Not even the shadow of Kenteris can dim the golden glow of the Games
Two of Greece's best athletes have been suspended. There is plenty more drama to come says Alan Hubbard, reporting from his tenth Olympics
Sunday 15 August 2004
In the baking heat, no one expected it to rain on Athens's big parade, but the controversy over Konstantinos Kenteris was more than just a dampener. It was a deluge.
Yesterday, the Greek Olympic team announced the withdrawal of the country's greatest sporting hero. Kenteris should have been lighting the Olympic flame on Friday night. Instead, he was suspended yesterday by the Greek Olympic Committee for failing to take a drugs test. His fellow sprinter, Ekaterina Thanou, the women's 100m silver medallist last time out, was also withdrawn, pending an International Olympic Committee (IOC) hearing.
It has been an extraordinary saga. Kenteris, winner of the 200m at the Sydney Olympics, was still in hospital yesterday following the mysterious motorcycle crash which he and Thanou were involved in just hours after failing to turn up for a drugs test on Thursday.
The IOC is unlikely to be lenient when it meets tomorrow. Sweden's athletes have already threatened to boycott the Games if the Greek pair are not banned. It had all promised to be so different. The Olympic Games many thought might never happen are finally up and running but the drugs controversy threatens to overshadow what has been a superb achievement.
The Greeks I had met when I arrived, who were so full of happy, welcoming smiles, had been reduced almost to tears by the Kenteris affair, shaking their heads in sorrow and bewilderment yesterday. How could this be when the nation's greatest celebration was about to happen? Of course it did not ruin an opening show high on dignity and tradition but fortunately low on razzmatazz. But it certainly cast a huge shadow over it.
I do not know whether Kenteris and Thanou are drugs cheats. But I do know that for a long time many of my athletics writer colleagues have been deeply suspicious of them, particularly Kenteris, who was to have been the final torchbearer. "Got the bugger at last," was the general reaction among the hacks.
The Games themselves opened, quite literally, with a blaze of glory. The sigh of relief was almost as audible above the throbbing drumbeats that reminded us that this is where the Olympic heart beats loudest. The Games really have come home to where they began 3,000 years ago. The Cassandras may have had a track and field day but the fears and sceptics surely have been overcome. Let's hope so.
The Olympic complex, which only a few weeks ago resembled a building site, has been transformed. It's as spectacular as any that have gone before. In 40 years of pounding the Olympic beat, I have never looked forward to any Games with greater relish. I have always believed that the Greek spirit would prevail, and despite the thunderbolt that hit them on the eve of the opening ceremony, I remain convinced this will still be so.
Even so, if I were Greek I would still be feeling rather proud this weekend. As far as organisation and presentation go, they seem to have taken a leaf out of Sydney's book rather than Atlanta's. The volunteers here are as courteous, friendly and helpful as were those in Sydney, the sun is shining - though rain is forecast for today - and the traffic is flowing much better than most anticipated. Athens has largely risen from the concrete jungle of only a few weeks ago and is looking as ready as any Olympic city I have seen. Well, almost. There is still a fair amount of clay and dust where grass and flowering plants were supposed to be.
Spectators may raise the odd eyebrow as they tread their way but the athletes won't give a damn. Why should they? Their needs have been beautifully and wonderfully catered for. Their village, more like a new town the size of Milton Keynes, is the best of any of the 10 I have seen. This contrasts with the official media billets. Here the "villages" are, well, the Greeks have a word for it, Spartan. Some colleagues have re-named ours Camp Delta. A bit harsh, perhaps. It is probably more like Belmarsh. But it is clean and functional, and most things work, apart from the telephones.
The British team is full of praise for many of the venues. Some are outstanding, like those at the equestrian and sailing centres. The main stadium, despite horrendous birth pangs, has emerged as one of the most splendid in the world - especially now it has been elegantly topped off by its curvaceous, if costly, roof.
"Greece has brought the Games together in a very Greek way but they should be proud if what they have achieved," said the British team chief, Simon Clegg.
There will be headaches and heartaches ahead, but their football team has already shown how a small nation can scale Olympian heights. It is far too early to judge how these Games will rank in the Olympic pantheon, or among the other nine I have seen, but the start has been impressive.
Additional reporting by Matthew Beard
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