The Olympics Games came back to Athens 108 years after the first celebration of the modern era and returning to a European host city 12 years after Barcelona had staged its memorable edition.
The Athens organisers provided eye-catching innovations such as having the shot put at Ancient Olympia and the marathons finish in the Panathenaikon Stadium that had been the centrepiece of the 1896 Olympics but most of the 21 gold medals won by European athletes were in the magnificent main Olympic Stadium.
The stadium itself had been first opened in 1982 and also hosted the 1997 World Athletics Championships but the extensive renovation ahead of the Games included European Athletics Green Inspiration Partner Mondo installing an upgraded version of its Super X Performance Track – which had made its Olympic debut four years earlier in Sydney – whose most lauded quality was its vastly improved shock absorption.
Certainly, such attributes aided, whether she knew it or not, the star female athlete of the Games, Great Britain’s Kelly Holmes.
Holmes, 34 in Athens, had suffered a litany of injuries in the previous decade which had often meant she had not been able to produce her best at major championships but arriving at the Olympics healthy she was also able to compete without any fear of further damaging her legs with six middle-distance outings in nine days.
The Briton first won over two laps of the track, hitting the front coming off the final bend before crossing the line in 1:56.38, her best time for nine years.
“As I crossed the line, I thought I’d won but I wasn’t sure. To tell the truth I would have been happy with any medal. I knew I just had to use my head to win but, in the end, it was my heart that got to the line first,” reflected Holmes after that race as she admitted that she had been running scared down the home straight.
The following day, Holmes embarked on her quest to become Great Britain’s first female athlete to win more than one gold. She almost sauntered through her heat and semi before lining up in the final.
With one lap to go, she was in penultimate place in the 12-woman field but confident in her finishing kick after her sizzling final 100 metres to win 800m gold, she picked off her opponents one-by-one over the last lap and hit the front for the first time in the race with 60 metres to go before winning in a British record 3:37.90.
Holmes’ double also led to a further honour, being deservedly voted as the female European Athlete of the Year for 2004.
The only European man to win in an individual track event was Russia’s Yuriy Borzakovskiy, who won the 800m in 1:44.45, but Great Britain’s 4x100m quartet – perhaps inspired by Holmes as the gun went on their final race barely an hour after Holmes had crossed the line on the last full evening of athletics in the Olympic Stadium – upset the odds to defeat the favoured USA in a race that still remains a thrill to watch to the very last stride.
Jason Gardener – now UK Athletics President – Darren Campbell and Marlon Devonish succeeded in building a two-metre lead over the USA, despite the fact that none of the British quartet had made the individual 100m final, and that was enough of an advantage for Mark Lewis-Francis to keep Britain in pole position all the way through to the line, winning in 38.07 and by just 0.01 from the USA.
European success in Athens wasn’t just about Great Britain, as the ‘golden generation’ of Swedish athletes lived up to their name and took home three gold medals.
Christian Olsson and Carolina Kluft had been the 2003 European Athletes of the Year and they succeeded in fulfilling their role as favourites for their specialist events and took gold in the triple jump and heptathlon respectively.
Olsson’s triumph saw him complete the set of all the major outdoor championships titles available: Olympic, World, and European and he was also to retain his accolade as the European Athlete of the Year.
He improved his own Swedish outdoor record to 17.79m in the second round of his contest and had three other jumps better than Romania’s Marian Oprea’s silver medal-winning effort of 17.55m.
Nevertheless, Olsson was somewhat downbeat about his achievement in post-event interviews. “That second jump was a good jump but not a perfect one. I definitely had the feeling I was going to jump over 18 metres tonight.”
Kluft arguably won even more comfortably than her compatriot en route to amassing a total of 6952 points and victory by 517 points, the widest ever winning margin in the discipline.
She only had one personal best during seven events, in the shot put, but was near to her best in most of the others, notably coming out on top in the high jump and long jump with 1.91m and 6.78m.
Stefan Holm was also the marginal favourite for his event but, in contrast to his team mates, earned his high jump gold medal the hard way in a fashion that had Swedish fans biting their nails.
Four men cleared 2.34m but Holm had needed three attempts to do it, as well as having two jumps at 2.32m, and was out of the medals as the bar was raised to 2.36m.
However, with nerves of steel that typified his career, he cleared the new height on his first attempt before watching his rivals one-by-one come up short.
Hosts Greece had plenty to cheer as well with surprise golds from 400m hurdler Fani Halkia, who equalled the Olympic record in the final with 52.82, and Athanasia Tsoumeleka, who won the 20km race walk in 1:29.12.
In fact, European walkers took all three events contested in Athens, which started and finished on the Mondo track in the main stadium.
Italy’s Ivan Brugnetti triumphed in the men’s 20km race walk while Poland’s Robert Korzenoiwski won an unprecedented third Olympic Games 50km title.
Another man to retain his Olympic title in Athens was Lithuanian discus thrower Virgilijus Alekna, who sent his implement out to a distance of 69.89m, an Olympic record which still stands today.
Russia was Europe’s leading nation in the medal table with six gold medals, five from their women, and a tally which included Yelena Isinbayeva’s pole vault title achieved with a world record height of 4.91m.