GOING FOR GOLD
Why darts, drug dealing and pole dancing may be the UK's only hopes for a medal in the 2012 London Olympics
Thirty years ago I sat in the stands at London's Crystal Palace athletics' arena to watch the greater and lesser athletes of the day go through their paces.
As I recall, some of the great and the good who had distinguished themselves at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, such as Don Quarrie and John Walker, put in end-of-season crowd-pleasing performances without exerting themselves overmuch. The sell-out crowd had little difficulty identifying the great and good of the UK Montreal team. There was just the one - Brendan Foster - who'd panted home in third place in the 10,000 metres, won by Finnish enigma Lasse Viren. But on that balmy evening, trundling home mid-field in a middle-distance race, was an athlete whose stupendous achievements were yet to come.
I'm put in mind of that late summer evening by some of the hoop-la surrounding the 2012 London Olympics. This event will lead, claim its supporters, to the kind of promised land that makes the Biblical one seem bleak by comparison. East London will rise from a third-rate dump to a 21st Century Shangri-la, sports-shy youngsters will shake themselves free of computer games addiction and rediscover the use of their legs, and UK competitors will win more medals than you can shake a relay baton at. In short the 2012 Olympics will be a miracle cure for many national ills.
Largely tosh of course, but the event has to be sold to the tax-payer who will pick up part of the multi-billion dollar tab the games come with.
As of now the objective that seems least likely to be achieved will be a big haul of athletics medals. Unlike football, where home advantage is so important, performing on a local track brings little advantage to domestic athletes. At the 2000 Sydney games Australian athletes' performances scarcely caused a flicker on the score board - 400-metre runner Cathy Freeman won a gold and Russian emigre Tatiana Grigorieva came second in the pole vault. And this from a nation for which sporting success is its national badge of pride. Greece fared little better at the 2004 Athens games with a haul of only three medals.
Seen from trackside 2006, UK athletes' 2012 prospects look dimmer than the North Star on a cloudy night in Chernobyl. Their collective performance at the recent Gothenburg European Championships was the worst ever, the sport is riven with drug scandals, and public interest is lower than a skunk's backside.
It's not hard to see why. For instance, 400-metre runner Christine Ohuruogu is suspended, having missed three drugs tests. She has been touted as the face of the 2012 games. This begs the question: who'll be the backside? Answers on a prescription note please. Also, UK athletes' performances have gone backwards. For example, the men's 100 metres record has stood since 1993, the 800 metre one since 1981 and the women's 100 and 200 also since 1981. Only in the shot putt has a new UK record been set this century.
What's more, athletics has got a whole lot more competitive in the past 20 years or so. African athletes dominate the middle and long distance events, and athletes of African heritage rule the sprints. Only in the field and collective events do European athletes exert dominance - and that is beginning to waiver.
Short of conferring UK nationality on imported foreign athletes it's difficult to see what the British Olympic Association can do to improve medal prospects. Perhaps it can persuade the Olympic Committee to include darts, drug dealing and pole dancing, where a top three finish is guaranteed.
Failing that the main hope is that there is - somewhere - a youngster on the brink of the big time, just as there was all those years ago at Crystal Palace when Sebastian Coe finished fifth in the 800 m.
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