Halkia touches the Grecian soul

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The world's media had come to see Marion Jones make her first appearance at the Athens Games. But there was no question who on Wednesday the bulk of the 72,000 crowd had turned up to see 25-year-old Fani Halkia the new saviour of Greek sprinting.

Having set the Olympic 400m hurdles record on Sunday, Halkia had emerged not just as the clear favourite for Wednesday night's final but also as the best hope of lifting some of the gloom that still hangs over the Games as a result of the Costas Kenteris and Katarina Thanou case.

Jones, who has been under intense public scrutiny herself for the past 10 months because of the ongoing Balco drugs inquiries in the US, will have appreciated being spared the limelight at least for one night.

“What I did today goes to show that Greeks are full of soul, and they deserve recognition from everyone,” said Halkia. “No one expects Greeks to have such achievements - it always comes as a surprise whether you're a Greek fan or not.”

Halkia is the second Greek to win a track and field gold at these Games - 20km walker Athanasia Tsoumeleka was the other - but her triumph was the more celebrated, perhaps because it was at 10pm rather than 11am.

After a sluggish start Halkia trailed down the back straight but coming into the final bend the 25 year-old burst passed Australia's Jana Pittman who had lead from the start and extended her lead down the home straight to finish three metres ahead of the field in 52.82. Romania's Ionela Tirlea won silver in 53.38 and Tetiana Tereshchuk bronze with 53.44.

There was a more subdued reception for Jones in the qualifiers for the women's long jump. Having no-jumped in the opening round, her second leap of 6.70m guaranteed her place in Friday's final but she could have been forgiven for being distracted by the competitors for the 200m warming-up close-by. Jones was the reigning champion but did not make the US team in either the 100m or 200m events.

“In the second jump I just wanted to be safe,” said Jones. “I felt my qualifying round was much better than in Sacramento [the US trials]. I wanted to be on the track but it didn't work out for me this year as planned. I will maybe get a shot in the relay we will see.”

She was joined in the long jump final by among others heptathlon gold medallist Carolina Kluft, Tatyana Lebedeva who has jumped further than anyone else this year, 7.33, and Britain's Jade Johnson who qualified with 6.71.

Britain's Ricky Soos defied expectations finishing second in his 800m heat to qualify for Thursday's semi-final. But sprinters Darren Campbell - silver medallist in Sydney - and Christian Malcolm both bowed out of the 200m, which is shaping up to be another US 1-2-3 with Shawn Crawford, Bernard Williams and Justin Gatlin fastest in qualifying for Thursday's final.

It was also a painful night for former Olympic 110m champion Allen Johnson who crashed out in the heats in spectacular style hitting a trio of hurdles before finally stumbling through the last hurdle and landing spread-eagled on the track.

Meanwhile, Paula Radcliffe will announce at 9am on Thursday morning whether she will compete in Friday's 10,000m final.

While the British male sprinters' collective performance in Athens, writes Pat Butcher, was summed up by a glum Christian Malcolm as “disappointing”, Abi Oyepitan was radiant as she reflected on the past week, which has seen her move from being an average European sprinter to a world-class one.

Even finishing equal seventh, with Muna Lee of the US, in the Olympic 200m final on Wednesday night could not dent her satisfaction.

She has improved from 22.95sec to 22.50sec (in the semi-finals), to assume second on the UK all-time lists behind Cathy Smallwood, who ran 22.10sec as a prelude to winning bronze in the 400m in Los Angeles 20 years ago. In Wednesday night's final, Oyepitan ran 22.87sec as Jamaica's Veronica Campbell took gold ahead of Allyson Felix of the US and third placed Debbie Ferguson of the Bahamas.

“I can't believe it,” Oyepitan said. “I got to an Olympic final. It's great to be among the top eight in the world. I just need to get stronger. Hopefully, God-willing, I'll get to the world championships final as well next year.

“In terms of nerves, it's just the same as in the three As [UK championships], but once you go through the heats, the nerves dissipate. you learn to control it. I went to Beijing in the World Student Games, and thought about going back there for the Olympics. I'll be 28 then [in 2008], and at my peak. Hopefully, I'll win that.”

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