Holmes judged her race perfectly, moving up from seventh to fourth at the bell and avoiding a pile-up which left Catalina Gheorghiu hanging on to Regina Jacobs' shorts for balance, and the 19-year-old Kenyan Naomi Mugo falling amid a mass of feet. Holmes moved up to Jacobs' shoulder on the final bend and accelerated - doggedly rather than fluently - to win in 4min 05.88sec.
Her chances of a medal, already improved by the withdrawal of the 800m bronze medallist, Maria Mutola, and the exit of Sonia O'Sullivan, were further improved by events in the earlier semi-final, when the defending champion, Hassiba Boulmerka, of Algeria, staggered out of contention after losing her footing as the group bunched at the bell.
The Algerian struggled to retain her balance, snatching the number from the front of Gabriela Szabo's shirt, then detoured out to lane five before resuming with a 50-metre deficit she was unable to reduce. Her exit, with bowed head, was a painful contrast to her scenes of joy in Barcelona, when she had brandished the Algerian flag and roared out the name of her country.
John Regis, Britain's only representative in the 200m semi-finals after Wednesday's elimination of Linford Christie and Owusu Dako, found the going too swift for him last night.
Regis, who has been having ice-pack treatment on a bruised knee, recorded 20.58sec to finish his heat in sixth place. The heat winner, Michael Johnson, recorded 20.27 after slowing over the final 30 metres.
Britain's 400m relay runners, buoyed by Roger Black's individual silver medal, will set out today to revive their country's flagging fortunes on the track. If Britain are to emulate their 400m relay victory in the 1991 World Championships, however, they will need the Americans to make mistakes, as they did on that occasion in Tokyo.
Black, who played his part in that win, said yesterday: "This is the best British 4x400 relay squad ever assembled. There is no point in going on to the track unless you are going out to win. We know Michael Johnson will be there but everyone remembers '91 and all our team will be going for it."
Christie's last Olympic fling also starts today as Britain's sprint relay team seek to qualify for tomorrow's final. Following his failure to reach the 200m semi-finals, Christie was attempting to adopt a philosophical viewpoint as he looked forward to today's events.
"I am still Linford Christie," he said. "I will always be known as an Olympic champion. It will be the same in the relay - I will go out there and do what I have done all along."
While Britain can only hope for an athletics gold now, Sweden and Norway will go away from these Games with rare titles. Ludmila Enquist's victory for her adopted country in the 100m hurdles was Sweden's first track gold since Anders Garderud won the steeplechase in 1976, while Vebjoern Rodal's achievement in winning the 800m brought Norway their first track gold in Olympic history.
Rodal tracked the 36-year-old American Johnny Gray until the final bend, when he accelerated to register an Olympic record of 1:42.58 and become the fifth fastest runner of all-time.
Hezekiel Sepeng became the first black South African to win an Olympic medal by taking silver in 1:42.74, while Fred Onyancha took bronze with 1:42.79.
Ashia Hansen, who has previously faltered on the big occasion, did not do so in the first women's triple jump final in Olympic history. But her distance of 14.49m only earned her fifth place behind Inessa Kravets of the Ukraine, who won with 15.33.
n The world pole vault champion and world record holder Sergei Bubka fears that the injury to his right Achilles tendon that put him out of the Olympics could end his career.