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When the London 2012 Olympics were little more than a gleam in the eye of Lord Coe, Christine Ohuruogu kicked her way out of the chorus line of British women’s 400m running, snatching the title role at the national championships and earning selection for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
The tale was embellished when we learnt that 21-year-old Ohuruogu lived barely a minute’s run, about 400m, from where the putative Olympic Stadium would be in Stratford, east London. Now that that stadium is to be a reality, barring disasters on the Pickett’s Lock scale, Ohuruogu, with im-peccable timing, has added a much more substantial chapter to the story. She has won the Commonwealth title with what deserves to be considered as one of the best performances in Melbourne this week.
For in a games whose critics say, with some justification, that the competition is neither up to Olympic nor world championship standard, Ohuruogu beat Tonique Williams-Darling of the Bahamas, who just happens to be Olympic and world champion. When there has been so much written about the disaster area that is British athletics, here was an exuberant performance to remind us that while one swallow may not make a summer, one athlete – such as a Dame Kelly Holmes or an Ohuruogu – can do much to make an international championship a national success story.
While the other gold medallists so far – Dean Macey in a welcome return from long-term injury in the decathlon, Kelly Sotherton in the heptathlon and the utterly surprising 22-year-old Lisa Dobriskey in the 1500m – will find August’s European Championships in Gothenburg an entirely different prospect, a victory in an international championship can do immeasurable good.
Former world record holder Steve Cram points out that his march to an Olympic final in 1980, and European and Commonwealth victory two years later, began by being selected for a Commonwealth team as a 17 year old in 1978. And that experience will not be lost either on the dozen silver and bronze medallists from the home nations in Melbourne.
The prospects for Beijing in 2008 and London 2012 suddenly do not look quite so bleak.
Veteran Jo Pavey, 32, and youngster Steven Lewis, 19, added to the feelgood factor yesterday by taking, respectively, a silver medal in the women’s 5,000m and an unexpected bronze in the pole vault.
Those determined to find fault, however, need look no further than the sprints. Once touted as the rivals to the USA, which they did once justify with a relay gold in Athens, the British were routed in Melbourne. Notwithstanding that athletics is one of the most labour intensive sports, and the training is so rigorous that the attrition rate is high, selecting injured or less than fit athletes got the deserved results.
The recurrence of a back problem prevented Jason Gardener getting further than round two in the 100m, while Christian Malcolm tore a hamstring in round one. And the redemption of former junior star Mark Lewis-Francis will have to wait a little longer after being ousted from the semi-finals for a false start.
For the first time since 1966, the home nations did not have a finalist in the 200m. Chris Lambert got injured when he arrived and did not take part, and Darren Campbell false-started. Marlon Devonish did reach the final of his secondary event, the 100m, where he finished last. He then failed to make the final of the 200m where he once won the world indoor title. To cap it all yesterday, Devonish and Lewis-Francis conspired to mishandle the baton while leading in their heat on the final changeover of the 4x100m relay and were disqualified.
Now surely is the time to introduce promising young sprinters such as Harry Aikenes-Aryeetey and Alex Nelson.
The big success story for Britain, however, has been the swimmers, which is not so much a feather in the cap of their controversial Australian coach Bill Sweetenham, but a full headress.
Scot Caitlin McClatchey was the star of the 14 gold-medal haul, with her victories in the 200m and 400m freestyle, and she and Rebecca Cooke, successfully defending the 800m freestyle title, dented Australian hopes of winning all the women’s titles.
The British men’s 11 golds were all the brighter for seeing their Aussie rivals sunk in the absence of Ian Thorpe through illness and Grant Hackett following an operation. Only their single gold in the final event, the 4x100m relay, saved the Aussie men from complete opprobrium.