Late Friday morning, two men sipped coffee at a sidewalk café in Athens, hunched over small cups of muddy liquid and the day's newspaper. Their conversation flowed forth in torrents of unintelligible Greek. One proper noun needed no translation: "Kenteris."
Kostas Kenteris is --- was? --- Greece's best chance for a gold medal at its own Olympic Games. More than that, he is --- was? --- a national sporting hero of the type that doesn't exist in the United States, tethered to his people largely by pure national pride. He won the 200 meters at the Sydney Olympic Games, captured the world championship a year later and the European title a year after that, the holy trinity of Euro track and field and -- as you might have guessed -- rare for a Greek sprinter.
He is also something else in the underbelly of track and field, a place where knowing nods, "give me a break" smiles and conspiratorial whispers are the currency of communication. In this world, Kenteris was perhaps the single athlete of his generation most suspected of using performance-enhancing substances without testing positive for them. He was innocent in the real world and guilty in the underground.
He came to Sydney as a 27-year-old journeyman 400-meter runner with a personal best of 20.59 seconds in the shorter, faster 200. He left with a gold medal in 20.09 seconds (thanks in no small part to U.S. sprinter John Capel's lurching, non-falsestart). The unofficial jury looked at Kenteris' puffed-up pale body, his modest resume and alarms began blasting. He was not just guilty, but wildly, presumptively guilty, the most obviously doped fast sprinter on the planet.
Against these two different backdrops --- the worship of his nation and the suspicion of his peers, the media and doping cognoscenti -- Kenteris on Thursday supplanted U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps as the central athletic figure of the Games when he and trainer partner Ekaterina Thanou (the Sydney 100-meter silver medalist behind Marion Jones) missed a required drug test, thus subjecting themselves to a potential two-year ban and disqualification from the Olympics.
The immediate damage was considerable: Kenteris was considered a strong candidate to light the Olympic flame, as did Cathy Freeman at Sydney. Thanou would probably have figured in the ceremony. Greeks would have proud to cheer Kenteris. That pride has been replaced by a variety of other emotions. One Greek newspaper demanded the Kenteris and Thanou prove themselves clean. Other Greek media cited conspiracies to drag down their heroes. In all, the tableau is something less than the goosebumpy Freeman Show from Sydney.
And that is just the start. Kenteris and Thanou face a hearing on Monday. That hearing would have been Friday, except that they are both in the hospital with minor injuries suffered in a motorcycle crash that occurred after they missed their drug test at the Olympic Village. They were to remain in the hospital for 48 more hours, as of Friday afternoon in Athens. As they recover, the Greek populace awaits their adjudication. It was unclear on Friday whether Kenteris and Thanou had yet provided the required doping samples, or whether those samples were for blood or urine.
Yet with the announcement of the delay came more intrigue. Internet message boards buzzed with possibilities. Kenteris and Thanou test dirty and blame the hospital. They test clean because they are sterilized in the hospital as part of a face-saving plot hatched by the IOC. Is this feasible? First, it presumes that urine or blood samples were not collected when Kenteris and Thanou arrived at the hospital, which is not known.
Beyond that, Dr. Gary Wadler of the New York University Medical School, an expert in the doping field, says (hypothetically, not referring specifically to the Greek sprinters), "It depends on what drug was taken. It depends on the dosage of the drug. It depends on when it was taken. There are certain drugs in the body fat that take a very long time to leave the system. Seventy-two hours wouldn't make a difference. But if somebody had taken a drug with a reasonably short half-life, the time alone might be sufficient to rid the body of the drug. The clock is on that person's side. The only way to speed that process is by giving the person intravenous fluids, which is often done with drug overdoses. And if somebody is in a hospital for 48 or 72 hours, chances are they are getting intravenous fluids."
The theme of these Olympics is 'Welcome Home,' not as a greeting to spectators, but as a recognition of Greece as ancestral home of the Games. They arrive Friday night, Opening Ceremony pomp shadowed by doping sludge.