Posted: Wednesday August 25, 2004 7:54PM; Updated: Friday August 27, 2004 2:55PM
Wednesday night in the Olympic Stadium, a 25-year-old Greek woman named Fani Halkia won the gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles as more than 60,000 fans, many of them flag-waving countrymen, went wild. She finished and fell to the track, emotionally overwhelmed, and then ran a barefoot victory lap carrying her nation's flag as the pop song "Ke Antistrofa O Chronos Metra" filled the warm air.
It was easily the most electric moment of the Games' track competition, and for the Greek fans, surely helped fill the void left by the withdrawals of Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou after missing numerous drug tests.
It seemed that everything was right again at the Athens Games. But, of course, in track and field, it is never that simple.
An hour after her victory, Halkia walked into a news conference room, and dozens of volunteers broke into raucous applause. Then she was flogged with doping questions for nearly half an hour.
Before this season, Halkia's best time in the 400-meter hurdles had been 56.40 seconds. In the Olympic semifinals, she ran an Olympic-record 52.77 seconds, a staggering improvement of 3.63 seconds. (To be fair, she had been coming down gradually throughout this outdoor season, but it was 3.63 seconds in one year, at age 25).
Her career biography shows that she began running long hurdles in 1997, with season bests of 59.17 in '97 and 59.99 in '98 and then three years off, while she was working as a journalist from age 20 to 22. At 23, she returned to track and went 58.80 in 2002 and 56.40 last year before making her sudden drop this year.
Also, in 2003, her fastest time for the flat 400 meters was 53.46, which means that this season she has run faster over hurdles than she did one year ago without the barriers.
Dramatic improvement in athletic middle age is a red flag. It doesn't mean that any athlete who improves a great deal is using drugs. But in the current environment in track and field, performances are scrutinized for sudden arcs. In these Games, there have been three women whose performances have raised doubts:
Yulia Nesterenko of Belarus, the winner of the women's 100 meters in 10.93 seconds. Nesterenko, 25, had run a previous personal best of 11.29 seconds two years ago, and her best time in 2003 was 11.45 seconds.
Joanna Hayes of the United States, 27, gold medalist in the 100-meter hurdles. Between 1997 and 2000, Hayes ran both the 400- and 100-meter hurdles, and her times in the shorter race improved from a best of 13.04 to 12.67. She did not run at all in 2001 or 2002. Last year she ran primarily in the long hurdles and posted a best of 12.83 in the 100-meter event. Her winning time in Athens was an Olympic-record 12.37.
Neither Halkia, Nesterenko nor Hayes has ever had a positive drug test. Nesterenko did not test positive from the 100 meters here. The results of Hayes' test will not be known until Thursday night, and the results of Halkia's not until Friday night.
Halkia admitted Wednesday night that her coach, Yorgos Panayiotopoulos, had once been coached by Christos Tzekos, who, of course, coached Kenteris and Thanou. She denied that she had been associated with Tzekos. "No, I never worked with Mr. Tzekos," she said. "[Panayiotopoulos] did work with Mr. Tzekos, but he stopped.'"
Halkia explained her sudden improvement like so: "If you know anything at all about athletic training, and you know what it's all about, you know that coaches teach you about stretching and training. I worked very hard with my coach and, of course, you can improve that much.''
Then, remarkably, later in the news conference, Halkia launched into an impassioned defense of Thanou and Kenteris and said that she had lived and trained alongside them. "Journalists put those people against the wall,'' Halkia said. "I know how hard they worked. We sort of lived together. I don't understand getting the firing squad out just because you want it on the news.''
With that last statement, the volunteers again broke into applause and cheers. The questioning was again turned back to the touchy-feely story of a Greek girl who made good at the Olympic Games in her homeland.
And she explained her success poetically. "You can't give a Greek heart to someone,'' she said. "I'm made of the stuff that our ancestors were made of.''
For track fans and Greeks alike, Fani Halkia's victory Wednesday night was reminiscent of Cathy Freeman's epic gold in the Sydney 400 meters. It was a chilling, memorable moment. In a vacuum, it was a thing of beauty.
But this is not a vacuum. It is the Olympic Games of 2004. There have been four drug positives in track and field in Athens, more than at any previous Olympics (not including the Kenteris/Thanou scandal). Two gold medalists have been stripped of their medals. Only one other track gold medalist had been previously stripped for drugs: Ben Johnson in 1988.
All of which means it would be really touching if the only thing carrying Halkia to victory was her Greek heart.