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Athens 2004 | Mike Penner THE DAY IN ATHENS

Getting Desperate for an Injection of Good News

August 23, 2004|Mike Penner

ATHENS — The gods must be going crazy, watching the mortals mess with their Games.

Four days after they tossed the shotput at hallowed Olympia, an event so moving even cynical scribes walked away calling it "chilling" and "inspiring" and even "spiritual," the Russian who won the women's gold medal there tested positive for stanozolol, also known as "the Ben Johnson steroid."

One day after all of Greece rejoiced in the bronze-medal triumph of one Greek weightlifter, Pyrros Dimas, another named Leonidas Sampanis had his medal stripped when tests revealed a testosterone level twice the legal limit.

On a night when five sprinters broke 10 seconds in the men's 100-meter final, making it the fastest Olympic 100-meter final on record, the coach of the winner confirmed that he was the one who sent the mysterious "smoking syringe" of THG to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, thus launching the biggest doping scandal in sports history.

And when drugs weren't stealing headlines away from uplifting news developments, there was more squabbling inside the gymnastics arena, where South Korean and U.S. officials continued to discuss the possibility of awarding a duplicate gold medal to Korean gymnast Yang Tae Young because of a judging mistake that helped American Paul Hamm claim the all-around championship.

Flustered by the fuss, Hamm failed to win medals in either of his individual apparatus competitions Sunday and said afterward, "I shouldn't even be dealing with this."

With those words, Hamm succinctly summed up a troublesome, vexing day in Athens.

We shouldn't be dealing with any of this grime, but there it is, not only rearing its ugly head at the most inopportune times, but barging its way in to hog the winner's spotlight.

After a long year of banging its head against the great wall of BALCO, the beleaguered sport of track and field delivered a moment and an event that reminded everyone again why we used to sit transfixed in front of the television during past Olympics, before drug-tainted champions and tape-delayed finals killed the mood for us.

In the men's 100-meter final, the glamour race of every Olympics, defending champion Maurice Greene ran 9.87 seconds -- and finished third. Asafa Powell of Jamaica ran 9.94 -- and placed fifth.

Three Americans recorded sub-10-second times, Justin Gatlin winning the shootout in 9.85 seconds and Shawn Crawford taking fourth in 9.89. The silver medal went to Francis Obikwelu of Portugal, who came in at 9.86.

Four runners broke 10 seconds in Atlanta in 1996, but not five. In that race, Canada's Donovan Bailey won in a time of 9.84, then the world record. Gatlin was 0.01 of a second off the mark. Crawford's 9.89 would have earned him at least silver in every other Olympics except this one, where he finished out of the medals.

It was a sensational race.

And it was overshadowed when Gatlin's coach, Trevor Graham, revealed to a small group of reporters in the mixed zone that he was the mystery man who sent a syringe filled with a previously undetectable steroid, now known as THG, to USADA, which sent it on to a Los Angeles laboratory in June 2003.

That syringe kicked off the BALCO scandal. It was the hypodermic shot heard 'round the world.

"I was just a coach doing the right thing at the time," Graham said.

He also said he had no regrets, but cut off further questioning there.

"I have to go to drug testing," he said before walking away.

Sunday began with the announcement that Russian shotputter Irina Korzhanenko, who won the first women's Olympic competition ever held at Olympia, had tested positive for the steroid stanozolol and could be stripped of her medal.

In 1988, Ben Johnson lost his 100-meter gold medal for testing positive for the same drug.

Steroids at Ancient Olympia?

If you're still wondering if nothing's sacred anymore, there is your answer.

For the Greeks, just beginning to recover from the drug-related Kenteris-Thanou scandal that opened these Games, the Korzhanenko development was the first of a 1-2 Sunday sucker punch. After the withdrawal of sprinters Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou cost Greece two potential track medals, the host country lost one it had won when weightlifter Sampanis had to give up his bronze medal after failing an anti-doping test.

"I swear to God. I swear on my children, my two little angels, that I never took anything," Sampanis said on national television. "I want you all to stand by me."

It was a sad day in the Birthplace, but, mercifully, it wasn't all gloom and doom.

Jason Read, a firefighter who performed bravely during the Sept. 11 World Trade Center disaster, won a gold medal in men's eight rowing.

Deena Kastor, an Agoura High graduate, placed a surprising third in the women's marathon, so moved by the accomplishment that she said, "I was in tears the whole last lap."

A few hours after the race, Kastor walked into an Athens restaurant to celebrate and was greeted by a standing ovation from locals already eating inside.

Chilean fans partied long into the night after Nicolas Massu won a marathon of a different kind, defeating American Mardy Fish in the men's gold-medal tennis match, 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.

And Sweden's Christian Olsson, after winning the gold medal in the men's triple jump, announced, "I am going to party. I am going to drink a lot of champagne. How I'll feel a week from now is a big question mark, but that's a risk I'm going to take."

This city and these Games, grappling with bad-news hangover, could use that kind of break.

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