Prague, 18 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Costas Kenteris was arguably the Michael Jordan of Greece -- his country's most celebrated athlete and its main hope for an track and field gold medal at the first Olympics in the birthplace of the ancient games since 1896.
The gold medalist in the 200-meter sprint at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Kenteris had been expected to be Greece's choice to light the Olympic cauldron during the games' opening ceremony on 13 August.
But that was before he and fellow sprinter Katerina Thanou -- a silver medalist in Sydney -- scandalized the Olympic hosts by failing to show up for a unannounced drug test at the Olympic Village in Athens on 12 August. Missing a test is a violation of the doping regulations of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
"It creates a bad image of the country, not only locally but on a world scale"
The celebrated pair was then hospitalized for five days after a motorcycle accident for which there are no witnesses. No motorcycle was found, and neither athlete has shown any signs of injury from the crash, despite reports of cuts and bruises.
Nikos Konstandaras is editor in chief of the English-language version of the Greek daily "Kathimerini." He tells RFE/RL that the nation is shocked by the story, which began as high Greek drama but descended into farce.
"I'd say [Kenteris] is the equivalent [of Michael Jordan]. He's the biggest athlete we have -- a very likable person, someone who people looked up to, an athlete who's great at what he achieves, but also a good and sensible person with values and so on. So it was a huge shock, the whole story," Konstandaras says.
The drug scandal was the biggest at the Olympics since Canada's champion sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids at the 1988 Seoul Games. And it has clearly shamed -- and angered -- the Greeks. Thodoris Roussopoulos, a government spokesman, said: "It creates a bad image of the country, not only locally but on a world scale."
Kenteris and Thanou finally moved to end the drama today, declaring their withdrawal from the games after appearing before an IOC disciplinary committee. The committee had twice postponed hearings while the sprinters remained in hospital.
Kenteris, who vowed yesterday that his "resurrection" would follow his "crucifixion" in the media, told reporters in Athens today: "I am withdrawing my participation from the Olympic Games out of a sense of responsibility. I would also like to tell you I am ending my cooperation with my coach Christos Tzekos."
Both runners deny ever using performance-enhancing drugs. Kenteris said he missed the drug test simply because he didn't know about it.
The IOC said it rejected a request from both sprinters to be tested at the hospital. The head of the IOC's medical commission, Arne Ljungqvist, told the Swedish daily "Expressen" today that he believes the athletes had hoped such a test would be in their favor, adding: "I don't know what their strategy was, but we did not fall for it."
What's more, Greek media are reporting that the story won't end here. Greek prosecutors have opened a preliminary probe to determine whether there is enough evidence to launch a full investigation on charges of deception of officials and discrediting the country.
Athletes from several nations have been involved in doping cases in Athens -- though none as melodramatic as the Greeks'.
In the latest high-profile case, world 100-meter runner Torri Edwards of the United States lost her appeal today against a two-year ban for drugs. Edwards, a big star in track and field, is now out of the Olympics.
Editor Konstandaras says Greeks are ready to put the scandal behind them. He says the general feeling in Athens and elsewhere in the country is that the games are actually proceeding better than expected -- and that, in fact, they're making the whole nation proud.
"[The scandal] is definitely the top story, but I wouldn't say it overshadowed the games. Because in the middle of the worst shock that we felt -- which is when it sank in that something was horribly wrong with our stars -- we had the opening ceremony on Friday night, which was a huge success. It went down fantastically here in Greece. It was a very, very good opening which managed to hit all the right notes for us. So that really took over our feeling of the games," Konstandaras says.