From tears of despair to tears of joy: two faces of Britain's Olympic fortunes

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It was a day of Olympian tears for Britain's sporting heroes.

It was a day of Olympian tears for Britain's sporting heroes.

At 2pm, a pale-faced Paula Radcliffe struggled to contain her emotion as she attempted to rationalise her devastating marathon breakdown and loss of her Olympic dream.

Five hours later, another British competitor also broke down in tears after finding herself under the intense gaze of the nation - but fortunately for a markedly different reason. Kelly Holmes wept with joy as she won a gold medal in the 800 metres after taking the lead in the last 10 metres.

Holmes, a former army sergeant, was credited with putting a smile back on the faces of Britain's armies of sports fans in Athens after becoming Britain's first female Olympic champion on the track since Sally Gunnell in 1992.

The win was all the more poignant as the 34-year-old runner had decided only last week to compete in the event, having already agreed to run the 1,500 metres.

"I can't believe it, I just can't believe it," she said last night. "The line was coming and coming and my legs were going and then I wasn't sure if I had won. It's a dream come true. It's something I have been fighting for all my life."

Her disbelief at winning matched only the disbelief of the nation at Radcliffe's agonising failure to complete the marathon the previous day.

Only hours earlier, a tear-stained Radcliffe arrived to face the British media in an air-conditioned room overlooking the Olympic stadium. Drawn and pale despite her hours on Sunday under the blazing Athens sun, she had spent the morning with doctors trying to trace the cause of her marathon breakdown.

She falteringly fulfilled the promise she made to the British people to explain what happened during the race when she limped away from the Panathanaiko stadium at dusk the night before.

Since her star as a marathon runner has ascended, media opportunities have been jealously limited by Team Radcliffe. But yesterday they yielded, offering an explanation to the 10 million or so shocked British viewers who saw her hopes of an expected gold end as she crumpled on a grass verge, her head in her hands.

"Last night I was in shock" said Radcliffe in a soft, faltering voice, made audible only with the aid of a microphone. "I was numb and almost unable to cry. I just felt I had let everyone down but no one is hurting inside as much as I was."

Then the pressure became too much, and she broke down in tears. "I'm struggling to comprehend what happened and find a reason for it," she said brokenly. "To run that badly and not find a reason is really difficult at this point."

The interview was tough but compelling viewing for the millions of fans that had willed her on as she started the race on Sunday. Viewing figures showed that growing numbers tuned into BBC1 as Radcliffe's legs began to falter. At the start of the women's marathon, there were 5.4 million viewers but as the race entered its final stages the numbers watching rose to 9.1 million. When Radcliffe had to stop, there were 10.7 million viewers glued to their televisions, the highest figure of the Games so far.

In the aftermath of the emotional rawness of Radcliffe's interview, the gold medal for Holmes was the perfect antidote. For Holmes, it was clear that her win was a dream come true. A series of injuries had thwarted earlier attempts at gold medals, although she won a bronze medal in the 800m at Sydney four years ago. She refused to believe that she had finally won the elusive gold until the times were officially confirmed. Then a huge smile spread across her face and she raised her arms in triumph.

"I dreamt of this moment every day of my athletics career," she said. "I didn't even realise I had won. I had to see the replay twice to make sure."

But the minds of sporting fans is today expected to turn back to the future of Radcliffe and whether she will take to the track again for the 10,000m on Friday. William Hill, the bookmaker, was offering 4-1 on Radcliffe to bounce back and win the 10,000m race. Graham Sharpe, a spokesman, said: "Wherever Paula makes her next appearance she will be under great media pressure, so she would seem to have little to lose by getting back on track at the end of the week; and if she were to win she'd bring the house down." Hill said it would return stakes if she did not compete.

Since she transformed herself from an under-achieving 10,000m runner into a world-beater over 26 miles two years ago, Radcliffe has kept her sights on Olympic gold, and there were suggestions that the pressure coupled with the burden of carrying the solitary hope of British gold in the track events was too much.

"I've had pressure before but probably the biggest pressure is from myself," she said yesterday. "You are always going to be nervous before an Olympic Games but I don't know if I can use that as an excuse."

On the 10,000m, she said: "I'm not going to put myself into that arena if I'm not right."