Halkia's improbable rise reaches crescendo

Greek's runaway victory in 400 hurdles caps surprising turn of events

Track And Field

Athens 2004

August 26, 2004|By Philip Hersh | Philip Hersh,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ATHENS - It was a moment Fani Halkia described as magical, and how could have it been otherwise? Here was a Greek athlete winning the 400-meter hurdles, cheered on by a sellout crowd whose encouragement made her feel the Olympic Stadium rock.

Magic seemed part of Halkia's story well before last night, for no one could have predicted that a 25-year-old woman with a long and unimpressive history in the sport could have improved her time in the event by nearly four seconds in the past year.

"Would I have guessed before the Olympics she would be the champion? No," said Brenda Taylor of the United States, who finished seventh.

Halkia's personal best before this season was 56.40 seconds in 2003. Her other two times last year were over 57 seconds.

After an Olympic record of 52.77 seconds in the semifinals, Halkia had a runaway victory in yesterday's final with a time of 52.82. Ionela Tirlea-Manolache of Romania was second in 53.38. It was the largest Olympic victory margin in the event since 1984, the first year the 400 hurdles was on the Olympic program.

"I tried to work extremely hard," Halkia said through a translator, "56.40 after three months, after a year of very hard work, you can do under 53 seconds. If you know anything about athletics, that goes without saying. Of course you can improve that much."

The three-month reference was unclear, even to Greek journalists, for Halkia has been with her current coach, George Panayiotopoulos, more than four years. She was injured for three months last year.

Halkia's history has other elements to create more doubt.

Panayiotopoulos was a sprinter who trained with Christos Tsekos, the coach at the center of Greece's version of the BALCO doping scandal.

Tsekos coaches Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, the two sprinters who withdrew from the Olympics after missing at least three drug tests. Greek investigators reportedly have found steroids in supplements seized from a warehouse Tsekos uses.

"I never worked with Mr. Tsekos," Halkia said. "My coach had a lot of different coaches. He worked with Mr. Tsekos, and he stopped. There is no connection, clearly."

In other events:

American Allyson Felix, 18, took the silver medal in the women's 200. Jamaica's Veronica Campbell held off Felix to win in 22.05 - the fastest time in the world this year. Debbie Ferguson of the Bahamas won bronze.

"Veronica executed the curve very well," Felix said. "When I was coming down the stretch, it was a lot of heart and giving it all I had. I feel I took a lot away from it. This is just a start for me."

Marion Jones qualified for the women's long jump final on the same day it was announced she will run on the U.S. 400 relay team. Her best was 21 feet, 11 3/4 inches, the seventh-best qualifying jump.

Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj qualified easily for the 5,000 final one night after his dramatic and emotional victory in the 1,500.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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