A huge shadow was cast over the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games last night as the Greek nation struggled to come to terms with the potential loss of two of its sporting icons embroiled in a drugs scandal.
In potentially the most damaging episode of a doping epidemic that has already deprived the Games of some of the world's top athletes, Greek sprinters Katerina Thanou, an Olympic 100m silver medallist, and Konstadinos Kederis - an Olympic champion known as the "greatest living Greek" - face imminent elimination from the event if they are found guilty of missing a drugs test.
In a saga with close parallels to the suspension of the Manchester United footballer Rio Ferdinand, the pair face a two-year mandatory ban by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) after they went missing on Thursday night.
A disciplinary hearing ordered by the IOC president, Jacques Rogge, was adjourned yesterday until Monday while both the accused remain in an Athens hospital recovering from injuries apparently sustained in a mysterious motorcycle accident just hours after they fell foul of anti-doping officials.
Details of the incident still remain unclear but it has prompted a series of theories fuelled by suspicions that have surrounded Kederis ever since he beat the British sprinter Darren Campbell against the odds to win the Olympic 200m gold at the Sydney Games where he also won a 100m silver.
A search by anti-doping agents for the two athletes, who are training partners and share the same coach, Christos Tzekos, began last week with a visit to their training base at Chicago University where they could not be found. Guessing their whereabouts became a Greek pastime until they arrived late on Wednesday in Athens via Germany where Kederis was treated for minor training injuries, Mr Tzekos said.
According to Greek team officials and Mr Tzekos, at 3pm on Thursday they joined the Greek team in the international athletes' village and were apparently granted permission to leave for a few hours by the Greek team officials responsible for declaring their whereabouts to anti-doping teams.
The couple travelled to collect some belongings from an apartment owned by Tzekos in the nearby southern coastal district of Glyfada and were apparently not made aware of the developing scandal until they turned on their mobiles soon after midnight.
Heading back to the athletes' village on a motorcycle, they apparently crashed after skidding on a patch of oil in Poseidon Street although there were no witnesses to the event.
"They were with me, they took the bike to get there quickly and, as you can see, frustration is the worst thing," Mr Tzekos said. "At the time, we were sitting on my balcony, we were in a bad state and under a lot of pressure ... it doesn't take a lot for a bad thing to happen."
Records from the emergency services showed not a single call-out in the district on Thursday evening. It also remained unclear how and why the pair checked in to the KAT hospital 15 miles to the south instead of a general hospital five minutes from the scene.
Kederis is being treated for slight head injuries, a sprained vertebra and knee strain while Thanou has slight abdominal injuries and a sprained right leg. It is unclear whether either could recover in time to compete in the sprints, starting on Friday, and it is even rumoured that Kederis may choose to retire with his reputation relatively intact.
As it has become more widespread, the use of performance-enhancing drugs has gained in sophistication with athletes and coaches able to carefully time drug doses to avoid detection. By keeping one step ahead of the testers, athletes are able to find time to flush drugs out of their system. One such method is a 20-minute process of "catheterisation" which enables the athlete to purify their urine of most steroids.
The impact of the missed tests on national morale has drawn comparison with widespread dismay when David Beckham broke a bone in his foot before the World Cup in 2002. A national hero, Kederis features on hundreds of billboards around Athens and was expected to light the cauldron with the Olympic torch during last night's opening ceremony.
News of the investigation has tarnished the newly-found enthusiasm for the Games among Athenians. Bank clerk Olga Koskeridou, 39, said: "I think they got caught up in trying to be the best. They wanted to win in Athens so badly that they were willing to resort to any means. Of course it's very sad and casts a shadow over the whole opening ceremony. Are these Games cursed?"
Panagioula Manti, 63, said: "The whole motorcycle thing is an excuse. Are we really going to believe that the country's two best athletes were riding around on a motorcycle a few days before the Games?"
A trail of confusion
Anti-doping officials fail to locate the Greek sprinters Konstadinos Kederis and Katerina Thanou, above, who are meant to be training at their camp in Chicago University
The pair's flight takes them via Germany to Athens where they arrive late at night
3pm: The pair join the Greek Olympic team in the athletes' village
6.15pm: The athletes travel to their coach's apartment in Glyfada, south of the IOC apparently to collect some belongings
10pm: Reports filter through that they have missed a drugs test
Midnight: An IOC emergency meeting concludes with president Jacques Rogge setting up a disciplinary committee
12.45am: Alleged motorcycle accident in Poseidon Street, according to the Ministry of Public Order
12.30pm: With the athletes in hospital, they are represented instead by Greek team leader at a disciplinary commission in a central Athens hotel. The IOC adjourns the hearing until Monday