A day to heal wounds of the night before
It was a relief to return to an old-fashioned Olympic concept: that success should concern honest endeavour
Sunday 15 August 2004
Midday yesterday, and the mercury had risen to an unforgiving level on the banks of Lake Schinias. God knows what it had been like for a British rowing four stroking at 36 a minute and upwards. It was worth the effort.
Midday yesterday, and the mercury had risen to an unforgiving level on the banks of Lake Schinias. God knows what it had been like for a British rowing four stroking at 36 a minute and upwards. It was worth the effort. Some 2,500 years ago, just over the road, the Persians were sent packing by the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon. Here, after a six-minute skirmish, it was the Italians who had been conquered, albeit narrowly, followed by the Slovenian quartet and the Americans.
So, recent progress by a British crew formed only six weeks' ago had been maintained, in the pursuit of Matthew Pinsent's fourth gold. The reluctant captain summed it up in typically wry manner. "After the summer we've been through," reflected Pinsent, the perspiration trickling profusely from his angular features, "you'd settle for winning a one-on-one with Kwazululand, really."
For most of us, though, on this first morning of competition (ignoring the football), it was a relief to return to an old-fashioned Olympic concept: that success should concern honest endeavour not pharmaceutical enhancement, even if recent events have led many to accept and, indeed, some to endorse, the contrary.
For all its flaws, for all those whose performances are rendered suspect, the Olympics still retain the capacity to exhilarate and inspire. That remains true at the conclusion of a week in which the stadium opened on time, but not before the roof had caved in for the hosts.
Like much of the opening ceremony itself, there had been a particular moment pregnant with symbolism as the Greek flag-bearer Dimas Pyrros started the parade alone, holding the flag aloft in one hand, and then led in the Greek team last. It represented the completion of a circle describing the Olympic journey, from the first Games in 776BC to this 28th Olympiad.
Yet, as 75,000 within the stadium witnessed the 201 national representatives who followed the weightlifter - at approaching four hours, it was an interminable as much as an uplifting experience - many will have asked: were those flags waving with pride or surrendering in shame?
It was impossible even for the countless posturing political figures - inevitably, the British premier Tony Blair and his wife Cherie have already settled into ubiquitous mode here with platitude-offering appearances at a venue near you - and their counterparts, together with the assembled Olympic "blazers" to ignore completely the reality of what had preceded the opening.
For many of us, the irony was heavy. Despite the scoffing of a sceptical sporting world and the apparent shortcomings of Bobosskis the Builder and his team, Athens had shown she was ready, after all. Just a shame that two of their élite athletes, Konstantinos Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, weren't when the IOC drug testers came calling.
Kenteris, ennobled by his homeland after his unexpected 200 metres gold in Sydney, and the Sydney silver medallist Thanou, who were hurled ignominiously on to the streets of dishonour (and not just by that convenient motorbike accident, either), await their fate tomorrow.
Whether their absence from testing was deliberate or not, the bizarre series of incidents will have repercussions not just for them, but the whole issue of prohibited drug use within sport. Unable to fulfil his task of igniting the Olympic cauldron - a role performed instead by a sailor named Nikolaos Kakalamanakis - the runner has refuelled a debate which will not be easily extinguished.
We have discovered a new Olympic sport: hand-wringing. Some will contend that the last thing an Olympic movement, whose modern founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin proclaimed that it "seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of a good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles", needed now was this.
But should we be so pessimistic? The case demonstrates that Dick Pound of the World Anti-Doping Agency and his drug-hounds are doing their work. That Pound may be correct when he says his strategy has cheats "on the run". If assumptions are correct about Kenteris and Thanou (and they are unproven), they were. Literally.
"The more we catch, the better it is", proclaims the IOC president Jacques Rogge, which may be considered a trifle over-optmistic, but rather that than his predecessor Juan Antonio Samaranch, who argued that prohibited drugs, performance-enhancing or not, should be limited to those "dangerous to health", and that the list was too long.
Yet, counter-arguments are advanced by principled people that the war is lost. Let us proceed under the principle that nothing is prohibited, they say, demanding to know why certain methods of obtaining an advantage are illegal and others not. Where is the consistency? To a degree, you can concur. To a minute degree. The British rowing team, for instance, have recently been altitude training in the Alps. It is an accepted strategy. Yet, how ethical is indulging in a practice that is designed purely to increase the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, a process not dissimilar to the effect of taking the banned steroid EPO?
But the liberalisation argument doesn't stand up. Those who would indulge drug-taking cannot respond to the observation that it would render all competition pointless, ignoring all the health considerations. It would become a battle of my tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) against your human grown hormone.
Back at Schinias, such thoughts were far from the minds of Pinsent and Co, who await Tuesday's semi-final buoyed by victory. "I'd give us a solid six or seven out of 10, and we need to improve on that," said Pinsent.
They will indeed need to, as will the men's pair (Tony Garbett and Rick Dunn, the duo ousted from the original four to make way for Pinsent and James Cracknell), who finished third but qualified for the semi-final. The same observation applies to Cath Bishop and Katherine Grainger, who finished second in the women's pair.
But Pinsent, like Sir Steve Redgrave four years ago, is the character who will become the centre of focus. In the circumstances, there was no one better equipped to decree if this four can complete the task for Pinsent than the man who claimed a fifth gold medal at Sydney. "There are questions," said Redgrave. "More than four years ago. But not as bad as people make out it's been. There's been a lot of turmoil, but if that four row to their full ability they will win."
Which would offer the possibility of a record-equalling fifth gold in Bejing. "I would be extremely pleased for him if he won five, although he would still be behind me. I have got an extra bronze [which he won at Seoul in 1988 in the coxed pairs when he and Andy Holmes competed in both that and the coxless pairs). So, he would have to go on to six. But he could argue that he had never failed, while I did. He would never lost an Olympic race."
Few would begrudge Pinsent, a man of stature, maintaining that record in the coming days; it would be an antidote in every way to the unpalatable side of the past week.
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