

Foster added that we should wait and see how things turned out in Athens, before rushing to pre-judgement. That is clearly sensible, but should Paula Radcliffe fail in her admirably singleminded pursuit of the Olympic marathon gold medal, no other Briton can be expected to top the podium in the home of the modern Olympics.

At which point, there will no doubt be a tendency for popular opinion to hark back to the golden memories celebrated in BBC2's Sunday offering of the The 50 Greatest Olympic Moments. Steve Ovett. Sebastian Coe. Linford Christie. Sally Gunnell. Denise Lewis. Jonathan Edwards. They don't make them like that any more.

The danger with such nostalgia, however, is that it tends to translate golden moments into a golden age. And British athletics, as the statistics demonstrate, has never been that solid.

For example, according to the widely used means of evaluating championship performances - whereby first place means eight points, and eighth in the final earns one - the most successful Olympics for Britain in the space of the last 20 years were the 1988 Games in Seoul. And yet the absence of a gold medallist in South Korea means those Games do not have a special place in the public consciousness.

Stand-out performances by the likes of Coe, Christie and Edwards took place in Games that, statistically, provided a lower level of success for Britain. The truth is that, ever since the modern Games began, Britain's fortunes have fluctuated in the Olympic arena, and there has never been a clear pattern to the results.

Having said which, there was good reason four years ago, in the aftermath of the last Games in Sydney, to believe that British athletics was in especially robust health.

To begin with, the sport found itself in a state of near euphoria after a haul of six medals, with gold going to Edwards and Lewis. What's more, the future appeared unusually bright, particularly in the glamorous world of men's sprinting - where informed voices were suggesting that a generation of young Britons was well placed to challenge the Americans.

All this and more money, with more Lottery funding in the pipeline. The future looked bright, the future looked golden. Four years down the line, the immediate future looks largely bronze, at best.

Radcliffe is made of precisely the same stern stuff as some of these former champions. But there is an excessive pressure on her shoulders, given the absence of any other championship contenders. Team-mates such as Kelly Holmes, Chris Rawlinson, Phillips Idowu and, perhaps, Kelly Sotherton will travel more in reasonable hope than firm expectation.

What has happened? Ironically, there are some even within the system who believe that the Lottery money has been bad for Britain's Olympic hopes.

The Olympic fours gold medallist, James Cracknell, has voiced scepticism about the system which has provided an orderly financial backing for increasing numbers of competitors since it was introduced in the wake of the 1996 Olympics. "I think we have to be a bit careful that the National Lottery doesn't make life too easy," Cracknell said. "I would be happier if Lottery grants were bonus-related."

More recently, British athletics' team captain, Darren Campbell, has criticised some fellow athletes for squandering their Lottery money on "PlayStation games and DVDs", adding: "You can get into a comfort zone where you dream about having a certain type of lifestyle and it's all about money. It can make you soft."

Of the 64 athletes currently receiving between £20,000 and £30,000 per annum from the Lottery-funded World Class Performance programme, which has spent £25m across all Olympic sports in each of the last four years, less than half have achieved the Olympic A standard qualifying levels this season. It does not make comfortable reading, and Max Jones, who retires as the UK performance director after the Athens Games, has indicated recently that the number of athletes eligible for funding after the Athens Games is likely to drop by almost half.

Nevertheless, Jones yesterday offered a staunch defence of the benefits of continued Lottery support. "We all know it was better in the old days when we walked seven miles to work down the pit," he said in a sideswipe at those who believed athletes were better when times were hard. "I think it's a bit of a myth that all our great stars of the past all did it in their spare time."

He raised the example of Sotherton, who quit her job with a bank in Birmingham last year to become a full-time, Lottery-funded athlete. "If she hadn't given up work and got Lottery support, she wouldn't be where she is now, ranked in the top three in the world for the heptathlon."

As for the relatively small proportion of qualifying marks, Jones points out that this is as a result of drastically improved standards set by the International Olympic Committee for the forthcoming Games.

Were current standards applied to the last Olympics, 18 who competed in Sydney would not be eligible to appear in Athens. Jones points out with some justification that athletes such as Edwards and Colin Jackson, who both retired last year, only come around rarely.

Jones is also entitled to rue the injuries which have deprived Britain of talents such as Ashia Hansen in the triple jump and Katharine Merry in the 400 metres.

"The team has more possibles than probables this time around," he adds, "but I think some people are being too pessimistic."

An extra chill has been added to the air by Britain's failure last month to earn a single medal at the World Junior Championships in Grossetto, something a national team have not done at a major event since 1972, and something which Jones admits causes him concern.

"We have got to try to get our act together over the next four years on the development side of the sport," he said.

The choice of his successor next month is one of the key elements of the vision to reform the sport domestically, set out recently by Sir Andrew Foster, the former controller of the Audit Commission.

The recent events in Italy have added pertinence to one of Foster's observations: "Athletics is often measured by results at the last senior major championship. However, a good guide to the future health of the performance side of the sport is given by the results at junior level."

The changes proposed, which include investment into schools and grass-roots projects, a reform of the competition structure and the streamlining of the sport's administration,will be overseen over the next 18 months by a Project Board whose director was named yesterday as the former European 5,000m champion Jack Buckner.

Having worked widely within the business sector since he retired, Buckner is just the kind of smart operator UK Athletics needs to make things that have seemed obvious for so many years actually come to pass.