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When Kelly Holmes despatched world indoor record holder Jolanda Ceplak to a distant defeat in Birmingham three weeks ago, Britain’s Olympic aspirations were ratcheted up a notch or two. Since those aspirations were pretty much at rock bottom – Paula Radcliffe apart – Britain’s smallest Olympic contingent since Montreal 1976 is still closer to the bottom of the cliff than the top.

But in Holmes Britain has a proven international performer who revels in being the underdog. Except for the 1997 world championships, coincidentally in Athens, where, as favourite, she limped out of the 1,500m heats with an injury, Holmes tends to defy expectations, and win when the omens are poor. In last year’s world championships in Paris, she switched from 1,500m to 800m at the eleventh hour, and won an unlikely silver behind her training partner Maria Mutola.

Holmes should now be persuaded to switch from 1,500m to 800m again. Mutola is injured and may not be in the sort of form to defend her Olympic 800m title, whereas the 1,500m is full of dangerous opposition, incuding Sürreya Ayhan and Elvan Abeylegesse of Turkey, and Russians Tatyana Tomashova and Olga Yegorova.

For the British men, sprinter Darren Campbell is like Holmes: he comes good when least expected. Campbell’s Olympic silver in the 200m in Sydney in 2000 was a revelation but he faces a stiff task to repeat that feat in this year’s 100m. Although his coach Linford Christie was the oldest Olympic 100m champion at 32, Christie had a consistent record in the intervening years. Campbell hasn’t and at the age of 30 would have to defy the odds once again to emulate his master.

Both Holmes and Campbell represent Britain’s old guard. Previous members, Jonathan Edwards and Colin Jackson, retired to the commentary box last year, and Steve Backley (left), who seems more interested in his golf handicap nowadays, will follow suit after the Olympics. Backley has been a great servant for Britain, winning two Olympic silvers and a bronze in the javelin, but again, it is unlikely that the 35-year-old can pull off a big enough throw to win it this time.

Of the youngsters, the signs are equally negative. With the exception of 400m runner Christine Ohuruogu, there is little prospect for greatness among the younger ranks. One real hope is heptathlete Kelly Sotherton, who has benefited from training with Denise Lewis. Should Lewis overcome her latest injuries and set out to defend her Olympic heptathlon title, she might find herself hard pushed to beat her younger team-mate.

Of the much-vaunted sprinters Mark Lewis-Francis, Jason Gardener, Christian Malcolm and Chris Lambert, the latter might prove the best, with the quartet challenging for a relay medal. But the Olympics is about individual achievement, and again, Radcliffe apart, these Games look like an interregnum for British athletics. Pat Butcher

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