Sport on TV: Goldendeeds rise above smell of British gas

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The Independent Online
'UP YOUR GAS' may have been the name of the fateful potion which removed the 200m runner Solomon Wariso from the European Championships (BBC1, BBC2), but the same phrase might easily have headed the instructions to commentary teams covering the games. Britain won nine gold medals at the last European Championships, and with eight days of coverage to fill here, there was only one possible route to the hearts of the viewer - 'British Interest'.

This mantra, repeated time and again, as live or recorded action was fed back to us from Helsinki - with Des, Dave (Moorcroft) and Daley as linkmen - had the cumulative effect of any number of banned substances, in bending the mind. The aim of the resultant 'high' is to make you believe that Britons will win at everything, and that even if they do not, it's somebody else's fault.

So despite the early embarrassment of Wariso's drug-test failure - the fault of the Chinese for using their own word on the bottle instead of ephedrine - and the withdrawal of the hot favourite for the 200 metres, John Regis, the British bandwagon rolled on, wind-assisted by David Coleman, Brendan Foster and company.

After Christie's first heat, Daley Thompson's assessment was that 'the other guys are only looking at 2nd, 3rd, or 4th'. 'They'll be looking at his backside]' quipped Des. Indeed they would, as Christie duly delivered, running as though he could have pulled that tyre from the Lucozade advert with him and still won handsomely. What followed wasn't so pretty, as Christie peeled off his kit, to don a T-shirt extolling the consistency of his running shoes. Couldn't some BBC 'gofer' have tossed him a Union Jack?

Christie's win was twinned with Steve Backley's recapture of his javelin title, giving the Beeb a notable tea-time fillip after the Test Match had ended with 'British Interest' waning. Despite the event being described as highly competitive, it took just one Backley throw to put him out of reach of all bar the Finnish thrower, a Kenneth Clarke lookalike, complete with the same knee-supports, called Seppo Raty. Raty, despite the crowd's roars - 'Finland is Javelin Country' warned a banner - couldn't close the two-metre gap between Backley and himself. Two-up for Britain.

By Tuesday, the rip-tide of nationalism had become unstoppable. The big build-up wasgiven to the 1500 metres, with a montage of the seven previous British winners. As the race unfolded, however, both British runners, Gary Lough and David Strang, took up nonstrategic positions at the rear of the field, to the extent that David Coleman couldn't bring himself to mention them in his last-lap commentary. A brief caption of the result showed the Brits at 11th and 12th of the 12 - the word 'last' is never used - and no comment was passed. It was as if they had become 'non-persons'.

In the later highlights programme, the embarrassment had healed sufficiently for the names to be mentioned, with Moorcroft avowing that 'they'll have learnt some hard lessons today'. The first one being not to lose on prime-time BBC.

Wednesday's Helsinki bulletin brought a bizarre, but in a way entirely predictable, diversion, as 'Britain's Yvonne Murray' suddenly found herself taking second billing to 'Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan'. The programme- planners had plainly read the pre-race form and decided that O'Sullivan was the better bet, especially as she had been training in Teddington. Sure enough, this 'British Interest' angle was ruthlessly taken up once Sonia had won, with Des bestowing the ultimate in patronising accolades - 'you must be as popular in Ireland as Jack Charlton now]'

Thursday's one-two in the men's 400 metres, with the likeable Du'aine Ladejo out-pointing Roger Black, on and off the track, with his personality and enthusiasm, kept the gusher bubbling.

Since the last European Championships in 1990, the Soviet Union, East Germany, Yugoslavia and the Eastern Bloc have, in assorted manner, been dismantled. State patronage of athletics has gone with them. Meanwhile, the sportswear companies have been heavily bankrolling the high-profile athletes. So what was once an elemental battle between plucky, self-starting individual and state monoliths, has become a rather predictable contest between the elite, with the pots of money, and the majority with less of it.

Coleman did offer a glimmer of dissatisfaction at one point, declaring the championships 'a six- day schedule stretched to eight', but either can't or won't see the wider issue. If athletics isn't careful, its promiscuous embrace of tournaments will leave it with the clapped-out, character-free tone that the tennis circuit has become. And despite the British successes, I'd have thought that the next European Championships can be donated to the satellite channels - how about UK Gold?

Giles Smith returns in the autumn