Holmes prepares to enter a rarefied realm

Just over three weeks ago, Kelly Holmes arrived in the mixed zone at the Zurich Weltklasse meeting after finishing second in the 1500 metres, her final race before the Olympics. She was troubled.

Just over three weeks ago, Kelly Holmes arrived in the mixed zone at the Zurich Weltklasse meeting after finishing second in the 1500 metres, her final race before the Olympics. She was troubled.

The question of whether to carry on with her intention of running only the metric mile in Athens or to do the 800m as well was clearly running round and round in her mind.

"I've got to weigh up whether to run in the 800 metres, which might ruin my chances in the 1500m afterwards, or run in just the 1500 and end up regretting not doing the 800," she said. More than once.

Had you told Holmes then that, by the last Saturday of the Athens Olympics, she would be going into the 1500m final as 800m gold medallist and 8/11 favourite to complete a double not achieved by any Briton since Albert Hill in the 1920 Olympics at Antwerp, she would patently not have believed it.

And yet here she is, on the brink of achieving a double not managed by any Briton - not Seb Coe, not Steve Ovett, not Steve Cram - in the past 84 years.

Holmes's prospects tonight will have been partly shaped by the announcement, on the same day she was beaten to the line in Zurich by Poland's Wioletta Janowska, that Turkey's European 1500m champion Sureyya Ayhan would miss the Olympics because of a torn leg muscle.

Subsequent events have suggested that the Turk who dominated 2003 was out of the running for less legitimate reasons, but her absence, as far as Holmes was concerned, made it more likely that the 1500m here would be a cagier, tactical affair.

Janowska, who has beaten Holmes twice this year, did not qualify from Thursday's semi-final, but the bookmakers' confidence will be severely examined by a field that includes two formidable Russians, Natalya Yevdokimova and Tatyana Tomashova, Poland's Anna Jakubczak and Maria Cioncan, of Romania.

There is also the threat of the woman who leads this year's world standings with a time of 3min 58.28sec, Turkey's world 5,000m record holder Elvan Abeylegesse.

The manner of Holmes's performance in the semi-final, however, when she moved smoothly up from sixth to first before easing back and eyeballing the rest of the field from lane three, suggests that she genuinely can reach beyond the dream she has already made reality to an Olympic level only inhabited by a glorious few.

It is a startling turn of events for an athlete who has spent so long having to settle for less than her talents deserved, all too often because of untimely injury.

Having given up a promising junior career to join the Army, Holmes decided to return to athletics only after watching the 1992 Olympics on television and seeing a girl she had frequently beaten, Lisa York, competing.

"I've got more than I expected in the 800 metres already," she said. "I know I'm in good shape."

Better than that, however, she has the confidence of a champion. It has been evident in everything she has done on the track in the two 1500m qualifying rounds.

Despite her insistence earlier this season, and indeed last, that the 1500 metres would be her main goal, Holmes has not won a global medal over the metric mile since taking silver in Gothenburg at the 1995 World Championships, although she has taken two Commonwealth 1500m titles, the last of them in Manchester two years ago.

All too often she has seemed to have had too much time to worry about the race over three-and-a-half laps, and even her more recent experiences at 1500 metres have worn away at her morale.

At the world indoor championships in March she was all set to go one better than the silver position she had earned at the previous year's event in Birmingham when she fell to the boards.

The soul-searching figure who sat weeping by the trackside in Budapest has been transformed by the events of the past week. And it is sweeter still that these achievements should take place on the same track where, in 1997, she suffered the most brutal blow of her career.

Two seconds faster than anyone else that season, Holmes's finest moment seemed about to arrive at the World Championships held in this city. But in the first 200 metres of her opening heat she ruptured her Achilles tendon, coming to a shattered halt halfway around the bend.

The day afterwards, she issued a plaintive press release, written by herself, in which she talked longingly about "her gold medal".

Seven years on, she has an even better medal - the best - although it is apparently in danger of becoming wafer-thin.

"My gold medal is on my bed in my room and I keep stroking it," she said. "It will be worn out by the time I get home. I'm trying to forget I've got it but it's obviously very hard."

Could it be that the object of her fond attentions will have a golden twin by tonight? It is more than possible. Incredibly, it is probable.

It would be nice to think that Steve Backley had similar hope as he seeks an Olympic javelin title for the fourth and final time.

His performance in qualifying, where he squeezed through as the last of the 12, does not bode well for a glorious finale. But one good throw in his final competition could earn him another medal to set alongside the bronze and two silvers he already has.

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