A Greek tragedy

IT had the trappings of a Greek tragedy with a touch of Hitchcockian mystery thrown in. It effectively ruined the opening show for the Greeks.

IT had the trappings of a Greek tragedy with a touch of Hitchcockian mystery thrown in. It effectively ruined the opening show for the Greeks. At least the mood was soured and their pride hurt. Kostas Kenteris and Ekaterina Thanou, the two central characters in the doping drama that started rolling barely 24 hours before the Olympics Opening Ceremony, eventually opted out of the Games, ironically, to protect the image of their country. The Greeks couldn't have waited all these years for the Games to come home only to be humiliated by their own athletes.

Kenteris has been a legend at home after his victory in the 200m at the Sydney Olympics, followed by the World championships victory in Edmonton a year later. Thanou has been a top-ranking woman sprinter since taking a surprise bronze in the World championships in Seville in 1999.

Both would have been expected to be medal contenders in Athens, with Kenteris being projected as a possible champion for a second time in the longer dash. The testers from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) spoilt their dreams. When they came in search of the Greek sprinters at the Games Village, the latter apparently fled and then met with a mysterious motorcycle accident, which the police later failed to verify.

They were spared the questioning thanks to the doctors who ruled that they were not in a position to move out of the hospital. Finally when they left, four days later, it proved to be anti-climactic, especially for those who expected the IOC to come down with a heavy hand on the two athletes. Kenteris and Thanou announced their withdrawal from the Games, something that the Greek Olympic Committee had done as a temporary measure earlier pending an IOC verdict.

The IOC, frustrated that once the athletes had pulled out, it only had a limited role to play, referred the matter to the international athletics federation (IAAF). The drama had started with the IOC attempting to target-test Kenteris and Thanou.

Kenteris had been an enigma, mysterious in his ways, failing to turn up at last year's World championships and not bothering to compete in the European circuit this year. Obviously tongues wagged and the authorities had to take note. So, the testers were on his trail. And when the athletes failed to report at the `village', the matter became a serious affair. Refusal to undergo a testing procedure is an offence equivalent to a positive test. Failure to report for a dope test or to declare your whereabouts, in the case of top-level athletes, is also an offence. The IOC President, Jacques Rogge, a staunch anti-doping campaigner, decided to refer the matter to a disciplinary panel, knowing well the embarrassment it would cause the host.

The panel eventually recommended that the IAAF be requested to take any possible action against the athletes as well as their coach, Christos Tzekos. While the IOC should be applauded for vigorously pursuing its anti-doping goals, there is no escaping the contradictions that seem to have emerged in the interpretation of the rules of the IOC and the international athletics federation. In the meantime, the IOC is moving towards an extended ban of dope-code violators from one Games to the next edition. That will be a major deterrent.

There was no doubting the IOC's aggressive intentions or that of the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) in their attempts to catch the cheats in the run-up to the Games and during the course of the competitions.

The announcement of a test for human growth hormone, for long considered one of the most abused substance, triggered a spate of withdrawals on the eve of the Games. The stringent dope controls as well as the larger number of tests being planned, compared to the 2700-odd urine samples tested during the Sydney Olympics, have already brought out encouraging results in the first week of the Athens Games.

What is more encouraging is the stance of the IOC President that rather than projecting a negative image, these dope tests and sanctions against cheats would only prove beneficial to sport in the longer run.

The relentless pursuit of the United States Anti Doping Agency (USADA) in exposing the cheats following the BALCO controversy has proved that given the will there is always a way to tackle a problem of this magnitude.

The half-hearted Indian anti-doping measures, already under the WADA scanner, will come in for further scrutiny in the coming days and weeks. It is time the Government took note of the alarming spread of the practice at home and tackled the problem on a war-footing.