After all the heartbreak, Holmes finds the power for golden glory

'I've dreamed of this all my career, and I didn't think it was going to come'

The eyes said everything, staring at the scoreboard, widening with the shock and joy of the dawning knowledge that at 34, she, Kelly Holmes, was finally an Olympic champion.

The eyes said everything, staring at the scoreboard, widening with the shock and joy of the dawning knowledge that at 34, she, Kelly Holmes, was finally an Olympic champion.

Paula Radcliffe was supposed to be the British athlete to win gold here. Last night, in the wake of the marathon runner's traumatic failure, victory arrived like a surprise gift in an event, the 800 metres, which Holmes had finally decided to do only the night before, having come here with the 1500m as her main target.

Asked about her reaction afterwards, she recalled watching the 1980 Olympics where her idol, Seb Coe, greeted his 1500m victory in a similar disbelieving fashion after losing the 800m for which he had been strong favourite. As it happened, Coe, now fronting Britain's bid for the 2012 Olympics, was watching from the stands yesterday. As Holmes came home, he was seen to jump to his feet and punch the air in celebration.

The manner in which Holmes earned the finest achievement of an injury-ravaged career was stupendous as she arrived in the final straight on the shoulder of her friend and training partner Maria Mutola, the defending champion, and held on and held on, her face tautening with the effort, until even the massively powerful woman from Mozambique had to give best.

With Jolanda Ceplak, the European champion, and Morocco's Hasna Benhassi closing in fast as Mutola faded, the former Army sergeant managed to force herself over the line first, to secure one of the longest anticipated, longest frustrated, victories by any British athlete at the Olympics.

Eight years ago, Holmes had to settle for fourth after competing in Atlanta with what was later diagnosed as a stress fracture. A year later, a global title seemed hers to claim in the World Championship 1500m, but an Achilles tendon injury in the heats put paid to that hope. At the Sydney Games, she took bronze behind Mutola's gold, and that seemed likely to be the highest moment of a career which had always promised just a bit more than it delivered. Not so.

"I've dreamed of this moment for all my athletics career and I didn't think it was going to come," she said. "I thought things were going too good for me this year ­ I thought it would all go away again. I still don't believe I've won. It's unreal. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I had to see the replay twice to be sure."

Last year, Holmes indicated that she was still a major championship contender when she took silver behind Mutola in the World Championship 800m, a race that led to speculation that the two training partners had helped each other in the early stages. Holmes dismissed the idea, and when the subject was raised earlier this week she said it was irrelevant, as she had been training in Spain for the previous five months while Mutola was working in St Moritz.

After reaching the final with impressive performances in the heat and semi-final, the British runner appeared in ideal shape, free of the injuries that have so often plucked at her ambition. But the doubt remained: Could she ever beat her friend when it really counted? The answer took 1min 56.38sec to articulate.

After America's Jearl Miles Clark had led the field through the bell in 56.37sec, Holmes maintained her position at the back, two behind Mutola. But as the Mozambique athlete moved up to challenge in the back straight, Holmes followed her up through the field before making a bold attempt to pass her on the final bend. Mutola, six times a world 800m champion, resisted, and it seemed that the Briton's brave challenge was gone.

But Holmes remained, arms pumping, face working, keeping abreast of the woman who has dominated the event for the last seven years until, wonderfully, there was no more race to run.

"I kept to my race plan," Holmes said. "I decided to stay back and then come home in the last 50. I've got more strength than speed and just had to take the risk. In the end I just held on for dear life. The line was coming at me, coming at me. I thought my legs were going but I held on."

The roar as Holmes ascended the biggest step on the podium was huge. The emotions that had tugged her face towards tears earlier in the evening appeared to have switched into ones of pure satisfaction as she adjusted the laurel wreath on her head. She will be back in the stadium tonight, running towards the same line, as she takes part in the heats for the 1500m. On balance, the choice to double up seems to have been a good one.

"It was a hard race for me because I got injured in July," said Mutola. Her winning streak was ended at 36 races in Lausanne last month when she was beaten by Russia's Svetlana Cherkasova, but since then she had indicated she was back to her best with consecutive wins in Paris, London and Zurich. "Kelly and I train together, so she knows my weaknesses," she added. "Kelly really deserves her gold medal."

Ceplak, whom Holmes famously implied had used illegal means to win the last European title, seemed pleased enough with her bronze medal after coming from a long way back over the final 100 metres. The Slovenian runner said: "I went to lane four and said, 'Let's see what I have left'." Thankfully for Holmes, it was not enough.

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