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Last Updated: Sunday, 29 August, 2004, 22:02 GMT 23:02 UK
Will the golden glow soon fade?
By Tom Fordyce

British athletics left Athens flushed with success, riding high on Kelly Holmes' second gold and the shock win of the 4x100m relay team.

With three track and field gold medals, this was Britain's most successful Olympics since 1984 and 1980 - and both those were boycott-hit Games missing huge numbers of potential rival medallists.

GB ATHLETICS IN ATHENS
Kelly Holmes
Athletes: 58
Finalists: 18
Personal bests: 16

All could not be rosier in the GB garden, surely?

Not quite. In fact, the golden glow may be fading even as Holmes and the relay team fly home from Greece.

Britain took a squad of 58 to Athens. But only 18 of those athletes reached the finals of their events, and only six produced personal bests when it mattered most.

Holmes apart, the only individual medal won by the remaining 57 was Kelly Sotherton's bronze in the heptathlon.

The comparison with some smaller nations is not a happy one.

Sweden, for example, had an athletics squad of just 16 - but produced three gold medals, for Carolina Kluft, Stefan Holm and Christian Olsson.

The British men's sprint relay gold was a wonderful surprise on the last day of competition in the Olympic Stadium.

But it also masks a worrying trend within the male part of the British team.

In the nine individual track finals, Britain had just one male representative - Michael East in the 1500m.

For the first time since 1976, there was not a single Briton in the final of the 100m. None of the relay team could make the final of the 200m either.

Watch the women

The British men have historically out-performed their female counterparts.

Using the traditional scoring system (three for gold, two for silver, one for bronze) the men out-scored the women 9-1 in Atlanta and 7-5 in Sydney.

In Athens, the women took over. The score was 7-3 in their favour, and that was with potential triple jump gold medallist Ashia Hansen missing injured and Paula Radcliffe failing to win the medal we had all expected.

Of those British athletes who exceeded expectations, almost all were women - Holmes, Sotherton, Abi Oyepitan and Jade Johnson.

Of those who failed to perform to the level expected, most, Paula excepted, were male - Phillips Idowu, the sprinters in the individual 100m and 200m and the 400m men.

GB ATHLETICS GOLDS
Mark Lewis-Francis and Marlon Devonish celebrate
Seoul 1988: none
Barcelona 1992: two
Atlanta 1996: none
Sydney 2000: two
Athens 2004: three

Not that the long-term prognosis looks great for either gender.

At this summer's World Junior Championships in Grossetto, Britain failed to win a single medal for the first time since 1972.

Go further back in the development process to this year's English School Championships, traditionally the first sighting of new talent, and you find a record low number of entries, with some events gong straight to finals.

The pool of fit, athletically-gifted children in Britain from which future Olympic champions might come is shrinking at an alarming rate.

70% of all children stop all physical exercise when they leave school.

Among girls, the problem is even worse - according to recent government figures, they are one-third more likely than boys to give up physical activity and twice as likely to become obese.

Athletics, like many other sports, is also paying the price for the absolute dominance of football in 21st century British life.

Football offers glamour, prestige and wealth that athletics cannot offer.

While athletics clubs up and down the country struggle to fill teams for league fixtures, football has more than 40,000 clubs at recreational level in England alone.

Outgoing UK Athletics performance director Max Jones admits: "We have got to try to get our act together over the next four years on the development side of things."

To that end, UK Sport's performance director Mike Whittingham has already had preliminary talks with Trevor Brooking, the Football Association's director of development.

Whittingham hopes to formalise an arrangement that would see talented youngsters who fail to make the grade as professional footballers given the chance to try other Olympic sports.

Beyond that, the recent Foster Review into British athletics has recommended investment into schools and grassroots, reform of the competition structure and streamlining of the sport's administration.

Jack Buckner, former European 5,000m champion, has been appointed to implement the changes.

On the elite side, a replacement for Jones will be named soon, with Denise Lewis' coach Charles van Commenee and Athletics Australia head coach Keith Connor both linked to the job.

Athens was wonderful. But there are no guarantees that Beijing and Olympics beyond that will be just as successful.





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