2004 Olympics: Athens hosts again
2004 Summer Games
Host: Athens, Greece
Medal table winner: United States of America
Held between August 13th and 29th, the 2004 games saw the modern Olympics return to its birthplace of Athens. In memory of the inaugural tournament in 1896, the original Panathenaic stadium was used for archery and ancient Olympia was deployed for the shot-put competition. Rather fittingly and appropriately, the motto of the games proved: ‘Welcome Home’.
The United States raced to the top of the medal table for the third consecutive Olympiad, while China usurped Russia for second. Impressively, Australia retained their fourth place finish and improved upon their Sydney tally. Hosts Greece came a solid fifteenth, their best performance since 1896, and Team GB once again sneaked into the top ten.
Aside from the use of Ancient and past facilities, Athens also produced some fantastic modern replacements such as the stunning OAKA plaza. In addition, the torch relay became a global journey for the first time with the flame winding through six continents. Kiribati and Timor Leste made their Olympic debuts in Greece with 10,625 athletes, overall, taking part.
The marathon is, as ever, full of drama and excitement at the Olympic games. This was no different in Athens. With the route being identical to that of 1896, UK hopes were pinned on women’s world record holder Paula Radcliffe (pictured right). However, despite being heavy favourite, the scorching temperatures and sapping cramp took its toll on the then 28-year-old. Eventually dropping out, Radcliffe was left heart broken as her Olympic dream withered in the Athenian streets.
There was similar drama in the men’s race with an Irish priest (stay with me here) having his say on the outcome of the race. Brazilian athlete Vanderlei de Lima was tackled by Cornelius Horan and dragged into the crowd while leading. Eventually managing to wriggle free, De Lima salvaged bronze, but had seen his gold chances slashed. In light of these baffling and cruel circumstances, he was awarded the Pierre de Coubetin medal for sportsmanship.
Horan, on the other hand, was left to deal with a hearty £2,500 fine. Considering he could have faced a five-year prison sentence however, the Leprechaun impersonator can count hiself lucky.
El Guerrouj seals his legacy
Moroccan distance runner Hicham El Guerrouj is simply an athletics legend and could boast such a status even before 2004. After all, he had set the 1500m world record in 1998 and the greatest ever mile time one year later. Both records still stand. However, despite being the overwhelming favourite in Sydney, El Guerrouj choked and could only muster a 1500m silver. Consequently, many considered his chance to have slipped away by the time Athens arrived.
Having finished eighth in his last race before the games and suffered from illness, the odds were against the Moroccan. Yet in one of the most incredible 1500m races in Olympic history, he finally fulfilled his destiny. Astonishingly, each 100m split of his last 800m was always faster than the last. It was this mercurial and constant acceleration that saw El Guerrouj overcome Kenyan legend Bernard Lagat and bag the gold.
Two consecutive Olympics of choking were behind him at last and the then 29-year-old was hungry for more. Just three days later, he embarked on the double and an event more than thrice the distance of the previous, the 5000m. Everything fell into place though as El Guerrouj became the first Olympian since Paavo Nurmi in 1924 to complete the double. He may have been forced to wait for his golden moment, but few legends have deserved it more.
Emotional double for Holmes
Team GB’s Kelly Holmes had, in many ways, a similar story to El Guerrouj. While her career didn’t boast any world records, she too had crumbled under the pressure in Atlanta and Sydney. Consequently, 2004 was her last chance too and many thought Holmes was past her best. Throw a series of crippling injuries and depression into the equation; everything seemed against Britain’s golden girl.
Athens proved the games of the underdog however. In her first race, the 800m, Holmes lurked in the middle of the pack for the first 550m. Making her move along the top bend though, it became apparent she was in with a chance of victory. With all of Britain willing her on, the then 34-year-old edged past Hasna Benhassi with just two metres to go. Coupled with Steve Cram’s legendary commentary: ‘You’ve won it Kelly!!’ there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Consequently, the pressure to win her first gold medal had finally been alleviated and the chance of the double presented itself in the 1500m. With an inspirational burst of pace in the last 50m, Holmes breezed to a comparatively comfortable win. Rarely has a British athlete captured the heart of the nation in such a manner. It simply proved the just reward for such a trying athletics career.
Fischer makes history
Kayaking cannot claim to be the most popular Olympic sport, but Germany’s Birgit Fischer went a long way to change that. In one of the most incredible Olympic careers, the 1962-born star won eight gold medals over six separate summer games. Garnering her first medal at the Moscow games in 1980, Fischer wanted to wrap up her Olympic career in style in Athens.
Despite being aged 42 at the time, Fischer proved an integral part of the successful K-4 500 metre winning side. With a time of 1:34.340, the Germans defeated Hungary and Ukraine to sneak the gold. Their veteran member also bagged herself silver in the K-2 500 metre race, narrowly missing out to Hungary alongside Carolin Leonhardt. Still, eight golds can’t be bad, huh?
Sir Bradley Wiggins made his Olympic debut in Greece and did so in emphatic fashion. The future Tour de France winner announced himself on the world stage with gold in the individual pursuit, silver in the team pursuit and a bronze in the Madison.
Arguably the shock of the games came in the Basketball as the USA suffered their first Olympic defeat in 12 years. Despite boasting a team including LeBron James, the US suffered a shock 89-81 loss to Argentina in the semi finals. The NBA side was forced to settle for bronze.
In what proved a largely successful tournament for Team GB, Britain ended in style with a surprise victory in the men’s 4x100m relay. Despite facing Maurice Greene and Justin Gatlin’s US outfit, Mark Lewis-Francis bagged the gold by just 0.01 seconds with a blistering anchor leg. A catastrophic second change-over from America proved the costly error and the UK took full advantage.
Another Olympic star burst onto the scene in Athens in the form of Michael Phelps. The most decorated Olympian of all time scooped an incredible six gold medals and two bronze. Believe it or not, it bagged even more in Beijing.
YJA Senior Correspondent