29 August 2004
The 800 metres champion makes history as she adds the 1500m title to set herself apart from all who have gone before
There was no nonsense about it. Kelly Holmes took her place in history as a former Army Sergeant should, firmly and ruthlessly before exploding into wondrous, unbelievable, wide-eyed delight.
All her life had led to this. Those early school athletics in Kent, the army days when she won three different events in one day and became the judo champion to boot, and then the long era of promise never quite fulfilled. Never that is until this week. Now with Monday’s 800 metres coupled with yesterday’s 1500 she has done something no British athlete has done before.
To think that most of us had thought that at 34 her chances were over, that this was the Olympics when last Sunday Queen Paula would set seal on her reign. But out of the Radcliffe ashes came the Kelly crown. After all our male athletic under-achievement Britain can’t believe its luck.
At 5ft 5in she is not tall but as she stood at the start line you could see the solidity of the shoulder and the hardness of the stomach muscles as she shone with well being beside the slight frame of the Russian Yegorova and her taller counterpart Yevdokimova. You remembered Kelly’s ebullient press conference statement on Monday “at last I have had an uninterrupted preparation. I am in the best shape ever”.
In the heats she had been awesome. Running down her rivals with the power of a classic winner, in racing terms she was “never off the bridle”. But this was her sixth race in nine days, this was the Olympic 1500 metres final, this had three Russians and there were fears they might make it hurt in retaliation for supposed interference at last year’s World Championship.
In the 800 metres Kelly had timed the most perfect waiting race you will ever see, sitting last early and then getting a tow from her great friend and rival Maria Mutola and kicking early enough to have the edge on the late thrust from Jolanda Ceplak. As she again dropped herself out in last place we held our breath to see if she would be so daring this time. Watching on television gives no concept of how confusing a place an Olympic stadium can be. As the 3 ¾ laps of the 1500 metres unravelled there was the women’s high jump going on to the left of us, the men’s javelin final being introduced to the right, each with their own waves of flags and cheers and banners. But for us this was Kelly Holmes’ date with destiny.
She tracked them for a circuit as Yevdokimova, the tallest of the Russians led at a decent pace. But there was a sense of firm authority as Holmes closed up to cover the pack with a lap and a half to go, a touch of combat as she fended off the pushing Romanian on the bend to the back straight the final time.
But now we knew it was a final. The Russian was stretching them and Holmes was having to work. She had got up to fifth before the final bend and there was an aweful doubt in the mind that the strain was telling. Off the crown of the turn she was challenging the leader. She was the fastest but would she get home?
When you get involved with a runner like we all have with Holmes there become a desperate yearning for the finish line, a craven fear of challengers from the back. The world champion Tomashova was coming but Holmes was ahead. Her strong arms were pumping, Holmes was going to be too good.
She was coming to the line only five metres in front of us. At 34 she was a young woman in a moment of purest achievement. We strained our voices shouting and hurt our hands banging the desk as she crossed it. It was the moment that will last forever. Kelly Holmes had won.
When she finally lifted herself from the track she found a Union Jack and draped herself in it. The symbolism was glorious. Here was talent, hard work and pugnacious fortitude triumphing over years of disappointment, of believing in herself when others doubted her, of holding the dream that one day the glory would come.
She trotted a whole circuit of the track, going up to other flags in the crowd. It was the second time in the week she had done it and as she came past the face was lit with its own Olympic flame.
Robert The Bruce would not have approved of the Union Flag Kelly carried. But the old Scots hero would have loved the way she had followed his motto, “try, try and try again”.