Greeks put off by doping scandals

The 2004 Athens Olympics worked their way into Greece’s social fabric for many of the wrong reasons, leaving a scar which is throbbing again as the Beijing Games approach. On the eve of the Athens opening ceremony, two Greek sprinters, both major medal hopefuls, were involved in the biggest Olympic doping scandal since Ben Johnson took drugs to win his 1988 Seoul Games 100-meter race in spectacular fashion. Costas Kenteris, 200-meter champion at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, and Katerina Thanou, 100-meter silver medalist at the same Games, were nowhere to be found when doping testers went for a surprise check in the Oympic athletes’ village on August 11. It was the beginning of a five-day doping saga that would overshadow the start of the Games and end with the sprinters being forced to withdraw in disgrace. Four years on, Greeks are still smarting about the case. «Why would I watch the Beijing Games when I was let down by my own Olympics?» said Athens waiter Costas Georgiadis, who had tickets and saw several events at the 2004 Olympics. «Kenteris and Thanou, whether they were right or wrong, left us feeling cheated and hugely disappointed.» Both Kenteris and Thanou were local heroes after their Sydney medals. A small nation like Greece winning two sprinting medals, as it gets ready to host the next Olympics, is no mean feat. Between Sydney and Athens, the sprinters, a product of private initiative with ultimately unlimited government backing to create medal winners, were treated like royalty. They attracted sponsors and were given civil service jobs. Kenteris even had a high-speed passenger ferry named after him, though Thanou had to settle for roads taking her name. A closely kept secret, revealed only later, was that Kenteris was to light the Olympic cauldron at the Games opening ceremony on August 12 for all the world to see. It all went horribly wrong on that hot evening in August, when officials noted another doping test no-show for them, setting off a chain of events that would quickly turn farcical. The sprinters allegedly crashed on a motorcycle as they tried to race back to the village to get tested. They then spent four days in hospital before facing an International Olympic Committee (IOC) disciplinary panel that urged them to withdraw amid a global whirlwind of publicity. Then the authorities raided their coach’s, Christos Tzekos, nutritional supplements company, inspected his warehouse and confiscated his products. They later said they had found no banned substances there. Greek fans felt cheated and chanted Kenteris’s name before the 200-meter final, holding up the start of the race. «If they felt cheated you can imagine how we felt,» Tzekos told Reuters in a rare interview. «All fans got was a reflection of our efforts. We were the ones putting in the 10-hour training days. For us it was our life that was going under,» he said, adding that neither he nor the athletes had done anything wrong. The number of differing accounts from people, including team officials and Hellenic Olympic Committee officials quickly eroded support for the athletes and their coach, all of whom faced additional charges of staging the accident and filing false reports to police. After a two-year international legal battle, the athletes finally admitted to anti-doping rule violations and were banned from competitions for two years, until December 2006. Earlier, their coach had been banned for four years by a Greek athletics federation commission, which had acquitted the athletes and blamed only Tzekos for the affair. Kenteris and Thanou fought to postpone their Greek trial, sure to heap further embarrassment as one of the alleged witnesses of the crash had already been charged with perjury. After a further postponement in June, the trial has now been set for February 2009. «They won’t run the big races anymore,» said Tzekos, who now runs a company organizing exhibitions and trade fairs with his wife. «Costas has essentially retired and Katerina is now just having fun with her few races.» Kenteris has not raced since 2004. Thanou has competed in several smaller events, her times way behind her personal bests. Greek sport has never been the same, with significant achievement now viewed with suspicion. With almost the entire weightlifting team, another major Olympics medal-winning machine, banned for doping in June and European 200-meter butterfly champion Yiannis Drymonakos failing a dope test weeks ago, Greeks are increasingly cynical.