Kenteris is cast as a Freeman of the city

Historic gold winner is track equivalent of the Greek god of the wind. Simon Turnbull on the enigma tipped to be the face of the Games
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The Independent Online

When Spiridon Louis emerged victorious from the marathon in the Athens Olympics of 1896, fuelled along the way by some red wine and an Easter egg, the name of the young Greek shepherd entered his country's lexicon. The expression "egine Louis" - "became Louis" - means "ran quickly".

Which is what Konstantinos Kenteris did in Stadium Australia on the evening of 23 September 2000. In speeding past the despairing Darren Campbell in the closing stages of the 200m final, he became the first male Greek runner to strike Olympic gold since Louis did so on home soil more than a century earlier.

Like Louis before him, Kenteris also lent his name to more widespread use. A sign on the main street in Varia, the village on the island of Lesbos where the sprinter was born and raised, welcomes visitors to Odos Kosta Kenteri: Kostas Kenteris Street. A few miles up the road in Mytilini, at midnight each night the Aolos Kenteris pulls into dock from the Athenian port of Piraeus. Aolos is the Greek god of the wind. The Aolos Kenteris is one of the fastest ferries in the Greek passenger fleet.

Last month, a poll voted Kenteris the most popular man in Greece. In Athens, where he has lived and trained for the past five years, his image is everywhere to be seen: on billboards, on television commercials, on magazine covers. It was the same with Cathy Freeman in Sydney four years ago. But can Kenteris, like Freeman in the Games of 2000, carry the weight of national expectation and deliver a winning home run in the Olympic Stadium on 26 August?

The question brings a shrug to the shoulders that must bear the heavy burden. "Only the gods know the answer to that," Kenteris said last week. "Certainly, there is a lot of pressure in thinking about the 200m final in the Olympics. All of the tickets are already sold. But all I am thinking about right now is my preparation."

No athlete in the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad will have spent more time in preparation, and less in competition, than Kostas Kenteris, as the 200m champion is more popularly known in his homeland. Since his victory in Sydney, the 31-year-old has only appeared once in a Golden League or Grand Prix meeting outside Greece. That was in Zurich in 2001, when he finished third in the 200m, behind Bernard Williams of the USA and Britain's Christian Malcolm. It remains his most recent defeat.

Apart from that Weltklasse meeting three years ago, Kenteris has only ventured beyond Greek borders to compete with Greek teams: at the European Cup in Bremen and the World Championships in Edmonton in 2001; at the European Cup in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, and the European Championships in Munich in 2002; at the European Cup in Florence in 2003 (he missed the World Championships in Paris last year because of a thigh injury); and at the European Cup in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, in June this year. Even on home ground, he has restricted himself to no more than two competitions each year.

Kenteris races so rarely that Chris Lambert, winner of the 200m at the British Olympic trials, has yet to compete against him. "It is weird," Lambert said. "He's an enigma. He does the same thing every year - runs three times and appears in the major championship. It works for him, though, so whatever he's doing, he's doing all right for himself. The rest of us have to go to Athens and be cautious and respectful of him, but not fearful."

Such a hermetic existence has prompted accusations that Kenteris has simply been keeping away from the drug testers. And last year a Scarlet Pimpernel episode managed to land his coach, Christos Tzekos, in trouble with the authorities. They sought his sprint group here; they sought them there; but when they were supposed to be training in Crete they were in fact in Qatar.

Tzekos received a caution for not declaring the correct whereabouts of his athletes to the International Association of Athletics Federations and to the Hellenic Amateur Athletic Association. Under IAAF rules, athletes must provide information of their movements for the purposes of out-of-competition testing. The world governing body described the incident as "embarrassing" for the Greek federation.

It was not the first such embarrassment caused by Tzekos. In 1997, he was banned for two years by the IAAF for employing what were described as "strong-arm tactics" to prevent four of his athletes from undergoing drug tests. Kenteris, however, has never failed any of the drug tests he has taken.

Although officially registered as a sergeant in the Greek air force, he receives generous financial support from the Greek government to train full-time and to prepare for major championships without the need to chase money on the European circuit.

"I don't feel a lack of competition," he said. "This is the way that I work. Thanks to the fact that I do not compete as much as other athletes, I still really look forward to every competition I do. It has not become a routine. That is the way that I want it to stay."

Kenteris was an injury-prone, under- achieving 400m runner until Tzekos took him under his wing and turned him into a 200m specialist in 1999. In February 2000 he finished fifth and last in the European Indoor Championships final won by Malcolm, but by the end of the year he was Olympic champion - prompting a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald to enquire: "Who the Hellas is Konstantinos Kenteris?"

The Hellenic hero of the Sydney Olympics was not so much unheralded as unknown. His name was conspicuously absent from the 2,500 athletes profiled in the 2000 edition of Who's Who in World Athletics. Since then, however, he has added world and European titles to his name. And now, as he gets ready to defend his Olympic crown on home soil, the big question is: who the Hellas is going to stop Konstantinos Kenteris?