Kelly's prayers are answered in the ultimate valediction
This will not be Kelly Holmes' last run. But it is her last Olympics. It was some valedictory performance
Sunday 29 August 2004
The inquest into the fate of Kelly's heroes can start later; her fellow athletics team-mates, with one honourable exception were lost on active duty. This was a night for Kelly, heroine, as they raised the Union flag for the second occasion this week, a spectacle, which, after Paula Radcliffe's capitulation on Sunday, no one with British affliliations truly expected to witness. As we watched it rise, and Holmes, draped in the old flag, quiver with the emotion of her moment, for just a brief moment, perhaps, you had to believe and expect that the name of Radcliffe will not be the first words on the lips of anyone with a love for British sport.
"I'm praying", Kelly Holmes had retorted smartly when asked how she planned to add a 1500m title to her 800m gold. At the conclusion of her 1500m final, which she had won with a facile degree of comfort, able to look around her and scrutinise he rivals for possible dangers, she slumped on her haunches for many seconds beneath the giant orange and black scoreboard, her arms outstretched. It may have been sheer fatigue. It looked awfully like supplication to that great altar of record which confirmed to her that not only was she an Olympic gold medallist, but that she was also one twice over.
This will not be her last run. But it is her last Olympics. It was some valedictory performance.
On Monday, she had travelled to another plane where British athletes simply do not travel. Not since those remarkable days of Seb Coe, in Los Angeles in 1984, had a middle-distance runner of either sex from these shores claimed gold. A second at the same Games and she would usurp not only Lord Coe and his claim to greatness, but also those of the Steves, Ovett and Cram. It would be entering the outer limits of credibility.
As the Olympic flame prepares to be extinguished tonight on a Games that have produced sufficient exceptional performances from honest endeavour to distract us from the rapidly increasing charge sheet of drugs offences, this was a Saturday night out at its emotional, poignant best.
As the 1500m field warmed up, few of the heavily-poulated British enclaves within this stadium could have absolute faith in the Briton, she of the perennial injury and, until recent weeks, perpetual self-doubt, a gallant sportswoman, who had too frequently been a lesser medallist, like Sydney. As the Aussies brutally put it, a "best of the losers".
There must have been a festering doubt among the British supporters, starved in this stadium of success, with only the bronze of the heptathlete Kelly Sotherton providing some honourable relief, that Holmes was reaching for the stars, but might have to settle for the sun. True, she was the fastest athlete of the dozen, but crucially not this season.
At the start, she looked stern, focused. Inside, she must have been as high as one of the enormous television blimps that hover, whining, over the stadium here. But what, in reality, would Monday's 800m triumph have taken out of her, in emotional terms? Would it create an aura of invincibility around her or would it instil vulnerability within her? We were soon to discover it was it was the former.
Holmes' joy afterwards, as she paraded on her lap of honour contrasted so vividly with those television scenes of Radcliffe calling time in Sunday's marathon. They had been a shocking intrusion into her state of despair. One can still picture that extraordinary scene of a plump, middle-aged woman in black wildly exhorting the slender, muscle-toned athlete to persevere.
What emotions pulsed through us at that moment? If it's possible to experience pathos and shame simultaneously, this was the time. With the world's eyes on this, the Lady Guinevere of British athletics, you were willing her to continue, pleading with her, with the intensity of a Uri Geller. Yet, not for the world would you have exchanged places with her.
Ultimately, the Radcliffe Retreat will become synonymous with any act of submission when the major prize has disappeared over the hill. There is no escaping that. She is unlikely to recover from it, as an athlete or as a marketable commodity. No pizza adverts and bags on heads for her, à la Gareth Southgate, one would suggest. It was the right decision if her body told her it was. If it was simply her mind telling her that toiling into that Panathinaiko Stadium was more than her pride could take, it was not.
The decision, apparently because of the tyranny of television, to start the race at a time when Athens is still a furnace, was, incidentally, one of the few pieces of poor planning at a Games which have exceeded expectation on all fronts. Despite the best endeavours of some to denigrate the city's work since before the stadiums were even started, the administration of these Games - from the viewpoint of a normally hard-to-please observer - have been a significant triumphant for Gianna Angelopoulos and her organising committee.
At a cost of nearly double the original budget, the city now has excellent sporting facilities it scarcely requires. Rather like Sydney, in fact. If the political desire was evident - which, admittedly, would appear unlikely - it would make sense to return the Games to their birthplace, sooner rather than later.
If, as seems likely, the IOC are intent on shifting these sporting behemoths around the planet, then the fact that Angelopoulos and her team have achieved a logistical task of Herculean proportions in a relatively short time should convince us of one significant reality
That London could be comfortably equal to the task. With Holmes as its shining light its bid may just succeed, too.
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