August 23, 2008

Article at Reuters

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Triple track joy for Africa in Bird's Nest

BEIJING (Reuters) - Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele completed the long distance double and Kenya won two more golds as Africa dominated the last evening of Olympics sport in the Bird’s Nest on Saturday.

There were rare sour notes, though, when a Ukrainian weightlifter was suspended for doping and a Cuban, Angel Valodia Matos, banned from taekwondo for life after kicking the referee in the head when his bronze medal bout was stopped.

For the most part, though, the penultimate day of the Games was about athletes pushing themselves to the limits of endurance in the quest for gold.

It was also about Africa.

Day 15 had begun in the space-age National Stadium with disappointment for Nigeria, losing the soccer final by a single goal to Argentina in the blazing midday sun.

The Bird’s Nest transformed itself back into an athletics stadium in the evening and African honor was restored.

First, the continent swept the men’s 800 meters; gold for Kenya’s Wilfred Bungei, bronze for compatriot Alfred Kirwa Yego and a first medal for Sudan, silver for Ismail Ahmed Ismail.

Kenya got its fourth track gold of the Games through Nancy Jebet Lagat in the women’s 1,500 meters.

The highlight, though, was Bekele’s triumph in the 5,000 meters, which made him the first man since 1980 to win both long distance track races, after victory in the 10,000m last Sunday.

Victory meant complete a clean sweep of the track distance golds for Ethiopia, matching Jamaica’s extraordinary sprint performance. Tirunesh Dibaba became the first woman to win both distance golds when she won the 5,000m on Friday night.

African coaches said hardship and high altitude had helped.

“Our athletes have to walk long distances from a very young age to go to school unlike those in developed countries, so they just get used to it,” said Kenyan assistant coach Peter Mathu.

Later, the U.S. team got some joy after a poor Games on the track with victory in both the men’s and women’s 4x400m relay.

Relief was magnified after U.S. athletes had dropped the baton in both men’s and women’s 4x100m sprint relays.

America’s women won a fourth straight gold in women’s basketball, demolishing Australia 92-65, and will be hoping for another in the men’s final against Spain on Sunday.

The pressure of Olympic competition led to an extraordinary outburst of anger in the taekwondo tournament and exhaustion in the kayaking races.

Matos was leading his bronze medal heavyweight bout but needed time out for an injury and the referee awarded the decision to his opponent.

Slideshow ( 40 images )

The furious Cuban was joined on the mat by his coach and then Matos kicked both the referee -- in the head -- and another official before he was escorted away amid chaotic scenes.

“All records of this athlete at the Beijing Olympic Games will be immediately deleted,” an official later told a cheering crowd, announcing lifetime bans for Matos and the coach.

Canoeists and kayakers pushed themselves to the limits of endurance in a flood of sprint finals on Lake Shunyi, a Spanish silver medalist sick on the podium and a Ukrainian bronze medal winner fainting on the finish line.

The noon kick-off for the soccer final was the price paid for holding it in the Bird’s Nest, which was booked up in the evening for the athletics. But it sapped the life out of the game, and both coaches said it had affected their players.

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Despite boasting the skills of Lionel Messi and orchestration of Juan Roman Riquelme, the Argentines never found their stylish best. But they were well worth the win thanks to a delightful second-half chip from striker Angel Di Maria.

There was a final burst of drama in the color-changing Water Cube, Australia’s Matthew Mitcham foiling China’s bid to sweep the diving with a last-gasp victory in the men’s platform final.

Mitcham burst into tears after coming from behind to win on his final dive, and said victory felt “absolutely surreal”.

“Everything, absolutely everything I have done, has been for this,” he said. “Now it’s happened and I never thought it would.”

The International Olympic Committee has worked to eliminate drugs cheats from these Games and disqualified Ukrainian weightlifter Igor Razoronov after he tested positive for drugs.

Despite regular testing, sections of the media have expressed skepticism about Jamaica’s sensational sprint performance at these games, after the Caribbean island won all the individual sprint golds and the men’s relay.

Triple sprint champion Usain Bolt, though, told a news conference the extraordinary improvement in his country’s performance was down to hard work and not doping.

“I’ve been tested so many times in the competition I’ve lost count,” he said. “We know we’re good, we know we’re clean. We work hard and any time you want to test us, it’s okay.”

Jamaica does not have its own accredited anti-doping system but had conducted more than 90 tests before the Games.

As one of the busiest days of the Games neared its conclusion, Russia overtook Britain to claim third place in the medals table, reaching 21 golds.

Nevertheless their haul is still below their 27 Athens golds.

Russia’s fall is more than matched by China’s rise, and the hosts are now assured top spot in the medals table, with 49 golds to 34 for the United States.


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