The Olympics may be coming home but are Greek athletes running away?

Four years after Kostas Kenteris won gold, there are still doubts over Greece's drug-testing
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The Independent Online

The day after Greece had secured a surprise victory in the last Olympic 200 metres final, a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald asked: "Who the Hellas is Kostas Kenteris?"

Four years later, despite the fact that this Air Force sergeant has also found time to add world and European titles and stands ready this month to deliver to the Greek nation the home Olympic victory they crave in the wake of the football team's startling triumph in Euro 2004, that question remains unanswered.

Even Kenteris's name has proved elusive - he is now known officially as Kederis. But it is not doubt over how to spell this champion's monicker which causes some observers of the athletics scene a sense of unease. That stems from a succession of circumstances which have tended to undermine the Greeks' insistence that none of their athletes is using questionable methods in their preparation for the holy of holies, the return of the Modern Games to Athens.

When Kederis - to give him his current appellation - edged over the line in Sydney ahead of Britain's Darren Campbell, his victory came as a surprise to many people. Even though Maurice Greene and Michael Johnson, the two leading men in the event, had failed to qualify from the trials, the United States were still expected to supply the Olympic champion in the longer sprint, as they had in the previous four Games.

Instead, Stadium Australia witnessed an exhilarated Kederis become the first Greek to win an Olympic title since Spiridon Louis had won the first marathon on home soil in 1896.

Earlier that year he had finished fifth and last at the European Indoor Championships in a race won by Britain's Christian Malcolm. Shortly after, it was reported that Kederis had engaged a new coach, Hristos Tzekos.

In the course of the last seven years, Tzekos and his group, which also includes the European 100m champion, Ekaterini Thanou, have established a reputation for keeping out of the spotlight until the major championships come around, rarely venturing on to the European circuit.

Recently the Greek national coach, Odysseas Papatollis, explained that there were a number of reasons for this pattern, one of them being the fact that the Greek government was providing them with generous funding - there are reports of leading competitors getting $100,000 (£54,700) each - so they did not need to seek money elsewhere.

Papatollis added that many of the athletes needed to be sparing with their efforts, given that they were over 30. Kederis turned 31 last month and Thanou will be 30 next February.

But the Greeks' method of preparing has opened them up to criticism and suspicion from more than one quarter in Europe. At the 2002 European Championships in Munich, there was open speculation about Thanou's methods after she had won the 100m title.

Kim Gavaert, the Belgian beaten to the gold in that race, told her home press: "The Italian girl who was third came up to me after the race and said, 'For me, you are the European champion'. I cannot help thinking the gold medal should be mine. I don't think Thanou is clean. She's always hiding."

Campbell revealed earlier this year that he had encountered a similar reaction from another athlete in the wake of his Olympic defeat by Kederis. "They came up to me when I was going to the medal ceremony and said, 'Don't worry, by the morning that will be gold'."

The athlete was wrong. No subsequent positive test transferred the winner's medal from Kederis's shoulders, and as the Greek sports minister, Yiannis Lianis, was at pains to point out earlier this year, none of the leading Greek athletes have ever tested positive. That statement would have greater weight, however, had the Greeks not shown a questionable attitude in the face of random testing.

The most notorious incidence of this occurred seven years ago, when a doping control officer was manhandled after arriving at a Greek training base from which Tzekos and a number of athletes subsequently made a sudden departure.

Two years ago, a month before the European Championships got underway, there was another unfortunate episode. On that occasion, at the Athens Grand Prix, the majority of home athletes due to take part - including Kederis and Thanou - were withdrawn overnight. This coincided with the surprise arrival at the meeting hotel of a drug-testing team from the International Association of Athletics Federations.

In April of the following year, Tzekos was cautioned for working with Kederis and Thanou in Qatar, unknown to national or international bodies. Elite athletes must alert authorities of their whereabouts to allow random drug tests to take place.

The most recent blow to Greek athletics' public image came last October through leaked emails from Victor Conte, currently indicted by the FBI on charges of supplying illegal drugs from his Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative in California.

One email, warning an unidentified coach that a test had been developed for a previously undetectable drug, ended: "We might also want to somehow get this information to the coach for the Greek athletes [names blanked out] so nobody tests positive.'

Whoever this referred to, the message to the Greek authorities seems clear. Not only do their athletes have to be clean, they have to be seen to be clean.

As usual, Kederis has hardly raced outside his native country this season. His best time this season of 20.24sec was recorded on home soil a month ago. Although it is respectable, it is only sufficient to make him the 13th fastest on a list at the top of which stand talents such as Jamaica's Asafa Powell, who beat Maurice Greene over 100m at Crystal Palace last week, Jamaica's 17-year-old prospect Usain Bolt, who has run 19.93sec, and Shawn Crawford, of the United States, who tops the pile with 19.88sec.

It is a measure of the reputation Kederis has built that no one is writing him off in the face of such opposition.