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Greece goes crazy over "Immortal" walker

Paul Majendie | August 23, 2004 14:59 IST

Greece, shamed and angered by Olympic doping scandals, went wild with delight on Monday when Athanasia Tsoumeleka won the women's 20 km walk to give the Olympic hosts their first athletics gold medal.

It was the perfect tonic for the spiritual homeland of the Games, buffeted by the withdrawal of its two top sprinters over a missed dope test and the exclusion of a medal-winning weightlifter for testing positive for drugs.

"I wanted the medal so much. I thank God," Tsoumeleka, a complete outsider, said after kissing the ground at the end of her stamina-sapping walk through Athens.

"It was the first time I competed with such a big crowd watching me. They gave me unbelievable strength," said the instant national hero, whose first name means Immortality.

The Games got off to a disastrous start for Greece when sprinters Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou pulled out over a missed drugs tests. Then weightlifter Leonidas Sampanis had his bronze medal taken away.

Tsoumeleka, keen to give Greeks something to smile about at the Games after all the controversies, said: " I got great strength from what happened with our two athletes, Costas and Katerina. I firmly believe they did nothing wrong."

A Greek gold won on Sunday night on the gymnastics rings by Dimosthenis Tampakos suffered an appeal by the Bulgarian runner-up over scoring. The outcome of the appeal was unclear.

SPRINT SPECTACULAR

On Sunday night, the star race of the Games lived up to its top billing with a spine-tingling finish.

American sprinter Justin Gatlin won the closest Olympic 100 metres in history as the fastest men on earth staged a sporting spectacle that thrilled the world.

"It was a very great race. The competition was stellar," Gatlin said after Sunday's blanket finish that saw the first five dip under 10 seconds for the first time at an Olympics.

Gatlin, bubbling with adrenalin after upstaging the favourites, said: "It was a close race but I felt that I was a hundred miles from anybody."

"I've been dreaming about this since I started racing," said the 22-year-old who trains six hours a day and even shovels snow off the track so he can keep going in the depths of winter.

On a bakingly hot Mediterranean evening, the Blue Riband of athletics was pure theatre.

The capacity crowd, pumped up before the start like boxing fans at a heavyweight fight, clapped along to the theme tune from "Zorba the Greek", its frenetic pace building to a crescendo that had the athletes buzzing.

Sprinters, wired to the moon after hurtling down the track at lightning speed, love to talk the talk afterwards and Gatlin was no exception.

"I am honoured to have been in one of the best races in history," Gatlin said after beating Portuguese outsider Francis Obikwelu by just one hundredth of a second.

"But did I feel like an underdog? No, I never do, I go out feeling like a champion," he said after psyching himself to produce a personal best of 9.85.

Another hundredth of a second further back in third was defending champion Maurice Greene who said: "I hope the fans enjoyed the show we put on today. It was a great race."

Few would argue with that.

MARATHON TEARS

One of the most memorable images of the evening was a tragic one as Britain's Paula Radcliffe, hot favourite to win the women's marathon, broke down in tears and slumped down on the road in exhaustion, her cherished dreams in ruins.

She had just one word to say afterwards: "Devastated."

In the end it was world silver medallist Mizuki Noguchi of Japan who conquered the demanding marathon course from the town, which gave the race its name to the Panathinaiko amphitheatre in Athens where the modern Games were revived in 1896.

The marathon runners may have been drained of energy at the end but few athletes could have been more exhausted than Chilean tennis player Nicolas Massu.

Just 24 hours after landing the men's doubles with Fernando Gonzalez in a late-night, five-set marathon that gave Chile its first ever Olympic gold medal, Massu beat American Mardy Fish in another five-setter to scoop the singles title.

"I had only four hours sleep last night, but in this final I had a second life. It is just incredible for Chile. We are a small country and this is amazing," he said.

Athens 2004: The Complete Coverage

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