History shone through at Athens Games
Posted: Monday August 30, 2004 10:24PM; Updated: Monday August 30, 2004 10:24PM
ATHENS, Aug 29 (Reuters) -- Nobody, not even U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps with his amazing eight-medal haul, stamped their mark on the Athens Olympics as much as history itself.
From the sacred groves of Ancient Olympia to tired marathon runners following in the footsteps of Phidippides, past and present proved inseparable as the Games returned to their spiritual home.
But ghosts, more recent and less welcome, haunted the world's biggest sporting event which was played out against a backdrop of unparallelled security and unprecedented action against drugs cheats.
Doping doubts permeated these Olympics like never before, with centre stage taken by Greek sprinters Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou.
The couple missed drugs tests and then sought refuge in hospital after claiming to have been involved in a late-night motorcycle accident. They played out a drama with Olympic officials that overshadowed the first week of the Games.
They finally withdrew, gone but not forgotten by chanting crowds at the Olympic stadium. Sporting prowess regained its place in the spotlight and Athens confounded critics by delivering on its promise to put on a great show.
Phelps, a phenomenal presence in the pool, lived up to expectations with a record-equalling six gold and two bronze medals that helped the United States top the overall table with 32 golds.
Even if he failed to match compatriot Mark Spitz's 1972 haulf of seven titles, the American teenager laid down a benchmark that could stand for decades to come.
"I had a blast doing it, being back where the modern Olympics started. It was incredible," he said.
Sport spanned the centuries in Athens where winners were decorated with olive wreaths. But the gods were very different.
It took American Justin Gatlin just 9.85 seconds to blast from virtual unknown to immortality, winning the closest Olympic 100 metres final in history by one hundredth of a second.
Gatlin also took bronze behind winning compatriot Shawn Crawford in the 200 metres, a far cry from the first 200-yard race won by the naked cook Corobeus 1,611 years ago.
On a marvellous last night of action at the Olympic stadium, Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj added the 5,000 metres gold to his earlier 1,500 title -- a historic double last achieved by Finland's Paavo Nurmi in 1924.
The U.S. men's 4x100 relay team lost, by the thickness of an athletes' vest, to Britain for that country's first gold in the event since 1912.
Briton Kelly Holmes won both the 800 and 1500 metres. Holmes was only the third woman in history to perform this remarkable double.
Greeks replaced gloom with euphoria, chanting 'Hellas, Hellas' when rank outsider Athanasia Tsoumeleka won the women's 20km walk and Fani Halkia, hailed as a 'Winged Goddess', took the 400 metres hurdles gold.
Halkia, a former high jumper who had quit athletics for a career in television two years ago, won by more than half a second -- the largest winning margin in the last five Olympics.
"All Greek athletes need is a lot of soul and hard work to come first," she said, shrugging off doubts about her astonishing form.
There were other surprises too, with 2008 hosts China winning their first athletics golds in a record haul of 32 golds and Japan tripling their titles from four years ago.
"This really is the Games where Asia has awakened and I believe that this is a very strong sign that Asia will be at full strength for the Beijing Games in four years," IOC president Jacques Rogge said.
China's Liu Xiang won the men's 110 metres hurdles gold in world record time while Xing Huina scored one of the biggest upsets by winning the women's 10,000 metres.
Ethiopia's Kenenisa Bekele stood out as the future of long-distance running by taking the men's 10,000 title.
American sprint queen Marion Jones flopped, leaving tearfully without a medal from her only two events after arriving under investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
By the closing day 24 athletes had tested positive for banned substances -- twice as many as in 2000.
They included Russian Irina Korzhanenko who had won the women's shot put, the first athletics gold of the Olympics, at Ancient Olympia on what had been held up as a key symbolic moment for the Games.
Others were punished for refusing to provide samples or being unavailable for testing. Weightlifting, seeking a boost in the land of mythical strongmen Hercules and Atlas, had seven athletes suspended for failing tests.
While Phelps was the fresh face of youth, others such as 42-year-old German canoeist Birgit Fischer -- collecting an eighth gold 24 years after her first -- simply defied the passing years.
Romanian Elisabeta Lipa took a fifth rowing gold while British oarsman Matthew Pinsent won his fourth consecutive title and cried. The Cubans remained kings of the boxing ring with yet another heavyweight title.
But time caught up with others. Argentina won the men's basketball as the U.S. team were denied gold for the first time since NBA players signed up in 1992. Australia replaced France as the power in track cycling.
Referees and judges kept sport's highest court of appeal busy as countries protested decisions.
Germany's Bettina Hoy paid a heavy price, losing two gold medals due to a timekeeping error in an equestrian competition overshadowed by finger-pointing and ugly legal battles.
People power flexed its muscles in the gymnastics, the crowd whistling and booing for nearly 10 minutes at a low score for Russian Alexei Nemov before it was reassessed.
That was little consolation for South Korean Yang Tae-young, robbed of the all-round title by a scoring error that officials admitted would have made him and not American Paul Hamm the winner - but which they were powerless to correct.
India, the world's second most populous country, took just one medal but other countries, starved of success for generations, celebrated.
Israel, Chile, Georgia and the United Arab Emirates won golds for the first time while Egypt, in Greco-Roman wrestling, and Argentina ended barren streaks going back more than 50 years.
For them, as for the proud host nation welcoming the Olympics home for the first time since they were revived in 1896, it was well worth the wait.
"They really did a fantastic job. I am very, very happy about the Games," declared Rogge.
Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.