Greece, shamed and angered by Olympic doping scandals, hailed an instant new heroine on Monday when Athanasia Tsoumeleka won the women’s 20 km walk to give the Olympic hosts their first athletics gold medal.
It was the perfect morale-booster for the spiritual homeland of the Games, buffeted by the withdrawal of its two top sprinters over a missed dope test and the exclusion of a medal-winning weightlifter for testing positive.
“I wanted the medal so much. I thank God,” Tsoumeleka, a complete outsider, said after kissing the ground at the end of her stamina-sapping walk through Athens.
“It was the first time I competed with such a big crowd watching me. They gave me unbelievable strength,” said the instant heroine, whose first name means Immortality.
The Games got off to a disastrous start for Greece when sprinters Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou pulled out over a missed drugs tests. Then weightlifter Leonidas Sampanis had his bronze medal taken away.
The tale of Sampanis — a hero one minute, a zero the next — took another bizarre twist.
A Greek prosecutor launched an official investigation into the circumstances surrounding the positive dope test given by the weightlifter, a judicial source said.
Sampanis, who lost his bronze medal after testing positive for high levels of testosterone, has vehemently protested his innocence saying a drink he consumed after the competition but prior to the doping control had been spiked. Delirious crowd National coach Christos Iakovou has said he was given a drink by an unknown person while waiting to give a urine sample after finishing third in the 62-kg category final in front of a delirious crowd eager to forget about their disgraced sprinters.
“There was mayhem in this room,” Iakovou said. “Over 15 people were in the doping control room when there should have been none except the athlete and his official escort.”
Athens has provided a host of memorable sporting moments to cherish. But the sleazy world of drugs is never far from the headlines.
Russia’s anti-doping chief said the sporting superpower had done its best to learn lessons from the drugs shame that hit its Winter Olympics team two years ago but Athens has turned into a doping “Hiroshima.”
“We didn’t want to repeat Salt Lake City but now we have a new Hiroshima,” Nikolai Durmanov said after two Russian athletes, including shot put gold medalist Irina Korzhanenko, were thrown out of the Olympics for taking drugs.
He expressed outrage that Korzhanenko was caught taking such a primitive “stone age” drug as the anabolic steroid stanozolol — the substance that cost Ben Johnson the 100 meters gold in 1988 — but warned that drugs were not only a Russian problem and that the United States and others faced equal difficulties.
Since cross-country skiers Larissa Lazutina and Olga Danilova were stripped of gold medals won in 2002, the Russian Olympic Committee has stepped up random testing, spent money on new laboratories and campaigned among athletes to stamp it out.
Athens has attracted a record 202 nations who have come together to compete and forget the politics of a troubled world.
That is the theory at least.
On Monday, Iraq’s Olympic soccer coach said his side should not be seen as a symbol of freedom, taking issue with a campaign commercial for U.S. President George W. Bush.
The flags of Iraq and Afghanistan appear in a commercial for of Bush’s re election drive. A narrator says: “At this Olympics there will be two more free nations —and two fewer terrorist regimes.”
But coach Adnan Hamad said Iraq, still plagued by violence daily, remained a country under occupation.
“You cannot speak about a team that represents freedom. We do not have freedom in Iraq, we have an occupying force. This is one of our most miserable times,” he said.
Tragedy struck at the Games in bizarre circumstances.
A Greek soldier guarding an Olympic facility was shot dead after apparently playing Russian roulette with a policeman, security sources said.
It appeared that a prank had gone wrong while the pair were playing with a service revolver containing a single bullet.