Final evening of athletics fulfills its promise

There was more than a hint of something passing even by Saturday night at the Olympics: Once glance at the start sheet said it all; eight events scheduled, all finals, along with 10 medal ceremonies, two held over from the previous evening. The non-athletic action was equally telling, whether in all the group photos being snapped inside the stadium, the tendency away from worried vigilance and toward relaxed reverie, the suitcases piled outside the press center, or the slight chill in the air. There among rows of blue tables and TV monitors, I did my best to take it all in; the roof seemingly afloat high above, the lights, the buzz of activity, the world-class athletes going about their business with intensity across the wide expanse of field and track; here a high jumper, there a javelin thrower, relay races unfolding. For a brief moment, Athens of all places had conjured up a scene of physical splendor, and it felt a privilege to bear witness to it. Saturday’s athletics session may not have produced a bevy of world or even Olympic records, but it did something better, generating plenty of the spontaneous and the unforeseen. We heard «God Save the Queen» not once but twice, and each time unexpectedly; saw a feat that hadn’t been accomplished for some 80 years at a Games; and watched the greatest-ever collection of sprinters get out-hustled to the wire. We even saw an overdressed Viking with a twinkle in his eye bring a premature preview of a Scandinavian winter to the Greek summer. Above all, it was a night of emotion and dreams coming true, as winner after medal winner let the tears flow on the victory stand in perhaps the best demonstration of all that the Olympics are for humans, not human machines, and still carry huge meaning for a lot of dedicated and talented people. It was a night to savor for Brits, Moroccans and Norwegians, if not for the host Greeks, who watched their women’s 4×400-meter relay team, a genuine medal hope, get disrupted during a handover and place last in the final. Early on, Kelly Holmes added to her earlier, surprise 800-meter win with an even greater surprise, a triumph in the women’s 1,500-meter race to produce a rare middle-distance double. She later said that it «has blown me away.» The third-place finisher, Romania’s Maria Cioncan, surprised even herself. «I never thought that I could win a medal in the Olympic Games,» she said afterward. Russia’s Tatyana Tomashova took silver. Then Hicham el-Guerrouj, the incomparable Moroccan runner, added to his 1,500 gold of days earlier with a scintillating 5,000-meter win over Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, the newly crowned 10,000 holder. Nobody has copped the 1,500/5,000-meter double at an Olympics since Paavo Nurmi in 1924, whose statue is featured prominently in front of the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. El-Guerrouj ran a perfect tactical race, hanging a strong third behind Bekele and Kenya’s Elihud Kipchoge until the final stretch, then relying on his patented finishing kick. ‘Team spirit’ In the biggest upset of the evening if not the entire Games, an unheralded British 4×100 team of runners, who qualified a mere fourth, beat a foursome of awesome US sprinting talent to the wire. A poor handoff midrace handcuffed the heavily favored Americans, and even anchor Maurice Greene, running furiously, could not quite catch Mark Lewis-Francis. Later Jason Gardener, who ran Britain’s first leg, said: «It’s all about our team spirit. That’s what makes us unique.» The results spoke for themselves. Nigeria came third. Norway’s Andreas Thorkildsen, dressed for another season in a knitted cap but otherwise very much in top form, pulled off an upset by throwing the javelin 86.50 meters on his second attempt to win over Vadim Vasilevskis and Sergey Makarov of Latvia and Russia respectively. It was a personal best but far off any record pace. Audience favorite Steve Backley of Britain finished fourth, and three-time gold medalist Jan Zelezny an injury-hampered ninth. Yelena Slesarenko of Russia took the women’s high jump in the evening’s only Olympic record, at 2.06 meters, clearing each of her eight bar heights without a single miss, until failing at her three attempts at a world record. Hestrie Cloete of South Africa and Viktoriya Styopina took silver and bronze, each clearing 2.02 meters. In other races, Russia’s Yuriy Borzakovskiy was the surprise and emotion-filled winner of the men’s 800 meters, speeding down the home straight to outdistance South Africa’s Mbulaeni Mulaudzi and world recordholder Wilson Kipketer, running for Denmark. The US got its own back with convincing wins in both the men’s and women’s 4×400 relays, the former over Australia and Nigeria, the latter over Russia and Jamaica.

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