ATLANTA (AP) _ For once, silver may have meant more than gold.

Hezekiel Sepeng raced from the middle of the pack on the final stretch and into South African history Wednesday night, winning the silver medal in the men's 800 meters.

After his time of 1 minute, 42.74 seconds shattered the South African record, he draped his nation's flag around his shoulders and paraded around the stadium _ the first black person from his country ever to win an Olympic medal.

``The record was for me but the medal is for my country,'' he said.

``The message is if you want to make it, if you know your goal, you can achieve it,'' he said, the flag still draped around his slender shoulders. ``No matter if you are young or old. It may not happen this year. It may happen in four years. The important thing is to try.''

Sepeng couldn't quite catch Vebjoern Rodal of Norway, who won the gold in an Olympic-record 1:42.58. Norway had only won two other track gold medals, in 1920 and 1956.

``I was so nervous that somebody would catch me in the last 10 meters,'' said Rodal, one of the favorites.

Missing from the race was Wilson Kipketer, who on July 10 ran the fastest 800 in the world in 11 years at 1:42.51, less than a second off Sebastian Coe's world record.

The Kenyan has lived in Denmark since 1990 and wanted to run for that country. But Danish sports officials do not consider Kipketer a Dane, and he wouldn't run for Kenya. A last-minute Danish proposal for Kipketer to run under the Olympic flag was rejected by the IOC.

Sepeng was transferred as a teen-ager from an all-black school to a nearly all-white school, where the quality of athletic training was far better.

He thought about going to college in the United States, but decided to stay with his coach in South Africa.

Wednesday was not the first time he had made history. Two years ago, at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, he became a symbol for unity in his country by winning the 800 silver medal. It was the first medal of any kind for a black South African in major international competition.

South Africa was banned from the Olympics for more than three decades because of apartheid policies that prevented blacks from competing on the national team.

The country was reinstated in 1992, and white athletes won two medals in Barcelona. South Africa's three previous medals in Atlanta were also won by whites, who enjoyed superior sports facilities and training under the apartheid system.

The nation's first all-race election in 1994 ended apartheid and brought Nelson Mandela's African National Congress to power. Mandela, the nation's first black president, has tried to use sports to unify the deeply divided black and white communities.

Sepeng said Mandela's efforts are working. ``In sports, the atmosphere is great for all of us,'' he said.

Sepeng's medal will automatically make him a national sports hero, particularly among the more than 30 million blacks who make up 75 percent of the population.

Although Sepeng said he made some mistakes that cost him the Olympic gold, he knew what the reaction would be at home.

``They are celebrating,'' he said. ``All of South Africa is celebrating.''