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Fame but questions for Halkia

Ralph Gowling | August 26, 2004 10:05 IST

Fani Halkia hurtled from virtual obscurity to become Olympic women's 400 metres hurdles champion on Wednesday, giving Greece a new sports diva to hail but sparking a barrage of questions over her rise to prominence.

"Why do people want to give a negative impression of sports?" she told reporters, many cynical after endless doping scandals at the Athens Games that have included two athletics gold medallists being stripped of their titles and thrown out.

"All Greeks athletes need is a lot of soul and hard work to come first," said Halkia, 25, a relative unknown a year ago.

Halkia, a former high jumper who quit athletics and became a journalist before making a dramatic comeback, won in a time of 52.82 seconds to claim the gold medal by more than half a second, the largest margin of victory in the last five Olympics.

A year ago her best was 56.40, a time that would have left her outside the first eight in any Olympic final since 1988.

Halkia said it was good that drugs cheats had been caught but then came out in support of top Greek sprinters Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou who withdrew after missing a drugs test amid mysterious circumstances on the eve of the Olympics.

"They were put against the wall, there was a firing squad, and people imagined the wildest things," she said.

While reporters at the news conference may have expressed puzzlement at her meteoric rise, deafening patriotic chants of "Hellas! Hellas" boomed around the packed Olympic Stadium as Halkia did a lap of honour, waving Greece's blue and white flag.

It was a moment to savour for the host nation after it had also suffered the embarrassment of seeing weightlifter Leonidas Sampanis stripped of his bronze medal after testing positive.

ISRAELI JOY

Israelis also celebrated when their national anthem, Hatikvah, was played for the first time at an Olympic awards ceremony to mark windsurfer Gal Fridman winning the Jewish state's first gold medal since it began competing in 1952.

Dedicating his victory to his 11 countrymen killed in the Munich Olympics massacre of 1972, Fridman vowed he would visit their memorial to show them his medal.

"I'm sure they're watching us," said Fridman, who was born three years after Palestinian guerrillas killed the Israeli athletes and coaches following an attack on the Olympic village in Germany.

Fridman's victory brought screams of delight in shops and offices across Israel.

"It was a joy to see you win and raise the Israeli flag," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Fridman in a telephone call that was relayed live on Israeli media.

At the showcase athletics, Jamaican speedster Veronica Campbell earned the Caribbean nation their first gold medal in Athens when she won the 200 metres in a searing 22.05 seconds.

In the men's high hurdles, world champion Allen Johnson literally crashed out of the Games when he fell at the ninth flight in the second semi-final.

America's best known athlete at the Games, triple champion Marion Jones, made a low-key return to Olympic competition by successfully qualifying for Friday's women's long jump final.

CRY FOUL

Australia's baseball manager Jon Deeble cried foul after Cuba won their third gold medal in the event with a 6-2 win, saying a bad call had stifled his team's drive for the title.

"It was a disgrace," said Deeble, who was thrown out for arguing over the call. "What annoyed me the most is that they had a Spanish-speaking umpire out there who couldn't understand what I was saying. That's pathetic in a gold medal round."

It takes a brave man to tell the 26-year-old "Iranian Hercules" Hossein Rezazadeh, the world's strongest man, he is doing it all wrong -- but Shane Hamman was willing to try.

"His technique could definitely be better," the American said after Rezazadeh had destroyed Hamman and the rest of the field in the Olympic super-heavyweight weightlifting division.

"(But) he is intimidating with the ease with which he lifts those weights. He is the strongest man I have ever seen," Hamman said after Rezazadeh broke his own clean and jerk world record.

After the 12th day of competition the Americans stayed top of the medals table with 25 golds, 29 silvers and 22 bronzes. China were second with 24 golds, 16 silvers and 12 bronzes.

Australia's cyclists took their gold haul to six to help their country push Japan into fourth place. Australia have 16 golds overall, equalling their best Games record.

Never far from the Olympics is a political controversy, and on Wednesday Games officials were furious at a re-election campaign advertisement for U.S. President George W. Bush.

The television advert tells viewers that at "this Olympics there will be two more free nations", referring to the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq under Bush's presidency.

"The arrogance is unbelievable. To use the Olympic name like this, without permission ... it's just incredible," said an International Olympic Committee member, declining to be named.

Athens 2004: The Complete Coverage

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