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Michael Wilbon

Crash Course in Greek Tragedy

By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, August 14, 2004; Page D01

ATHENS

The names probably won't mean much to you, not in a country that barely pays attention to its own track and field stars. But Kostas Kenteris is a Greek god here, and his training partner, Katerina Thanou, is athletic royalty, too. Since sprinting to gold and silver, respectively, four years ago in Sydney they have been the public face of the Greek Olympic team, the most celebrated international stars in a country that has precious few. So it's not hyperbole to suggest their story constitutes a full Greek tragedy, a staggering blow to the host nation and perhaps worse than that for the two athletes.

Missing their drug tests then crashing a motorcycle and winding up in an Athens hospital will likely put both of them out of the Games. If the injuries aren't serious enough to do it -- and they reportedly are not -- then the missed drug test appointments certainly could because that's akin to failing, an issue the IOC will address Monday when it conducts a hearing on the matter. This isn't the time to expect some sentimental home country advantage to save Kenteris and Thanou, considering the IOC and the international doping police have repeatedly boasted that these Games will not be taken hostage by the scandal of drug use, or even the appearance of it.



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From all indications, it was Kenteris who was favored by the Greeks to light the Olympic cauldron at the Opening Ceremonies here Friday night, the way Cathy Freeman ignited the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, the way Muhammad Ali did the same in Atlanta in 1996. There's no bigger Olympic honor than being asked to light the cauldron and the Greeks had all but officially decided to bestow it upon Kenteris.

Before his 200-meter victory and before Thanou finished second to Marion Jones in the 100 in Sydney, the Greeks paid more attention to weightlifting than anything else in sport, hardly a glamorous event that commands worldwide attention, even at the Olympic Games. But that all changed in Australia. Kenteris became known as "Greece Lightning" and if winning the 200 didn't make him a hero, dedicating his medal to the victims of the Samina Ferry disaster did. During the Sydney Games, the Samina Ferry crashed just off Paros island in the Aegean Sea, killing approximately 80 people in Greece's worst maritime disaster since 1965. Kenteris thought the dedication might lift the country's mood, and ultimately he was lifted by appreciative countrymen.

But he dropped like a rock this week, right to the bottom of the Aegean like the crashed Samina. Could he and Thanou have humiliated themselves on a bigger stage? A lot of folks here, as full of pride as they are over these Games, aren't even convinced the two had a motorcycle accident. The real cynics believe in an accident but suggest it was staged. Having just gotten past the point where they had to defend the country's ability to even successfully stage the Games, a great many Greeks wore a look Friday that spoke clearly of betrayal. One of Kenteris's friends, Stratis Patakos, was quoted by the Associated Press upon leaving the hospital on Friday as saying, "Like all Greeks, I am distraught." Greece's Olympic Committee called an emergency meeting for Saturday to discuss the case amid reports that Kenteris could be forced to pull out of these Games.

Neither has failed a drug test, but as we know in the United States, that is not always enough these days. Speculation is often enough to convict, and there has been much speculation about both athletes, especially Kenteris, who has barely competed since winning the world championship a year after Sydney.

There hasn't been a bigger on-site Olympic drug scandal since 1988 in Seoul, when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for a performance-enhancing steroid and was stripped of his victory in the 100 meters.

Johnson didn't miss the appointment; he flunked the test. I can remember the revelation as if it happened yesterday. It was 3 o'clock in the morning in Seoul, and a French newspaper broke the story of the positive test. First one ringing telephone, then another, then dozens ended sleep in the media village and to a lesser degree in the athletes' village. Johnson's positive test is still the most stunning Olympic news I've ever heard covering nine Olympics. And Johnson's was so jarring because it happened after the fact, after he had beaten Carl Lewis in one of the most electrifying events the Olympics has seen in 20 years. But at least Johnson didn't humiliate himself at home.

Kenteris and Thanou aren't as well known as Johnson internationally, but there's no place for them to hide here. They've each won medals already, but winning halfway around the world in Sydney isn't the same as winning a medal at home. It certainly isn't as gratifying as lighting the cauldron before a nation that adores you.

And it leads me to wonder, even more cynically than I usually do, whether these Games are going to be remembered for positive drug tests, for missed drug test appointments, for drug rumors, drug accusations, drug exonerations, drug palpitations. Months ago, as we drowned in the reports about Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, I grew tired of doping news. We in the United States focused on American athletes, on Tim Montgomery, on Alvin Harrison and Chryste Gaines, Michelle Collins. Scandals like these are first digested locally. But now we've come to Athens, and it's becoming clearer that whatever doping crisis faces American athletes almost certainly isn't exclusive to U.S. athletes. And while the pomp and pageantry of the Opening Ceremonies may have carried the day here in Greece, the case of Kenteris and Thanou and what in the world they've done to themselves and their countrymen is still going to be there when they wake up tomorrow.


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