ATHENS, GREECE Even by unpredictable Olympic standards, it was a bizarre moment in Olympic history. A bizarre six moments, to be exact. News reports have exaggerated the delay in Thursday night's men's 200-meter track final to 10, even 15, minutes. But it was six. I timed it.
The event was supposed to start at 10:50 p.m. and it was 10:50 p.m. exactly when the announcer called the runners to their marks.
On my oversized Suunto watch the one that tells the time in three time zones, the altitude, the temperature, your heart rate, compass bearing and barometric pressure I switched to the stopwatch mode. I like to time track races. I don't know why. My times never jibe with the actual times, especially in the sprints. The hand is not quicker than the electronic eye.
But I know it was 10:50 when the race was supposed to start and the crowd wouldn't let it.
Suddenly, it was as if the announcer had told everyone that their cars had their lights on and they were being towed. The mood turned nasty.
Seventy thousand people started chanting.
"Hellas," they shouted, the Greek word for "Greece." "Kenteris," they also shouted, the name of Greek runner Kostas Kenteris who appeared from nowhere to win the 200 four years ago at the Sydney Olympics.
In the next day's Sydney Morning Herald, the headline read: Who the Hellas Kenteris?
So incongruous was the sight of a white-skinned man from Greece winning a race dominated for so long by dark-skinned men, most of them Americans, that the questions started immediately concerning the possibility that Kenteris had used PEDs (performance enhancing drugs). This was like an Indonesian winning a cross-country ski race.
The questions only heightened when Katerina Thanou of Greece placed second in the women's 100-meter run in Sydney, another "Man Bites Dog" shocker. The fact that both Thanou and Kenteris were coached by the same man, Christos Tzekos, only added to the plot.
The problem, of course, is that four years later, neither Kenteris nor Thanou were at the track stadium in their homeland Thursday night Thanou to run in the women's 4 x 100 meter relay (without her, Greece failed to make the finals) and Kenteris to defend his gold medal in the 200.
In news that even islanders without phones in Bora Bora must know by now, two weeks ago, on the eve of the triumphant return of the Olympics to its birthplace, Kenteris and Thanou failed to report for an appointment with IOC drug-testers and later, after visiting Tzekos at his home in Athens, were riding tandem on a motorcycle that they said crashed and sent them to the hospital. Each voluntarily withdrew from the Games, fired Tzekos as their coach and proclaimed they never used PEDs.
Naturally, America ended up getting blamed for all this. Greek newspapers reported that it was the U.S. Olympic Team that demanded that either the IOC test Kenteris and Thanou or it would pull Team USA out of the Games.
Jim Scherr, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, called the allegation "utterly ridiculous." But the innuendo still spread like a brush fire, effectively obfuscating the original question: Were Kenteris and Thanou drug cheats?
And by the way, what if the United States had urged that the two Greeks be tested (without the threat)? Where's the harm in going after the bad guys?
After American Justin Gatlin won the 100-meter race, his coach, Trevor Graham, admitted that he was the anonymous tipster who sent the used syringe of questionable content to drug-testers that exposed tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), the latest greatest PED, and ignited the far-reaching BALCO scandal.
Tired of seeing cheaters win, Graham struck back.
The timing of the attempted drug test on Kenteris and Thanou about two weeks before their races suggests someone might have known they needed to be tested before they had sufficient time to rid themselves of any traces of THG or any other illicit drugs.
And their flimsy dog-ate-my-homework excuse for not presenting themselves to be tested suggests that the someone who might have known that might have been right.
But it wasn't the merits of the case that the near-capacity crowd in Olympic Stadium was expressing Thursday night when three of the eight men entered in the 200 final wore "USA" on their chests.
When Shawn Crawford of South Carolina, Bernard Williams of Maryland and the 100 gold-medalist, Justin Gatlin of New York, were announced and their images shown on the giant video screen, the crowd went wild. And it wasn't good wild.
Resentment poured from the stands. "Quiet for the Start" appeared on the big screens, in Greek and English, and the jeers, catcalls and chanting only increased. The Greeks treated the plea like their taxi drivers treat stop signs. The p.a. announcer made an appeal, then another, then another.
It was like asking a 5-year-old to eat his peas.
One attempt to start the race was aborted because of crowd noise.
Another failed because of a runner's false start. Both times, the chanting started anew. "Hellas," "Ken-teris."
The eight runners shifted from one foot to another. They didn't know what to do. The man running the video screen must have been a Kenteris fan too because he kept showing Crawford, Williams and Gatlin. Crawford wore a sardonic kind of smile that the screen made about 4 feet wide. It only made it worse.
I kept looking at my oversized watch, waiting to start the stopwatch.
It seemed like Greece's national fit lasted all night. Although it was only 10:56 when the starter finally said "Set" and fired his pistol.
Crawford, Williams and Gatlin took off as if they had been shot or thought they might be. They never slowed down as they swept the medals.
None of them said the long delay hurt their chances. If anything, it only heightened their resolve. Crawford said he even understood how the fans felt. "They love their guy, and he wasn't here," said the man who won and thus became Kenteris' heir.
Lee Benson is in Athens to report on the 2004 Summer Games for Deseret Morning News readers. This is his ninth assignment to cover the Olympics. Please send e-mail to [email protected]