NEWS

Doping emerges as the new national sport

When Costas Kenteris caused a sensation by winning the 200-meter event at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Canadian officials pursued the Greek delegation. «How do you do it? What kind of laboratories do you have?» they asked Greek officials. It was no secret. Great performances in races (and other events) were, and are, more due to laboratories (where chemistry and anabolic steroids play a leading part) than to sporting talent. The 13 medals in Sydney sweetened Greek athletics chiefs. And the fifth place at the Pan-European Athletics Championship in 2002 (with six medals) closed the ears of political and sports officials to mounting accusations of unorthodox training methods by many Greek athletes. No in-depth investigation took place. Yet the use of steroids and other illegal means of enhancing the performance of many leading athletes was known throughout athletic officialdom. In many cases, it seems illicit methods were covered up. The Hellenic Amateur Athletics Association (SEGAS) repeatedly gave false information on the whereabouts of high-ranking athletes. It is no coincidence the IOC is asking the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which has taken up the Kenteris-Thanou-Tzekos case, to investigate the part played by officials and other accredited individuals who filled in certain documents of an incoherent account of the crucial July 30-August 12 period, when the «flying doctors» of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) were pursuing the Greek athletes from Tel Aviv to Chicago. Medals and money The shared guilt of political and sporting authorities is easily explained. Doping brings in medals, and medals bring in money, lots of it, and at many levels. For a start, every Olympic Games medal so far has meant, at the very least, a job for the athlete, who would be appointed to the public service, receive a decent fee and, above all, sign a fat contract with one or more sponsor firms. The fees of first-class athletes range from 200,000-400,000 euros a year. And managers get their hands on some of that money too. Every medal helps oil the wheels of the entire athletics machine. Trainers get bonuses, federations acquire more sponsors and can organize more meetings, which so far have provided a unique opportunity for certain people to get rich by means of the widespread practice of getting kickbacks through overpriced invoices. In state-run Greek athletics, a federation without medals was like a bank without money. Everything began to be subordinated to the acquisition of medals. «Good» laboratories and the substances they served up were in great demand. What mattered to the government of the time was success; it subsidized medals but did not want to know what went on behind the scenes. Greek coach Christos Tzekos was at home in that environment. He was hugely successful, with everything he touched turning not only into gold but into gold medals. The coach of champions with three years «training» in Chicago had introduced a new spirit. More of an entrepreneur (running a company that imported nutritional supplements) than a manager (he had set up the company with weightlifting coach Christos Iakovos, with whom he exchanged training tips), he was the model for the new era. This era began with the Atlanta Games successes (where the weightlifters bore most of the burden) and it gathered force when Athens was awarded the 2004 Olympics in 1997. That was when political leaders developed a vision of making Greece into a sporting power. The transformation of PASOK into an establishment power facilitated the changeover from athletics for the masses to state-run, dope-fueled championship athletics. In order to succeed, the recipe combined the worst features of athletics in Western and Eastern Europe, a Greek version of elitism and chemical boosting, where using the same anabolic steroids as American athletes was presented as the height of technology. It was a reason for «real» Greeks to swell with «national pride» as Tzekos and Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, a lawyer who represented Kenteris and Thanou, would say. In such a climate, any attempts to control doping met with furious opposition. For instance, when the 2002 bill on athletics was being drafted and attempts were made to include strict provisions to combat doping, most athletics bodies rebelled, insisting such measures would put paid to the hope of any more medals. But the problem lies neither with the bill, which was passed (though in a milder form than the original draft), nor in the Doping Control Center at Kalogreza (said to be one of the best-equipped in the world), but in how it is implemented. In such cases, the crucial factor has to be timing. It is not just by chance that no leading Greek athlete has been caught for doping by Greek officials. In consequence, problems have arisen with the IOC and the IAAF. In December 2003, a SEGAS delegation headed by its president, Vassilis Sevastis, had to travel to Monte Carlo to explain to IAAF General Secretary Istvan Gyulai why 14 of the athletes throughout the world who did not appear at the doping check in 2002 were Greeks. The IOC and WADA are no angels themselves. Massive interests, arrangements between corporations and meeting the needs of major sponsors, multinationals and advertisers affect their decisions. But the Greeks upset the major sporting powers, particularly the UK and the United States, whose long-term lead in commercial events such as the sprint had been challenged. Nobody was bothered by a strong Greek performance in weightlifting or by other comets that won a medal then disappeared (such as Voula Patoulidou). The system needs its surprises. But the persistence of Kenteris and Thanou, their gold medals in European and world meetings, and especially the possibility they might win again at this year’s Olympic Games was a red flag to a system where there is no room for loss of profits. Recently, there had been worrying signs. There were regular reports in the international press about Kenteris, who seemed to have disappeared, about his strange injury and non-participation in the World Championships. There was the scandal surrounding Victor Conte, the Californian president of Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (Balco) which burned half the American track team and triggered rumors, e-mails, reports, and court cases as far away as Greece, where e-mail evidence showed Conte supplied the Greek coach of two champion athletes. Legal sources in the US made it clear the two names carefully deleted from the e-mail were none other than those of Kenteris and Thanou. Tzekos replied by suing the newspapers. Giorgos Lianis, then deputy culture minister in charge of the sports portfolio, hastened to cover his back, saying: «I believe these accusations are groundless, because our leading athletes undergo regular tests and have never been found positive.» He referred the matter to the prosecutor, though no progress has been made on the case. Tzekos expressed the new national idea of doping thus: «The only doped athletes are those who get caught.» That is why he hides his athletes from surprise checks by WADA, whose doctors pursued Tzekos from Qatar to Dortmund. This mad race came to a tragicomic end with the alleged motorbike accident on the night of August 12. Though the injuries to Kenteris and Thanou may have been non-existent, the damage done to Greek society is far-reaching. The reassurance some highly placed officials probably gave Tzekos’s athletes they could enter the Olympic Stadium without running the risk of a sudden check proved to be mistaken. The system that supported them took no decisive action, even at the last minute. The head of the Greek delegation, the leadership of SEGAS and ATHOC, who have kept their seats warm for many years, dragged out the farce for days. The image of a cover-up and a trade-off between the bureaucrats and businessmen of the IOC has stuck. The New Democracy government seemed to be embarrassed, simply watching events unfold. It is not the first time promises have been made to get to the heart of the matter. Will anything be done, or will our rulers turn a blind eye once more to the deceptive gleam of the medals? Nowadays it seems that doping is a one-way road in championship-level athletics. Yet the essence which eludes fans of record performances is that athletics can be a mass pursuit, a game, physical and mental exercise, far from the unnatural coercion of the athletics industry.