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El Guerrouj confirms he is the greatest

John Mehaffey | August 30, 2004 10:59 IST

However cruel it may seem, an Olympic gold medal is viewed as final confirmation that an athlete is truly the best of his or her time.

Before the Athens Games, Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj had done just about everything possible in the 1,500 metres, the classic race of the track programme.

He had won four world titles in a row and held the world record for the 1,500 and its imperial equivalent, the mile.

Yet Olympic gold had eluded him, first at the 1996 Atlanta Games when he fell at the bell and again four years later in Sydney when he was outsprinted by Kenyan Noah Ngeny.

Two defeats on the European circuit this year gave further ammunition to the skeptics who thought he might be slipping from the pedestal.

In Athens, El Guerrouj silenced the doubters in the most emphatic fashion.

First he won the 1,500 metres final in style, pouncing at 800 and holding on to win from his Kenyan rival Bernard Lagat.

Four days later he did it again, winning the most eagerly awaited track clash of the Games against Ethiopia's 10,000 metres champion Kenenisa Bekele.

A win for Bekele would have made him the athlete of the year, after winning the world cross country championship long and short course races for the third year in succession and setting three world records. Now the honour belongs to El Guerrouj.

HOLMES DOUBLE

Another double, less rare but still difficult, went to Briton Kelly Holmes.

Holmes, a consistent big championship performer but often troubled by injuries, emerged from the shadow of her former training partner Maria Mutola to win the 800 with an exquisitely judged performance.

On the penultimate day of the Games, she did it again, winning the 1,500 with another masterly tactical display in the race, which demands a finely calibrated blend of speed, stamina and intelligence.

The first Sunday of the athletics programme featured the men's 100 final, prefaced by thunderous music and rhythmic clapping which inspired the athletes to dance and jig on the track. American Justin Gatlin won the closest race in Olympic history.

Shortly after El Guerrouj's first gold medal on Tuesday, Russian Yelena Isinbayeva elevated her own world pole vault record to 4.91 metres, the seventh time she had broken the mark this year.

Gatlin was unable to complete the 100-200 double, losing out to team mate Shawn Crawford and the strength of American sprinting was underlined when the pencil-slim Jeremy Wariner won the 400 metres.

It was all the more stunning, therefore, when the 4x100 metres relay team lost to Britain with Mark Lewis-Francis just holding off the 2000 Sydney 100 champion Maurice Greene.

The women's team fared even worse.

HORRIBLE YEAR

Marion Jones, the triple Sydney champion, had already endured a horrible year with her partner Tim Montgomery receiving a letter from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) alleging serious doping violations.

Jones, herself under investigation by USADA, failed to qualify for either the 100 or 200 in Athens, and finished fifth in the long jump on Sunday.

She finished the Games without a medal of any colour when, running the second leg in the U.S. 4x100 team, she botched the changeover with Lauryn Williams. The Americans did not even finish the race.

The only men's world record of the track went to Chinese Liu Xiang, who shot from the blocks in the high hurdles to equal Briton Colin Jackson's 11-year-old world mark.

An even more astonishing performance was the gold medal in the women's 400 metres hurdles won by Greek Fani Halkia, unknown before this year. Halkia has cut 3-1/2 seconds off her best time in the past year.

Doping inevitably scarred the central sport of the Games.

Russian Irina Korzhanenko won the first gold medal of the Games, finishing first in the women's shot put competition staged at Ancient Olympia to symbolise the return of the Olympics to the country where the ancient and modern Games originated.

She then tested positive for the steroid stanozolol.

Hungarian men's hammer champion Adrian Annus and his team mate Robert Fazekas, the discus champion, were also stripped of their titles for doping violations.

Athens 2004: The Complete Coverage

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