Buckling under a terrible weight

The disgrace of Greece’s two top sprinters being forced to withdraw from the Games and the dark cloud over the men’s weightlifting team have been a profound shock. These events have truly turned the Olympics on their head for the host nation, humiliating us at a time when we wanted to show the world our best face. But though we may be hurting now, perhaps in the end we will see the disaster as a kind of liberation in a curious and profound way. Events have shown that we should have been far more vigilant and suspicious of our athletes and their handlers than we were over the past few years. Unfortunately, all those involved (including the news media, who should have pricked the bubble of seemingly effortless success) seem to be guilty of the malevolent neglect that plagues so many other spheres of Greek public life – when we let difficult issues fester rather than take unpopular action. From reforming our social security system to trimming the red tape that suffocates most endeavors, we just let things roll along at their own momentum. So now we harvest what we sowed. The skeletons crashed out of the closet just as the world arrived. And now we see that it is not our athletes, as representatives of the Greek people, who will present Greece’s best face, but the people themselves – from the organizers of the Games and the artists behind the opening ceremony to the volunteers and every last one of us who has paid so much and has shown such patience and is doing his or her best to make these the best Games possible. We have been hit hard by the behavior of some of our athletes and their handlers. Now the only way that we can recover is if we emerge stronger – and cleaner – from all this. What we have to hope for is that these Olympics will prove to be a milestone in purging the sick body of world-class athletics. It turns out that not only is the 28th Olympiad significant for the Games’ return to the country of their ancient birth and modern resurrection, but also because they come at the crucial point where we will see whether the attempt to clean sports of drugs can be successful and sustained or whether the IOC does not have the energy to keep up with the ever-evolving ways of cheating. If the Greeks are to be humiliated as a result of the effort to end the poisoning of would-be champions, it is a small price to pay for something that will give the Olympics new life. We always claimed that the Olympics’ return to Greece would be a return to the Games’ ideals. We may not have known what we were talking about but we seem to have got what we wanted. This being the Olympics, events have come thick and fast, with emotions racing along, succeeding one another, creating a long and complex pattern of triumphs and defeats in thousands of parallel adventures undertaken by the world’s finest athletes. And the past week has been an incredible adventure for all the Greeks. No sooner had we managed to get everything ready in time for the Games and were ready to enjoy the fruits of our labors than we were swamped by the news last Thursday that Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, the winner of the men’s 200 meters in Sydney and the silver medalist in the women’s 100 meters, had avoided mandatory IOC dope control tests. Worse was to follow. The next day, we learned that they were hiding out in a hospital, ostensibly after being hurt in a motorcycle accident. The tragedy of two bright careers being destroyed had collapsed into a tired, unfunny farce by Wednesday, six days later, when the two and their coach, Christos Tzekos, withdrew from the Games. But at last it seemed that we could put this all behind us and get on with the Games. We had the opening ceremony to make us feel proud again (with its combination of ancient references and modern achievements that forged together the Greek and the universal) and to remember that the stain of suspicion on our two sprinters was not enough to sink the Games or tarnish a nation. Then there was the warm feeling of satisfaction that the Games were sailing along flawlessly, despite concern at plenty of empty seats in many stadiums at the beginning. The shot put event in the ancient stadium of Olympia, which was the true homecoming of the Games, on Wednesday also put us back on track. This was what these Olympics were all about. Storied Olympia works magic on every visitor. By now we had picked up gold medals in synchronized diving, judo and sailing and a bronze in weightlifting and were beginning to feel that we may not hope for much in the sprints but our other athletes would still do us proud. But yesterday we learned that Leonidas Sampanis – who won the bronze in the 62kg weightlifting category on Monday – had tested positive for use of testosterone, an illegal substance. It was now clear that the palace of our sport success had been built on foundations of deceit and illusion. Sampanis is a veteran of our «dream team» of men’s weightlifters that has dominated the sport and Greece’s medal harvest over the past two or three Olympiads. If he is guilty of using an illegal substance, where does that leave all the other members of the team, including those who have been gathering gold for years, right from the Barcelona Olympics? Where does this leave their coach, the venerable Christos Iacovou, and the sports federations, agencies and government officials that have overseen the team and basked in its reflected glory? The weightlifters were the pillars of Greece’s rise in world sports, bringing in honors that we had not seen since the first modern Olympics in 1896 when most of the contestants were Greeks. Coach Iacovou is one of the best-loved sports figures in Greece, a household name and father figure to his athletes. His cry to his boys as they struggle under inhuman loads – «Stay under the bar» – is something of a national slogan. If a second test confirms that Sampanis did take testosterone, can it have been without his coach knowing about it? That seems highly unlikely. Was the father poisoning his boys, mostly immigrants from Albania? This is an even sadder story than that of Kenteris and Thanou. The sprinters are like thoroughbreds who (if it turns out that they did take illegal substances) were tempted to make a deal with the devil in order to touch heaven. The weightlifters are like draught horses being made insensitive to weights that crush their bones. And yet, when the whole national weightlifting team said that it was injured and would not contest the world championships in China in 2001, no alarm bells rang in Greece. (At least not loud enough for those not in the know to hear them.) The successes of the weightlifting team and the odd successes of other athletes created a sense of triumph and well-being which led the State into taking some measures reminiscent of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Successful athletes were given military commissions, ensuring steady income and honors. They received huge bonuses for every success. This socialist-type tenure and treatment were combined with the joys of capitalism in that the top athletes received huge amounts of money from sponsors. So these athletes did not need to compete as often as other world-class athletes and, at the same time, had to make sure that when they did compete, they would bring home booty. One cannot tell how widespread the use of illegal substances was, but it is certainly clear that Greek athletes must have been sorely tempted to try anything that would ensure success. No one is talking yet, but the story of how much the State, at all levels, colluded in any such illegal activities is the one that we must investigate now. It may have been impossible for journalists to cast aspersions on the honor of our Olympian victors without anything beyond our skepticism as our guide, without pointlessly casting shadows that would only damage our athletes’ hopes ahead of the Athens Games. But now the damage that we have suffered is greater than any we might have feared. It’s time for everyone to come clean, and for the Greek press to chase the story to its bloody end. All those guilty of deceit, or of tolerating the conditions that allowed deceit, must be rooted out and punished. And the vast amounts spent on champions must go toward developing sports at school and every other level, to the creation of champions the long, hard way. That will be a victory worthy of a laurel wreath. In all this sordid sorrow, the one great beauty is the Olympiad itself. The greatest international event goes on, with Athenians happily playing host to the happy children of the world. The greatest athletes of our time compete, like gods indifferent to our domestic woes. Though, this being Greece, there is a lesson for everyone in our swift fall: Do not tempt fate, do not think that if you fly you will land where you intend. Do not boast, like the Greeks, that you are the true custodians of the Games, because, like the Greeks, you may be forced to purge yourselves to prove your worth.

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