Too good to be true

As the crowd settled down in Athens’s Olympic Stadium in the last glow of a hot August day, in the expectant hush before the opening ceremonies of the Athens Games, the scene resembled those inimitable summer evenings at Epidaurus and other ancient theaters. But this was no amphitheater, no semicircle around the stage. The stadium is a closed oval, with no beginning or end, a snake eating its tail. Like every Greek tragedy, the 70,000 here and everyone in Greece knew that despite the night’s grand spectacle, the real tragedy was elsewhere, offstage. Who would have thought that the Greeks who never tired of telling everyone that they gave the world the Olympics would, on this night, be thinking more about the fact that they gave the world tragedy? Because, as in all tragedies, things did not work out the way the protagonists planned. Instead of being the most honored of Greeks, given the glory of lighting the cauldron that would hold the Olympic Flame throughout the Games, our champion sprinter and national hero Costas Kenteris was in a nearby hospital (from which he could probably hear the cheers and sighs of the crowd in the stadium) as his bid to defend his 200-meter Olympic title was trapped, tangled and torn apart in a web of tragic, laughable deceit. As Kenteris and his training partner, the 100-meter silver medalist in Sydney, Katerina Thanou, lay in their beds in the KAT hospital, with drips in their arms and the wolves of the world’s news media baying at their door, they could ponder the fate of all tragic heroes – they rose high, to the greatest honor possible, and they crashed to the deepest depths of disgrace. But their fall was even more tragic than usual, as they went out with a whimper, not a bang. They could not even make the effort to defend their titles. To be fair, this might all be a misunderstanding. Kenteris and Thanou are under a cloud of suspicion but they have not been found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs nor have they confessed to anything. Perhaps Kenteris and Thanou are in the hospital because they did crash with a motorcycle late on Friday night as they drove to the Olympic Village, where the International Olympic Committee’s doping control laboratory had notified them that it wanted to test them. We have to give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they simply did not get the IOC’s notification earlier, telling them that they had to submit to testing by 7.30 p.m. Perhaps they are the only two Greeks who do not have mobile phones and were not accessible to the Greek team’s officials who were trying to find them. But the fact remains that where we had high hopes that these two could bring greater glory to Greece with their performance on the field we now have to deal with their absence and the possibility that their very strange behavior on Friday was an effort to avoid being caught out by doping control inspectors. Their turning up in a hospital with scratches after allegedly having a motorcycle accident only served to make it look as if they were looking for a place of refuge from the suspicions and innuendo, and the more they tried to disappear the deeper was the hole they dug. And rounding off the day’s tie to ancient tragedy was the wonderful, colorful pageant of Greek myth, history and prehistory that was these Games’ opening ceremony – the grand backdrop for the deeply felt sense of loss and sorrow, of hope and despair that is the essence of drama. And perhaps, in the most perverse sense, Kenteris and Thanou’s fall from grace came at the most opportune time, as if in some mystical way it was an integral part of this parade of lost majesty and endless momentum as this and every nation marches on, piling up triumphs and sorrows, always walking. This walk brought us to the Athens Olympics of 2004, 108 years after the Games were resurrected here in their modern form, and 2,780 years since the first ones were held in Olympia in 776 BC. Through the millennia, this land saw the triumphs of human invention and often superhuman perception, the glories of wars won, and sorrow of loss and occupation, over and over and over. The last century alone saw many great victories and disastrous defeats. But the nation kept on moving, and, after the end of the last military coup in 1974, it entered a period of its greatest well-being as a modern state. Membership of the European Union since 1981 has guaranteed stability and wealth to an extent that, for the first time, Greece was able to undertake an endeavor as extravagant as hosting the Olympics once again. And what was fantasy for so long became fact last night, in the Olympic Stadium under the magnificent roof designed by Santiago Calatrava. All the people of the world have sent the best of their youth to our land to compete with each other. This is an honor and a responsibility that one does not fully understand until one sees the pride and smiles of the athletes parading through their stadium, each country united by its flag and all the people here (and the 4 billion watching them at home) united by a common ideal, the ancient Greek ideal of tough competition and friendly rivalry. And this brings us once again to Kenteris and Thanou, who will most probably not be competing this time, in what should have been their very own Games. And though the feeling in Athens yesterday was that of being at a wake, it took the great spectacle of the Olympic opening to make us forget that though the essence of life is what happens to the individual, this is all swept away by events that are far greater than the single man or woman. The tragedy of Kenteris or Thanou being trapped by the folly of their handlers into taking performance-enhancing drugs or at least acting as if they did, gives depth and meaning to what might have been an empty show. It is as if their panic and sorrow as they sat trapped in the hospital instead of sharing pride of place in the stadium proved that the event in the stadium was real, not theater, that the athletes on parade, with their strengths and weaknesses, were human, not mannequins, and that was what made the parade significant. It was as if Kenteris and Thanou were the victims of some ancient ritual, a sacrifice of blood that gave flesh and substance to what might have been an endless procession of ghosts. And tragedy knows all about sacrifice – sacrifice full of meaning or folly. And so, no tragic genius could have planned it better had he wanted Kenteris and Thanou’s fate to be the most tragic possible. He could not have planned it for a day better suited to allow the full significance of failure to be felt in the minds of all Greeks and also provide so many more emotions as to allow them to get past this tragedy and see that the Games, their Games, are bigger than any embarrassment or defeat. Because these Games may belong to all humanity but they are tied most decisively to the Greeks. The sacrifice in time, money, patience and pride that they have made to bring themselves to this state of excellence is something that can only come by dredging up deep reserves of determination and selflessness. The greatest competition for us in these Games is to provide a safe and happy environment for our friends from all over the world to excel and take home the best that we have to offer them. That is what this Olympiad in Greece is all about. Though it may seem that we have been cheated of our due by losing our beloved favorites just as the Games begin, Aristotle’s definition of tragedy springs to mind to clear our heads. Kenteris and Thanou’s fall inspires pity and terror, but, because we feel so deeply for these two young people (whom we have got to know and love over the years, unlike the mythical heroes of ancient tragedy) when we feel pity and terror for them in all their intensity, we purge ourselves of these feelings when we return to our own lives. In this sense, if Kenteris and Thanou are guilty, it is good that we have got the issue out of the way before the Games begin – and we will gradually come to terms with our disappointment. If they are innocent, we will see joy from them again and this will all seem like a bad dream. Either way, we know that we should not base our triumphs on deceit (notwithstanding a certain wooden horse in Troy). When all is said and done, let us not burden Kenteris and Thanou with blame no mortal shoulders can bear. There can be no greater shame and sorrow and terror than they feel right now, knowing the sorrow and anger they have caused. They gave us joy, they gave us wings, they made us feel like gods once. Perhaps their sacrifice was one made years ago.

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