James Lawton: Athens flame dimmed as drugs spread a shadow

Already the evasions and the cover-ups are taking shape, but we know once again that the Olympic flame which will be lit tonight burns not for the glory of sport but merely to illuminate the running sore of drug corruption.

Already the evasions and the cover-ups are taking shape, but we know once again that the Olympic flame which will be lit tonight burns not for the glory of sport but merely to illuminate the running sore of drug corruption.

The Greeks, heirs to the greatest tradition of athletic endeavour of them all, have spent billions of euros and much of their economic lifeblood for what? A sickening embarrassment on the eve of the nation's greatest peacetime endeavour.

That, whatever the high politics being waged by the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletic Federations last night, is the low truth of the aftermath to this week's failure of Konstadinos Kederis, reigning 200 metres champion, and Ekaterina Thanou, a silver medallist in the 100 metres in Sydney, to report for drug tests.

Greece's greatest sporting hero and heroine were supposed to trigger waves of national euphoria similar to the ones which greeted the nation's triumph in the European football championships in Portugal in July.

Instead, they now invoke scorn after long suspicion that their reluctance to compete outside of their homeland was not about a competitive strategy but the avoidance of exposure to random drug-testing.

The impact on these Olympics of the scandal is certain to be huge, certainly way beyond the semantics of the IAAF secretary-general Istvan Gyulai, who is claiming that this is not a story of doping crimes but a communications breakdown between team officials and the athletes.

"To our minds, this is not a refusal," Gyulai is quoted as saying.

A world long weary of the deceits of Olympic sport is unlikely to be bowled over by the argument and for the Greeks the grim truth is that their glittering showpiece has been brutally damaged before it has started.

Tonight a spectacular opening ceremony staged at vast expense will command the television screens of the world and the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, will talk in the highest terms of the real meaning of the celebrations. They are to signal the world's greatest festival of youth.

Every four years the same platitudes pour across the airwaves of the world... and every four years there is a grim story of drug abuse.

These, in the opinion of some, are the make-or-break Games, when the already shredded integrity of athletics, especially, is put under a most relentless spotlight. But already before last night's shattering news, a motley group of sportsmen had been exposed...a Kenyan boxer, a Spanish canoeist, two Greek-American baseball players, a Swiss cyclist, an American sprinter, had all failed drug tests.

These relatively small fry culprits merely underlined the depth of the problem after months of controversy following the indicting of the proprietors of the Balco laboratory in California for marketing designer steroids.

From the fall-out of the Balco investigation front- line athletes like world record sprinter Tim Montgomery and Britain's Dwain Chambers lost their places in these Olympics and the supreme star of the last Games, America's Marion Jones, comes here under the gravest suspicion.

Now the Greek affair ignites a new wave of doubts and those who claim that the Olympics have become not sport's greatest celebration but its biggest lie have fresh ammunition.

IOC officials will wriggle all day to evade the worst implications of what has happened and they will make brave faces when the Olympic flame is sent shooting into the heavens tonight, along with millions of euros' worth of fireworks.

But in the immediate days ahead the debris will not be so easily removed. The stench will not be of firework powder but the old one of the Olympic's longest-running lie.

It has become the marathon of despair.

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