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After Paula Radcliffe's tears the broad smiles of Kelly Holmes. Already Britain's most decorated female middle distance runner, Holmes' Olympic 800m gold medal on Monday night has guaranteed her place in athletics history.

All the sweeter perhaps for the fact it was so unexpected. Holmes went into the race as a contender for silver or bronze the medal she won in Sydney four years ago. But few believed she could win gold.

Holmes ran a superb race. She was in last place during the early stages and only seventh at the bell, but when defending champion Maria Mutola started to move through the pack with 300m to go, Holmes followed.

It looked like a carbon copy of the race the training partners ran at the world championships in Paris last year when Holmes took silver and Mutola gold. But as the final turned into a sprint finish between the pair down the home straight, the Briton strained to pass the Mozambican with five metres left.

Nobody was more surprised than Holmes that she had crossed the line first. She stood for a moment looking perplexed, staring at the giant scoreboard before it confirmed what everybody in the stadium knew the former soldier had won Olympic gold in a time of 1min 56.38secs.

Mutola, distraught as she realised that her reign was over, lost concentration in the final strides and allowed both Morocco's Hasna Benhassi and European champion Jolanda Ceplak of Slovenia to pass her and claim silver and bronze.

Still clearly stunned just minutes after coming off the track, Holmes said: “I can't believe it. I am totally in shock. I have more strength than speed and had to take the risk. It was a hard battle for the last 50m but I just dug in and drove for the finish line. I have been training more on strength and shorter distances so I think that is why I could keep up the speed that was needed at the end.”

Holmes confirmed that she would compete in the 1,500m, which she believes is her better distance, although she said she did not know what shape she would be in for Tuesday morning's heats.

Mutola, 31, immediately left the track. Not even looking back, not waiting to celebrate with her friend. It may be the last Olympic final for a woman who has dominated the 800m for the past decade and won Olympic titles at both Atlanta and Sydney.

“Kelly Holmes and I train together she knows my weaknesses,” said Mutola.

On her way down the tunnel she would have passed a representative of the next generation of athletes, 20-year-old sprinter Jeremy Wariner on his way to take part in the men's 400m final. Coached by the man who guided Michael Johnson to Olympic 400m and world championship titles, Clyde Hart, Wariner has sprung out of the US college circuit over the past 12 months.

He closed down on team-mate Derrick Brew in the back straight but trailed Otis Harris coming off the final bend. Wariner then powered through in the home straight to lead a US 1-2-3, with Harris winning silver and Drew bronze.

Elsewhere, Britain's Chris Rawlinson eased into Tuesday night's semi-finals of the 400m hurdles although he appeared to tire in the final few metres and qualified only 14th fastest. Abi Oyepitan put in a fine performance to earn a place in the women's 200m semi-final where she will be joined by a member of the old guard, 44-year-old Merlene Ottey, competing at her seventh Olympics.

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