As not seen on TV

Forget the Acropolis. The defining symbol of these Olympic Games is a low-slung, gray building sitting inconspicuously along Nerantziotissis Street, dwarfed by the gleaming new stadiums nearby. Athletes will go there not to pray to the gods for victory, but to pee in a cup instead. Which is why that’s one building you won’t see on TV. Much has been made about returning to the land where the Olympics were born thousands of years ago and resuscitated just before the turn of the last century. Royal blue banners proclaiming «Welcome Home» ring the central sports complex, including one that hangs just a few meters from the small orange sign that points the way to Doping Control. With satellite doping centers at every one of the other dozen venues, the central lab figures to be going full-tilt during the coming two weeks. «We have approximately 125 scientists and technicians on hand, so we will be ready,» Costas Georgakopoulos, the head of Doping Control, said Thursday. «Most likely, we will analyze something like 2,400 samples.» As if on cue, a courier zooms up to the guard station on a motorbike and removes a white plastic box from a case behind the seat. He puts the box down on a shelf, and after a cursory glance, is waved through with a nod of the head. While it’s true the Olympics have come full circle, the strange thing is that despite the distance in years, these Games are in many ways closer to the original version than the Games revived almost single-handedly by Baron Pierre de Coubertin and staged in Athens in 1896. De Coubertin was a Frenchman consumed by the romantic notion of British amateur sport, governed by the spirit of friendship and fair play. What he envisioned were Olympics that were as much about cooperation as competition, played by heirs and other members of the monied class with plenty of time on their hands. But as Daniel Mendelsohn, an author and lecturer in Classics at Princeton since 1994, pointed out recently in an essay in The New York Times, «The problem, of course, is that such notions are wholly foreign to the Greek way of thinking, which actually has more in common with the relentless egotism, nationalism, promotion and self-promotion of athletes we associate with professional sports than with any fantasy of the noble Greek spirit.» The original Olympians did everything and anything to win. They competed as though their lives depended on it, which, considering how violent some of the contests were, often was literally true. The performance-enhancers of the day were sheep testicles, which suggests the early Greeks were almost as good chemists as poets. While a dozen meals like that still wouldn’t provide anywhere near a concentrated enough dose to actually boost the testosterone level of a boxer or sprinter, the athletes who consumed them with such high hopes were on the right track. Some 2,800 years later, ingesting something is no longer a problem. Athletes in just about every sport today make enough money to afford the best science available. At the Sydney Games, only 11 athletes out of 10,649 were disqualified. But twice that number have already been suspended, accused or targeted since the start of the year as a result of a federal investigation into the BALCO nutritional supplements company in California. The highest profile athlete competing here under that cloud of suspicion is Marion Jones, but she’s hardly the only one on edge. Athens organizers got a jump on their competition by starting drug-testing the day the athletes village opened almost two weeks ago, instead of waiting for the Games to start. So far, only a single Kenyan boxer has been caught and sent home, but a handful of athletes made last-minute withdrawals. The beleaguered hosts have beaten the odds to get these Games up and running, and they’ve beaten the doomsayers by an even more lopsided margin. The danger now is that they might deliver exceptional Games, set against the most majestic of backdrops, and still have the whole performance overshadowed by a few high-profile busts. Ben Johnson did that to the 1988 Games in Seoul all by himself. (AP)

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