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Greeks Elated Over Olympic Victories, but Embarrassed by Drug Cases - 2004-08-23

Olympic host Greece has been oscillating between the agony of seeing some of its top sports stars caught up in drug cases and the euphoria of watching lesser known Greek athletes unexpectedly win gold medals.

On the eve of the Olympic opening ceremony that celebrated the return of the Games to their country of origin, Greeks were sent reeling by the news that their two top sprinters had been caught up in a doping scandal.

Kostas Kenteris, the reigning men's 200-meter Olympic champion, and Katerina Thanou, the silver medalist in the women's 100 meters at the 2000 Games, later withdrew from the tournament when it became clear that the International Olympic Committee would have probably expelled them anyway.

The Greek news media reacted by calling the pair fallen heroes, and castigating them for damaging Greece's image. Ordinary Greeks felt the duo had let them down.

Many of their fellow team members tried to ignore the scandal and concentrate on their own disciplines. But Anastassia Tsoumeleka, who captured the gold in the women's 20-kilometer walk Monday, says she was devastated by what befell her idols.

She says she turned the television off and did not follow the case in the newspapers, because the two sprinters were her role models, and she could not bear to see their names dragged through the mud.

But Greece quickly went on to win gold medals in synchronized diving and judo, and their fans began to forget about the case of the sprinters.

Their relief, though, didn't last long. On Saturday, the IOC stripped Greek weightlifter Leonidas Sampanis of his bronze medal, after he failed a drug test.

Sampanis, who won the silver medal in the 62-kilogram category at both the Atlanta and the Sydney Olympics, has vehemently protested his innocence, saying a drink he consumed after the competition, but prior to the drug control, must have been spiked.

Greeks are inclined to be more charitable toward Sampanis than toward the two sprinters, and the Greek Olympic Committee says it will lodge an appeal on his behalf to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Court has the final word on these matters.

Even Greek government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos, who spoke through an interpreter, offered his support to Sampanis.

"We have to give this specific athlete the possibility for him to have recourse to the appropriate bodies, so that he can prove his innocence," he says.

A Greek prosecutor has launched an official investigation into the circumstances surrounding the dope test taken by Sampanis. The government, which has campaigned hard against drug-taking by Greek athletes, also announced it had found small amounts of anabolic steroids and other unlicensed substances in a warehouse used by the coach of the two sprinters.

Greek news media are again complaining that the doping scandals involving their sports stars are overshadowing the country's success in organizing the Games.

Then the Greek mood switched again to elation, following gold medal victories by gymnast Demosthenes Tampakos in the men's rings event and Anastassia Tsoumeleka in the women's 20-meter walk.

The head of the Greek Olympic Committee, Yiannis Papadoyiannakis, says he hopes Greece also wins medals in team sports, like basketball, volleyball, water polo or handball.

He says Greece needs one of its teams to win a medal, not just to increase the country's total number of medals but also to inspire other Greek athletes, given the tough time they've been through.

One Greek medal hopeful says he has found a way to perk up his performance that does not involve banned substances. Light-heavyweight boxer Elias Pavlidis says the "drug" that gives him a boost before he steps into the ring is classical music, specifically the piano works of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.