Yelena Slesarenko of Russia clears 2.06 to win gold in Athens (© Getty Images)
AthensGreeceThis was the night of nights, and Hicham El Guerrouj proved to be the champion of champions.
El Guerrouj completes double on historic night
Eight years after his quest for Olympic gold suffered its first reat set-back, the Moroccan who has dominated miling for so long tonight added the Olympic 5000 metres title to the 1500m gold he had eventually grasped earlier in the week.
El Guerrouj’s joy as he crossed the finishing line was matched during the evening in equal measure by the delight - and some degree of surprise - of Kelly Holmes as she won her second gold of these Games, by Russia’s Yuri Borzakovskiy as he stunned himself as much as his rivals to finally fulfil his 800m promise, and by former World Junior champion Mark Lewis-Francis as he anchored the British men’s sprint relay team to one of the biggest shock victories in Olympic history, beating the all-powerful United States in the 4x100m Relay.
There was also a surprise winner in the women’s High Jump, as Yelena Slesarenko bettered the Olympic record, and a new star was seen in the men’s Javelin.
The 5000m final did play into El Guerrouj’s hands somewhat, with the first kilometre barely run inside three minutes, so that when it came down to a last-lap sprint, Kenenisa Bekele, the 10,000m champion, somehow needed to find a finishing kick to outsprint the miler. It was too big an task, as El Guerrouj triumphed in 13:14.39 to the Ethiopian’s 13:14.59, with the World champion, Eliud Kipchoge, of Kenya, taking bronze in 13:15.10.
“Now he is a true successor to Nurmi,” said the 1996 Olympic 1500m champion, Nourredine Morceli.
Olympic record for Slesarenko
Slesarenko beat the Olympic record by one centimetre, clearing 2.06m to win the gold medal tonight. The Russian's victory was an upset as South Africa's double World champion, Hestre Cloete, was heavily favoured to win the event. She wound up with the silver medal after clearing 2.02m, the same height as Victorya Styopina, of Ukraine, who got the bronze medal by virtue of a countback, as four athletes cleared at least 1.99m.
Shock relay win for Britain
But a shock of seismic proportions came in the men’s sprint relay, where the British quartet of Jason Gardener, Darren Campbell, Marlon Devonish and Mark Lewis-Francis held off the late-charging United States team with 38.07, to the imposing Americans’ 38.08, with Nigeria third in 38.23.
"We have gone and proved everyone wrong, all the people who were talking negative about us," said Lewis-Francis, who four years ago passed up the opportunity to compete in the Sydney Games in order to race at the World Junior Championships, where we won the 100m title.
That achievement has now been surpassed. "This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me in my whole life. I knew I had won it as soon as I got the baton."
USA wins both long relays
Normal service was resumed in both longer relays, with the US men - including the three medallists from the individual event, Jeremy Wariner, Otis Harris and Derrick Brew, plus Darold Williamson - taking their gold medal in 2:55.91 ahead of a four-way battle for the minor medals in which Australia prevailed in 3:00.60 ahead of Nigeria (3:00.90).
The US also retained the Olympic women's 4x400 metres relay title with a commanding win over their traditional rivals Russia. Monique Hennagan ran the final leg for the Americans after DeeDee Trotter, Monique Henderson and Sanya Richards had run the early laps.
The US quartet clocked 3:19.01 with Russia recording 3:20.16 and Jamaica taking the bronze with 3:22.00.
After El Guerrouj, the next most popular runner not to have won an Olympic gold medal is possibly Wilson Kipketer at 800m. But this was a fairy story that was not to be.
Borzakovskiy snatches gold
Russia's Yuriy Borzakovskiy snatched the men's 800 metres gold medal on Saturday, timing a late surge to the line to perfection. The 23-year-old Russian powered past Denmark's Wilson Kipketer and Mbulaeni Mulaudzi of South Africa in the final few strides to win in 1:44.45.
Mulaudzi out-dipped Kipketer to win silver in 1:44.61 to add to the World Indoor gold he won in March. Kipketer, the three-time former World champion and World record-holder, had to be content with bronze in 1:44.65.
Kipketer, who moved to Denmark in 1990, was visibly disappointed and hinted he might retire at the end of the season. "I will first finish this season and then make a decision about my future."
Thorkildsen takes surprise Javelin win
One athlete with a significant future ahead of him is Norway's Andreas Thorkildsen, who took the Javelin gold with a personal best 86.50m. Latvia's Vadims Vasilevskis's 84.95m won silver, while Sergei Makarov, of Russia, with 84.84m, denied Britain’s Steve Backley (84.13) a fourth successive Olympic medal, following a bronze and two silvers.
"I guess it is a case of 'out with the old and in with the new',” Backley said as at 35, he embraced retirement in the knowledge that he had last beaten his nemesis in an Olympic arena, Jan Zelezny, for whom this is also his final Olympic appearance.
Holmes completes the pair
And then there was Holmes, the Britain matching her 800m gold from earlier in the week with an equally peerless piece of middle distance tactical astuteness in the 1500m final.
The 34-year-old Briton bettered her own national record, set in 1997, by 0.17sec, with 3:57.90, as seven of the first eight finishers all recorded personal bests, and the first six finished inside four minutes.
The silver medal was won by Tatyana Tomashova, Russia’s World champion, with 3:58.12, while Maria Cioncan, from Romania - like Holmes, in her sixth race in seven days - having the strength to slip through on the inside of the fading Natalya Yevdokimova down the finishing straight to claim bronze in 3:58.39.
Overwhelmed with emotion, Holmes said, “I look at my 800m medal every morning and get tears in my eyes. For the last seven years I have had loads of injuries and I have only brought back silvers and bronzes.
“Now I have had an injury-free year and look what's happened,” she said.
Steven Downes for the IAAF
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