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Lagat qualifies despite shoe scare

Bernard Lagat holding the left shoe which nearly cost him a place in the 1,500m semi-finals
• Olympics 2004: Special report 

ATHENS, Greece -- Bernard Lagat, the fastest man in the world this year, survived a scare before advancing to the semi-finals of the Olympic 1,500 meters on Friday.

The Kenyan, with a season's best of three minutes 27.40 seconds, was clipped by American Alan Webb 300 meters from the end of the second heat, partially dislodging his left shoe.

He struggled on with the shoe half off before managing to kick it free 100m from the end, accelerating to finish second behind Spain's Reyes Estevez.

Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj, seeking the elusive Olympic gold he needs to cap a wonderful career, looked to have recovered from the respiratory problems that have dogged him when he cruised through to win the first heat in 3:37.86.

El Guerrouj, who fell in Atlanta and took silver in Sydney, waited at the end to shake hands with last-placed Roberto Caraciolo Mandje of Equatorial Guinea, who finished in 4:03.27, almost half a minute behind the world record holder but a national record.

Michael East, seeking to rekindle the great days of British middle-distance running, won the third and final heat in the fastest time of the night, 3:37.37.

The semi-finals are on Sunday with the final next Tuesday.

Devers and Block scrape through

Meanwhile, double Olympic champion Gail Devers of the United States and Ukrainian former world champion Zhanna Block scraped through to the semi-finals of the women's 100 meters.

Sprint hurdles specialist Devers, 37, was a late replacement in the U.S. team for the now-banned Torri Edwards.

She looked sluggish in the morning first round and trailed in fourth in 11.31 seconds in the opening second-round heat.

With only the first three sure to qualify for Saturday's semi-finals, Devers faced an anxious wait and squeezed through as the fourth next-fastest, the last qualifying spot on offer, by one hundredth of a second from Russian Irina Khabarova.

Block, who won the world 100m title in 2001 but has suffered fitness problems of late, was the third fastest loser after finishing fifth in her heat in 11.27.

As in the morning session, Belarussian Yuliya Nesterenko clocked the fastest time of the round, 10.99, and was once again the only athlete to dip under the 11-second barrier. She looks likely to be a strong contender in Saturday's final.

The event is wide open with a host of leading contenders absent. Olympic champion Marion Jones failed to qualify at the U.S. trials and the first two finishers at last year's world championships, Americans Kelli White and Edwards, are banned for doping.

Greek Katerina Thanou, the Olympic silver medallist in 2000, is also absent after withdrawing in the wake of the scandal over her and compatriot Costas Kenteris' missed dope test which has rocked the Athens Games.

French 30-year-old Christine Arron again looked highly impressive, winning Devers' heat after easing down to 11.10.

So too was American Lauryn Williams who won her heat in 11.03. She said: "If I get a start like that (in the final) god knows what will happen."

Williams' team mate, U.S. champion LaTasha Colander, qualified third in her heat in 11.20.

Jamaican-turned-Slovenian Merlene Ottey, competing in her seventh Olympics at the age of 44, followed home two of her former Caribbean team mates Sherone Simpson and Aleen Bailey to qualify third in her heat in 11.24.

World champion goes out

World high jump champion Jacques Freitag of South Africa saw his slim hopes of Olympic gold disappear when he failed to qualify for the final.

Freitag could manage only 2.20 meters, not good enough to make Sunday's final as a large group of athletes cleared 2.25, a height he failed at three times.

Despite Freitag having a personal best of 2.37, his failure should not be too much of a surprise as he was competing in Athens despite a snapped ligament in his take-off leg, an injury he suffered in February.

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