Athletics: Kelly speeds away from the days of little respect

The conqueror of Athens on top of the world

It was only 12 months ago that Kelly Holmes stood by the side of the Stade Louis II here on the Côte d'Azur bemoaning her apparent lot as the unappreciated diamond of British athletics. "People are kicking me in the teeth," she complained, after running in the inaugural IAAF World Athletics Finals, having been widely accused of hanging on to the protective coat-tails of Maria Mutola on the way to her World Championship 800m silver medal in Paris the previous month. "Whatever I do is not good enough. No one gives me the respect I deserve."

It was only 12 months ago that Kelly Holmes stood by the side of the Stade Louis II here on the Côte d'Azur bemoaning her apparent lot as the unappreciated diamond of British athletics. "People are kicking me in the teeth," she complained, after running in the inaugural IAAF World Athletics Finals, having been widely accused of hanging on to the protective coat-tails of Maria Mutola on the way to her World Championship 800m silver medal in Paris the previous month. "Whatever I do is not good enough. No one gives me the respect I deserve."

Twelve months, two Olympic gold medals, one Parkinson appearance and a Hello! spread later, there is no end, it seems, to the adulation heaped on the sculpted shoulders of the Kentish woman. There is still a parade of Trafalgar Square to come, plus a marathon round of end-of-year award ceremonies. And yet the recently crowned Olympic 800m and 1500m champion is not content to bask in the afterglow of her hard-won Athens success.

In the Riviera sunshine yesterday the one-time army judo champion fought her way to victory in the 1500m on the opening day of this year's World Athletics Finals, the weekend meeting that brings down the curtain on the inter-national track-and-field season. Unlike last Sunday in Berlin, when she left herself with too much ground to make up in the final 100m and was unable to overhaul Tatyana Tomashova, the Russian who took the silver medal behind her in the metric mile in Athens, Holmes kept within striking distance of her rivals before swooping from third place to first down the home straight.

She crossed the line in 4min 04.55sec, 0.63sec ahead of Tomashova, with her British team-mate Hayley Tullett 11th in 4:08.70. In the process, Holmes claimed a $30,000 (£16,750) prize and guaranteed herself top place in the end-of-season world merit rankings in her event. "With me, it's all about mind-set," she confided. "Last week I had no goals. This time I wanted to be top of the world rankings. That's something I've never done before.

"I've got the Great North Mile in Newcastle next Saturday, and it'll be great to run on home ground, but it's brilliant to finish my track season on a high like this." If the Kent woman is finished on the track for 2004, that is.

Holmes may yet decide to line up for the 800m this afternoon, if her 34-year-old mind and body feel up to the task when she gets out of bed this morning. "Physically and psychologically, I am wiped out," she confessed. "It's been my longest-ever season, and the Olympics took a lot out of me. It was a tough schedule: six races in nine days."

One distinguished gentleman sitting watching from the sparsely populated stands of the Stade Louis II could certainly sympathise. Sir Roger Bannister might have received a surfeit of adulation for his sub-four-minute mile at Iffley Road in 1954, but he never won one Olympic middle-distance medal, let alone two golds. He finished fourth in the 1500m final in Helsinki in 1952, blaming the last-minute introduction of a semi-final round for his failure to make the podium. His body simply could not withstand the rigours of three races in three days, he lamented at the time.

Sir Roger will receive his latest honour tonight, during the course of the World Athletics Gala that follows the conclusion of these finals. Whether Holmes will join him on stage in the Grimaldi Forum remains to be seen. She has been shortlisted as one of five contenders for the Female World Athlete of the Year Award, though the smart money in the casino capital of Europe favours the Russian pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbay-eva, with the Briton in pole position for the consolation prize, the Performance of the Year trophy.

It is just as well that Yulia Nesterenko is out of contention for both awards. It was revealed last week that the Belarussian sprinter, who raised more than a few eyebrows with her victory in the women's 100m in Athens, tested positive for the anabolic steroid clenbuterol at a meeting in the Polish town of Biala Podlaska in May 2002. She escaped any sanctions because her A sample was tested at a Warsaw laboratory that was not accredited by the International Olympic Committee, and because her B sample was never analysed.

Nesterenko, who was ranked 113th in the world last year, was not the only woman who took a quantum leap on to the top step of the Olympic podium last month. Fani Halkia was not fast enough to qualify to compete in the 400m hurdles at the World Championships in Paris last year, yet she struck Olympic gold in emphatic style on home ground, attributing her stunning success, and her staggering improvement, to "the power of the Greek soul".

In Monaco yesterday the former television journalist was back among the ranks of the also-hurdled, running out of Greek power in the home straight. Halkia could only finish fourth in a race won by Sanda Glover, who missed the selection cut for Athens after finishing fourth in the US Olympic trials. Unfortunately, from a British perspective, there were no surprises from Abi Oyepitan, who finished fourth in the 200m in 23.09sec, or Jade Johnson, who was fifth in the long jump with 6.46m. Kathy Butler did lead for three-and-a-half laps of the 5,000m, but faded to eighth place, clocking 15:46.72.

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