The stench of Olympic scandal was in the hot, sticky air yesterday here in Athens as the Summer Games opened amidst suspicion and controversy. The cloak-and-dagger dance that is forever drug testing emerged as the first blemish of the Games, with the host Greek team on the verge of spoiling its own party.
At issue now -- among other things -- is the very participation of Konstantinos (Kostas) Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, the two most prominent track athletes from Greece, who remain in an Athens hospital under dubious circumstances.
By late yesterday, there were more questions than answers, and an apparent offer from Kenteris to withdraw from the Games to avoid either being tested or further embarrassment -- or perhaps both.
Should Kenteris withdraw -- there was talk the Hellenic Olympic Committee was willing to fight any possible disqualification -- it would remove the onus on the International Olympic Committee to rule on the eligibility of the sprinter to compete in the 200 metres.
Otherwise, the IOC's very public, very futile anti-doping policy would be put to a test: Never has an Olympic Games faced this kind of beginning with a homemade hero in such peril for skipping a drug test.
"The fact that Kenteris and Thanou are Greek will have no impact on (our) decision," IOC president Jacques Rogge said. "Issues of nationality or prestige or local identity play no role."
This is a typical messy tale, part fact, part fiction, part supposition, a performance-enhanced story with fingers pointed in all directions.
But to fully comprehend the severity of this scandal, you must first be introduced to the participants and all that surround them.
There is Kenteris, the defending gold-medal winner at 200 metres, who is equally adept at sprinting his way past his opponents and random drug testers. Kenteris is to Greece what Ben Johnson was to Canada, a storied figure who was scheduled to light the torch at yesterday's opening ceremony. In his place, the Greek team had to proceed to Plan C.
Plan B might have been Thanou, a silver-medal winner at 100 metres in Sydney, who emerged from almost nowhere to become a prominent world sprinter. Once, late last year, when the international body of track and field attempted to randomly test her and Kenteris, the pair flew to Qatar from Crete without bothering to tell the chasing testers. They have been on the run, so to speak, ever since.
The two are coached by Christos Tzekos, a controversial figure here who happened to live in Chicago before moving back to Greece and, get this, just happened to sell nutritional supplements. There are those who believe Tzekos is connected to Patrick Arnold, who is best known for his patent of androstenediol.
You see a pattern developing here?
So, when the IOC knocked on the doors of Thanou and Kenteris at the athletes village the other day, no one answered. The two weren't home. They were off visiting their coach. Apparently, driving his motorcycle.
And when the IOC testers ordered them back to the village to a) explain themselves; and b) get tested, they had a problem with their ride back. Or, so the story goes.
Apparently, they had an accident, slid off the road in the southern suburb of Glyfada. The two athletes, were injured but, thankfully, in stable condition. They suffered cuts and bruises on their arms and legs and will be hospitalized at least until tomorrow.
They were so badly scraped and bruised that neither was able to urinate in a bottle for the benefit of the IOC, which has found itself between a rock and a bedpan.
Whether the accident ever occurred -- or was just a wild invention to buy the pair time -- is another matter open to speculation.
The great hospital story came out after the IOC disciplinary commission had ordered the runners to appear before them. The Hellenic Committee responded by saying the athletes wouldn't be well enough to attend.
Later in the day, the IOC confirmed that its disciplinary commission met to discuss the matter and with respect to the athletes' health issues, put the matter off until Monday.
Just what affect any of this will have on the Olympic feeling will be fascinating to monitor.
The locals, putting on a happy face, quietly will tell you they have a Montreal on their hands here -- an Olympics they will be paying on for the rest of their lives. The Kenteris withdrawal, disqualification, or whatever form it takes, could severely alter the national mood.
The slogan of the Athens Games is "Welcome Home." The premise of the Games was returning the Olympics to a more human scale.
But instead, the Games are back where they always seems to find themselves, mired in doping controversy.
This couldn't have been the welcome home that Kenteris, Thanou or any of the Greeks anticipated.