The Greatest Olympic Athletes – women’s middle distance

Our countdown of the greatest Olympic athletes for each event group continues with the women’s middle distance events

Kelly Holmes (Mark Shearman)

Kelly Holmes

In 2004 at the age of 34, Kelly Holmes finally won the title that had eluded her when she took the Olympic title over 800m in Athens. Just for good measure, Holmes came back to win the 1500m and score a surprise double.

For Holmes, after years of rollercoaster emotions, near misses and horrific injuries, it was her crowning glory. The images of her wide-eyed and arms outstretched adorned the covers of almost every newspaper in the UK. She went from being one of the best British female athletes to one of the greatest middle-distance women ever on an Olympic stage.

Holmes’ story is undoubtedly a remarkable one. It’s a tale of unbridled talent, of ups and downs, of moments of despair and exquisite joy. Gifted as a youngster, Holmes won the junior girls 1500m in 4:37.8 at the 1983 English Schools. It would be 11 years later that she would win her first international title, taking the 1994 Commonwealth Games 1500m title in 4:08.86.

She followed it one year later with two medals at the World Championships in Gothenburg, winning silver in the 1500m and bronze in the 800m with a national record of 1:56.95. She reduced that time further to 1:56.21 at the end of the season.

Holmes had an injury-hit build-up to the 1996 Olympics and competed sparingly that summer, but in Atlanta she made the finals of both the 1500m and 800m, finishing fourth in the latter – just 0.10 off a medal.

She came out all guns blazing in 1997 and smashed the UK 1500m record with 3:58.07. But having been the favourite to take gold at that year’s World Championships, Holmes was devastated when her old Achilles injury came back to haunt her in the heats and she was forced to pull out.

Once more, Holmes had an interrupted season in 2000 and only stepped on to the track six weeks before the Sydney Games. But she timed her peak well and took bronze in the 800m. It confirmed what she had known for several years – that if she could have just one year without injury, she would be capable of beating anyone in the world.

She would need to wait four years for another shot of Olympic glory though, and in the lead-up to the Athens Games she won European 800m bronze and Commonwealth 1500m gold in 2002, and world indoor 1500m silver and world 800m silver in 2003.

Holmes also looked on course for 1500m gold at the 2004 World Indoors before crashing to the track in a mid-race trip. She shrugged it off though, knowing she had bigger fish to fry outdoors later that year.

Ten days before the start of the Athens Olympics, Holmes was still pondering her options of whether to run one or two events. She had shown impressive form, but was it good enough to win an Olympic gold?

In her opening heat of the 800m she had no trouble qualifying and just 24 hours later, Holmes took charge of her semi-final winning in 1:57.98. The stage was set for an awesome final.

She chose to play it the way she had in her previous rounds, not pressing the ‘go’ button until she needed to. USA’s Jearl Miles Clark sped through the bell, with Holmes seventh. Mozambique’s Maria Mutola started to move through the field and Holmes followed her. The home straight was reached and suddenly Holmes took over. She was ahead and despite Jolanda Ceplak and Hasna Benhassi edging ever nearer, Holmes held on for the victory and the coveted gold medal.

Her eyes looked as if they were going to pop out of their sockets as she waited for confirmation on the scoreboard. She won in 1:56.38, Benhassi was second in a Moroccan record of 1:56.43, the same time as Ceplak. Holmes said: “Someone told me at the side of the track that I’d won, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Kelly Holmes (Mark Shearman)

She was back the next day to finish second in her 1500m heat in 4:05.58 and two days later she placed second in her semi in 4:04.77. In the final with a lap to go, she moved into seventh and then with 250m to go, she progressed again. As the home straight beckoned there was only one winner.

Holmes crossed the line with ease to take her second Olympic title in 3:57.90, breaking her 1997 UK record. She said: “I knew I was in good shape and I was just saying to myself, ‘one more, one more’.”

Awarded an MBE in 1998, she was advanced to Dame of the British Empire in the 2005 New Year Honours. But as a recurring problem with her right Achilles tendon flared up, she knew then it was the right time to retire.

Greatest Olympic middle distance runners

The other athletes who received votes from readers of Athletics Weekly.

Tatyana Kazankina
The Soviet athlete made a huge impact in the late Seventies and Eighties, taking the 1500m world record from 4:01.38 to 3:56.0 in 1976, becoming the first woman to break four minutes, and then improving to 3:52.47 in 1980. She won the Olympic 800m/1500m Olympic double in 1976, setting a world record of 1:54.9 over two laps, and defended her 1500m title four years later in front of a home crowd at the Moscow Games.

Svetlana Masterkova
20 years after Kazankina achieved the feat and eight years before Holmes’ two golds, Masterkova won the Olympic 800m and 1500m double. Not only was the Russian a superb tactician, but she had great speed too and during her career she set world records over 1000m (2:28.98) and the mile (4:12.56).

Maria Mutola
Arguably the most dominant 800m runner in history, Mutola broke two minutes more than 200 times during her long career and built up winning streaks of 42 races in the early Nineties and 36 races between 2002 and 2004. Despite dominating the event for most of the Nineties, Mutola’s first Olympic gold came in 2000, having won bronze four years earlier. Having competed at the 1988 Games as a teenager, Mutola hung up her spikes after her fifth Olympics in 2008.

Gulnara Galkina
The most successful of the women’s steeplechase pioneers, the Russian started out in the 1500m and 5000m before switching to the barriers. She soon found success and in 2003 at the end of her first season in the event, she smashed the world record by eight seconds with 9:08.33. She improved it one year later to 9:01.59, which remained the world record until the 2008 Games, where Galkina took the inaugural Olympic title in the event and became the first woman to break nine minutes in the process, setting a world record of 8:58.81.

» Click here to read the other athletes profiled in our ‘Greatest Olympic athletes’ countdown.

» All of these athletes and more are featured in AW‘s bookazine, The Greatest Olympic Athletes, available now for just £9.99.

» You can also order our latest special publication – The Greatest Show On Earth – our in-depth preview to the London 2012 Olympics.

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