Mike Rowbottom: After the shame, time for athletes to restore their sport's good name

Among the promotional posters which loom over the heat-hazed Olympic road system here is one featuring the now absent Greek sprinter Ekaterini Thanou, bearing the message: "Impossible is temporary."

Among the promotional posters which loom over the heat-hazed Olympic road system here is one featuring the now absent Greek sprinter Ekaterini Thanou, bearing the message: "Impossible is temporary."

There is an unspoken coda to that hubristic assertion, as someone here remarked the other day: "Shame is permanent."

The Greeks have arrived at the centrepiece of the Games ­ the athletics programme which gets fully under way today ­ with only a numbed gap where Thanou and her training partner Konstadinos Kederis should be. But in the wake of a doping case which has seen the two most celebrated home athletes shuffle out of the spotlight, they will be hoping fervently that the rest of the world's athletes can provide these Olympics with permanent memories of a less troubling kind.

In tonight's 10,000 metres final, for instance, there will be an opportunity for the athletics world to say hail and farewell to the man who has dominated endurance running in the past 10 years, Haile Gebrselassie.

In what will be his last major track final, the little Ethiopian with the dazzling smile and deadening pace will attempt to stall the awesome progress of his protégé Kenenisa Bekele, who has already taken over his world 5,000m and 10,000m records this season.

Elsewhere, great deeds are expected from the endlessly effervescent Swede Carolina Kluft, who appears ready at 21 to add the Olympic heptathlon gold medal to the world title she won in Paris last year.

And expected from Asafa Powell, the 21-year-old Jamaican who has established his pre-eminence in the 100m event with consecutive wins over the defending champion, Maurice Greene, of the United States.

And of course from Paula Radcliffe, who is desperate to transmute the pre-eminence she has established in the marathon into gold.

For what seems like years, but is probably only months, Radcliffe has been spoken of as Britain's only realistic contender for an athletics gold medal. The suspicion persists, however, that for all the denials of team officials, she may be carrying what it has become fashionable to describe as a "niggle" in her calf ­ the definition of a niggle being something which is unlikely to prevent an athlete from performing. Should the athlete fail, of course, the niggle switches status and becomes an injury.

Cliff Temple, the late lamented Sunday Times athletics correspondent, once observed that there is one question you should never ask any athlete: "How are you feeling?"

The protagonists of track and field are notorious for their dedicated hypochondria, and Radcliffe is no exception. As her husband and manager, Gary Lough, has said: "If Paula has a headache, she thinks it must be meningitis."

Until she sets off for the marathon finish at the Panathinaikon on Sunday evening, the exact status of any niggle will remain unclear. But the fact that she has arrived in the Olympic Village has to be seen as an encouragement to believe that she has come here to compete in earnest.

Britain's other medal prospects are more likely to involve silver and bronze, and either could be within reach of Kelly Holmes, whose protracted agonising over whether to run the 800m ­ in which she won a bronze at the last Olympics ­ or the subsequent 1,500m was resolved this week when she decided to do both.

She had worried that her main intention of winning a medal in the metric mile might be undermined by running the shorter distance first. But if she continues to show the form she has this season at 800m, where she soundly defeated the world's fastest runner this year, Jolanda Ceplak, of Slovenia, in Birmingham last month, the 1,500m could end up being something of a bonus for her.

Phillips Idowu, fifth in the last Olympic triple jump when Jonathan Edwards won gold, has the talent to earn something tangible from his trip to Greece. Indeed, his assertion that he could win the title here was endorsed by Edwards in his new position as a member of the BBC commentary team.

Idowu's performances are as vivid and changeable as his multi-coloured hairstyles, but he has been moving broadly in the right direction, and his victory at the Crystal Palace Grand Prix on 30 July offered a comforting glimpse of where he might be now.

Christian Olsson, Sweden's world champion, is still clear favourite to win, with Brazil's Jadel Gregorio looking a likely contender for the podium too.

The long jumper Chris Tomlinson is in a similar position to Idowu, in that he might do nothing but could do something very good if he hits his best form. His European Cup victory in 8.28m was wind-assisted, but offered a clear picture of his capacities. If the 6ft 6in Middlesbrough man can get to that territory here, he could be talking medals.

Chris Rawlinson is one of Britain's best medal hopes given his consistency this season over the 400m hurdles, albeit that the man with whom relations have grown uncordial of late, the Dominican Republic's world champion, Felix Sanchez, has continued to respond to every challenger.

What the 32-year-old Rotherham man has to do this time around is avoid his past tendency to leave his best form on the track before big championships get under way. And, of course, avoid consuming any chicken meals that may have been left in the boot of a sweltering car all day, as he did to calamitous effect at the national trials a couple of years ago.

While Denise Lewis looks like struggling to finish in one piece as she defends her Olympic heptathlon title, her training partner Kelly Sotherton has been a constant, upwardly mobile figure in her first season in the event, and the absence of France's 1999 world champion, Eunice Barber, will encourage her still further.

The men's sprint relays should offer hope, although most of the top British men have yet to show their best form this season, and there might be richer pickings in the 400m relay, for both the men and the women.

Finally, now that the three-times Olympic javelin champion Jan Zelezny appears to be slipping back into the realms of mortals, can Steve Backley, at 35, find the one mighty heave in his final contest that would bring his career to the sweetest of conclusions? It would be nice to think so.

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