It was a land full of not so much hope as gold-cast expectation. When the race for the Commonwealth 100m crown ran its dramatic 9.98sec course, though, there was no glory for the English favourites in the City of Manchester Stadium. Instead of England's anthem, it was the national tune of St Kitts and Nevis that hailed the winner of the Blue Riband event of the XVIIth Commonwealth Games.
To the palpable deflation of the 38,000 souls in the showpiece Games stadium, and doubtless millions more watching television pictures throughout the land, the showdown between Britain's brilliant young speed merchants, the 24-year-old Dwain Chambers and the 19-year-old Mark Lewis-Francis, petered out into a stunning non-contest. Staggeringly, they crossed the line last and second last as Kim Collins of St Kitts emerged from the shadows and his seemingly designated third-man role to snatch the golden prize. It would hardly have caused a greater stir had Orson Welles himself appeared on the track to steamroller to victory in the unused ninth lane.
Lewis-Francis and Chambers looked for all the world as though they had been steamrollered. They limped across the line seventh and eighth respectively, clocking barely credible times of 10.54sec and 11.19sec. Both rocked back sharply in their stride in mid-race – first Lewis-Francis, jolted by the pulling of a hamstring, then Chambers, visibly pained by the wretching of a calf muscle. Lewis-Francis, who earlier struggled to qualify from his semi-final, had made a good enough start to be on Collins' shoulder until halfway. Chambers had risen leaden-legged from his blocks and was never in contention.
Lewis-Francis crashed to the track just beyond the finish line and lay prostrate in a state of anguish and agony before a medical team arrived to bear him from the arena on a stretcher. Chambers never broke stride, hobbling at the highest possible speed past the waiting media and away in the direction of the treatment room.
Jason Gardener was left to speak for them, though his overriding emotion was one of deep personal disappointment, the European indoor 60m champion having failed to grasp the hand of opportunity unwittingly extended by his stricken team-mates. He was in the vanguard of a remarkable English 6-7-8 at the back of the field, placing sixth in 10.22sec.
"I feel for them deep down," the Bath sprinter said. "They're my greatest rivals, but I give them a lot of respect. England doesn't stage a major championships very often. It's terribly disappointing. I don't know what we're going to do about the relay now."
There is also the question of the European Championships, which start in Munich on Tuesday week. A fit Chambers and a fit Lewis-Francis would start as the leading contenders in the Bavarian capital. As the flags of St Kitts and Nevis, Nigeria and Canada were run up the three poles at the medal ceremony, England's finest were still receiving therapy in the treatment room.
In track and field terms, it was a shock of Richter Scale proportions. The form book throughout the season and through the three rounds to the final pointed to nothing more certain than Chambers or Lewis-Francis following in the footsteps of Allan Wells and Linford Christie as only the third British winner of the Commonwealth 100m crown since 1938.
Collins, though, came to Manchester with a high-class, high-speed pedigree of his own and chose the right moment to enforce his reputation. A student at Texas Christian University, the 26-year-old finished just behind Chambers in the 100m final at the World Championships in Edmonton last summer and won a bronze medal in the 200m.
Last night he blitzed clear of the ailing English pair to win in 9.98sec, a new national record for the tiny Caribbean twin islands he represents. "This is the greatest moment in the sporting history of St Kitts and Nevis," he declared. "Man, it's going to be wild tonight." In their maddest dreams, Uchenna Emedolu and Pierre Browne could never have hoped to join Collins on the medal rostrum. They did so, however, the Nigerian Emedolu having snatched second place in 10.11sec and the Canadian Brown stolen third in 10.12sec.
In contrast to their male counterparts, the three English sprinters in the women's 100m field were all simply satisfied to have made it as far as the final. Not that the trio were ever going to figure in the medal winners' frame. The Caribbean contingent was far too strong for that. Thus it proved as Debbie Ferguson of the Bahamas won from Veronica Campbell of Jamaica and the second Bahamaian in the field, Sevatheda Fynes. Ferguson won in style too, smashing the Games record in 10.91 sec as Amanda Forrester, Shani Anderson and Abi Oyepitan finished fifth, sixth and seventh respectively.
There was one other home runner who hared off down the home straight last night. He streaked in all his naked glory past the finish line, then took a left turn and dived on to the high-jump bed. It was not the first English flop of the night.
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