James Lawton: Kelly's perfect run into the company of legends

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In the Olympic stadiums of Moscow and Los Angeles you thought you had seen the last word in the lapsed genius of British middle-distance running.

In the Olympic stadiums of Moscow and Los Angeles you thought you had seen the last word in the lapsed genius of British middle-distance running.

You saw Steve Ovett and Seb Coe fighting their greatest battles in Moscow in '80 and sharing the spoils and then, in a hot and muggy Los Angeles there was Coe putting his mark on history, winning his second gold for 1500 metres and, in the moment of victory, turning to mock his critics in the stands.

Nothing could supplant the authority and the brilliance of that run. Jim Murray, an ageing maestro of American sports writing, said it was like taking some elixir of youth. He said that Coe was the young, haunting Lord Byron of the track.

So how could you beat that? Only by doing what Kelly Holmes did here on Saturday night. Only by running into the historic company of just four other athletes: Albert Hill of Great Britain in Antwerp in 1920, Peter Snell in Tokyo in 1964, the Russian Tatyana Kazankina in Montreal in 1976 and her compatriot Svetlana Masterkova in Atlanta eight years ago.

Only by producing the astonishing powers of recovery to win the 800m and the classic 1500m within the space of five days.

Hill's chances of doing it were considered utterly remote, almost as far-fetched as Holmes' when she stunned her team-mates by saying, at the age of 34, she would take on the challenge just a few days before the entry list for last Monday's shorter race was closed.

Hill was considered far too ancient to have a serious chance of winning either of the races at the age of 31, which of course was three years less than the age Holmes carried into the supreme moments of her long and often haunted athletic career this last week. But the First World War veteran spreadeagled the field in both races. The Russians Kazankina and Masterkova were dominant mistresses of the track. The Kiwi Snell was considered arguably the greatest middle-distance talent of all time.

So how did the perennial nearly girl smash her way into such company? How did she turn the past scrapings of bronze and silver into one of the most glittering triumphs in the history of the track?

Yesterday she gave us a great hotchpotch of explanation. There was the kissing of dog-tags. A clutter of other superstitions. A breathless phone call to a former coach to report dazzling lap times in training in Cyprus. The one she didn't offer was a breath-taking commitment, against heavy odds, to redeem a career wrecked by injury and the pain of going so close, but finishing so far, from the ultimate glory.

Holmes, of all athletes after her long and frustrating years in the sport, knows that no such eruption of extraordinary performances can be traced across a clear-blue and suspicion-free sky.

Once, in the pique of defeat, she was immersed in controversy when she declared - and then later retracted the implications - that at least her performance, win or lose, was "clean". But that for everyone in track and field is the price of competing in waters that have long been muddied. Holmes also knows that all you can do is perform to your outer limits - and let the praise and the acceptance settle where they may.

Here in the Olympic stadium her undying legacy was proclaimed in a performance of authority and timing that was simply stunning. No one, not Snell nor Hill, nor Masterkova nor Kazankina took hold of a race any more masterfully than Holmes did on Saturday night.

First she toyed with the field, then she destroyed it. She ran wide and at the rear. Whatever the Russians, Tatyana Tomashova, Natalya Yevdokimova and Olga Yegorova did, Holmes suggested she had an answer. It was as though they were attached by string to the mistress of the marionettes, the runner who for so long had operated under the shadow of injury and sometimes athletic despair. And then, when we came to the decisive phase of the last final straight, there was only one runner on the track, eating up the ground, dismissing the idea of a challenge.

Tomashova and the Romanian Maria Cioncan offered what passed for resistance but it was swept away easily enough.

When Holmes won her first gold early in the week her reaction was one of the abiding images of the Games: a look of surprise and delight that could only been matched by a five-year-old operating from a jumble of wrappings beneath a Christmas tree.

Now, the expression showed a subtle change: now it was the face of a winner - one of the greatest in the history of the track. Suddenly, Seb Coe and Los Angeles seemed a very long time ago.