10 August 2008

After the dreams the reality. At 6.35pm local time in the clean, air-conditioned, primly-organised bubble of the newly-built Beijing Science and Technology University Gymnasium, Craig Fallon, Britain’s now former medal hope in the 60kg judo, stood a battered and beaten man. He had been through five fights and it showed.

His head was swathed in a wide, blood-stained white bandage, swellings were rising on the sides of both eyes and, worst of all, a droning sense of despair engulfed the 25-year-old from Wolverhampton who in 2006 was the first Briton in more than 20 years to hold both the world and European titles. “From the warm-up this morning I just couldn’t seem to concentrate” said Fallon. “There was so much going on. I just could not get my head round it.”

Oh dear. Hello Olympics. Brace yourself for a bit more of this. Whatever the cause, and the fact that the typhoon around Macau prevented the judo team getting into the Olympic village until 3am on Thursday can’t exactly have helped, Fallon won’t be the last to fail to deliver when it really matters.

Quite how London follows the Beijing opening ceremony is the easy bit (make it quicker, simpler and friendlier). What matters most is how much our athletes can do justice to both themselves and to the nation which has now invested so much towards 2012.

Fallon doesn’t know if he is going to be there but after yesterday you would not want to bet too heavily on it.

Body language is not always the clearest of communication but it spoke pretty directly in this half-full 8,000-seat venue three miles east of the Summer Palace.

Fallon’s first opponent was a Mongolian called Yann Siccardi, rated some way his inferior. But there was a nervousness about our man -as he bounced, head up, hair tousled, cheekbones hollowed, before entering the arena – which was translated into the fight itself. His craft and speed finally ran him out a clear winner with 55 seconds of the bout remaining, but gold medal conviction was not very apparent.

To earn that honour you have to win all four fights in your half of the draw and then battle it out with the victor of the other side. Defeat in the second round means that a bronze medal by slugging successfully through the repechage is the only consolation. So for gold Fallon had to beat the European champion, the fair-haired Austrian Ludwig Paischer now standing blue-gowned and badly-bearded in front of him. The portents were never good.

“He’s being too negative,” muttered the expert behind us as Fallon backed away and Paischer opened the scoring. True, Fallon got a point back, but when Paischer closed things up before the end the result was never in doubt. In the second round in Athens Fallon had gone out through inattention with just four seconds remaining, but this was in many ways worse. “I just couldn’t pick myself up,” said Fallon, as blood seeped from a reopened gash on his much-abused left eyebrow.

He was admirably honest in coming straight out to talk of his demons, and he then won huge credit by returning to the mat to battle his way past the Moroccan Younes Ahmadi and the stocky North Korean Kyong Jin Kim to face the Israeli Gal Yekutiel to get in a position to challenge for the bronze medal.

Fallon had beaten Gal all three times they had met. But not this time. “I gave it everything and got well ahead,” said the Briton as he faced us again. “But then my legs got tired and I made two mistakes. It just wasn’t there.”

Let’s hope it is for some of our others.

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