SPORTS

Star runners el-Guerrouj and Holmes complete rare doubles on the track before capacity crowd

The Olympic Stadium was full Saturday night for the last track events and, thankfully, the crowd that filled it had not come to worship the tarnished Greek hero, Costas Kenteris. Thus, there was no booing of the US athletes or the US flag during medal ceremonies, although cheers were the loudest when the British men narrowly defeated the Americans in the 4×100-meter relay. Nothing out of the ordinary, though. It was a thrilling race and the surprise victors deserved the applause they got. The front row of Gate 19 – reserved for athletes and the media – resembled a small battleground. It was reserved for photographers and Athens 2004 volunteers and staff, as well as officials from Athens Olympic Broadcasting who were trying, with mixed results, to keep people from sitting there. It was especially difficult after the end of a race when people surged forward shouting to their idol and throwing to him or her a flag or two to carry around. There were small contingents of athletes, coaches and officials from several countries cheering their own loudly. The Ethiopians, small and wiry except for a couple of coaches, were the least vocal, even during a thrilling 5,000-meter race, where three of their own, among them 10,000-meter winner Kenenisa Bekele, were challenging for a medal The noisiest support group, by far, were the Moroccans. Their idol, Hicham el-Guerrouj, was also attempting to win the 5,000 after his win in the 1,500, a very rare double. In the past couple of decades, only his compatriot, Said Aouita, ran races in both events, and not in the Olympics. Besides, el-Guerrouj is a relative novice at the 5,000. But as he surged across the finish line in 13 minutes, 14.39 seconds, beating Bekele by a couple of meters, the Moroccans surged forward and the ushers conceded defeat. It was a fitting triumph for someone who had achieved the first 1,500-5,000-meters double since Finland’s legendary Paavo Nurmi did it in the last Paris Olympics 80 years ago. The night’s other hero was Kelly Holmes, who added the 1,500-meters title to the 800. This is also a rare feat, although repeated only recently, in the 1996 Games, by Russia’s Svetlana Masterkova. Holmes pushed her luck, staying at the back of the pack, and beginning the final lap in eighth place. But her faith in her final kick was not misplaced and she crossed the line in 3 minutes 57.90, the year’s best time, to the delight of a huge contingent of British fans. In between races and medal ceremonies, Greek bouzouki music blared from the loudspeakers to entertain the fans. However, listening to the soundtrack to Zorba, a notable piece of music which has become a cliched symbol of Greece over the decades, is irritating. The stadium DJ varied the music a little, throwing in some Savvopoulos and Xarchakos, as well. Unfortunately, he chose to introduce a Xarchakos instrumental piece just as South Africa’s Hestrie Cloete was in mid-stride, trying to clear 2.04 meters in the high jump. Whether it was the music, it was the only time she missed her attempt completely, running under the bar and into the mat. Enthusiasm among Greek fans reached fever pitch with the appearance of Greece’s women’s 4×400-meter relay team, midway through a medal ceremony. The chant «Hellas! Hellas!» rose across the stadium, especially the upper tiers, orchestrated, at least in this corner of the stadium, by Athens 2004 employees and volunteers, as well as by stadium employees, although it wasn’t their job. Again, as in the now-notorious men’s 200-meters final, there were calls for silence for the relay to begin, but at least there was no booing. Alas, at the second changeover, someone stepped into Dimitra Dova, taking her shoe off. She eventually resumed the race but the Greek team had missed several precious seconds and was in eighth place, 17 seconds behind the seventh-place finishers. The vociferously chanting crowd was, for once, subdued, which was not bad, even though the quartet, led by 400-meters hurdles winner Fani Halkia, ran a lap of honor of their own. The heaviest applause though, was for the winning US team, a sign things had returned to normal.