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American Graffiti
S.L. Price
August 23, 2004
In an ambivalent Athens one message is clear: At these Games restraint could be as precious as gold for the U.S. and its athletes
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August 23, 2004

American Graffiti

In an ambivalent Athens one message is clear: At these Games restraint could be as precious as gold for the U.S. and its athletes

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Last friday, on a corner in central Athens near historic Panathinaiko Stadium, a statue stood ignored. In a city all but demanding comparisons between its bone-white marble masterworks and the modern athletes flooding the streets, who had time for a giant Harry Truman sporting spectacles and a double-breasted suit? Truman was many things-- U.S. president, staunch anti-Communist and, in today's Athens, the handiest symbol of American power--but no one ever called him Olympian. Still, few things better embody the hard, cool world that greeted American athletes when the 2004 Summer Olympics began than this embattled monument. During the U.S.-led bombing of Kosovo in 1999 a protesting crowd tore down Harry and left only his shoes behind. In 2003 a protesting crowd wrapped his restored form in brown paper, scrawled with the words, return to sender. For years, a 24-hour guard kept watch over the dinged metal and scarred stone. � Now, though, Harry needed no such protection.

An enormous delegation of real Americans had come to town, and instantly found themselves under a subtle kind of siege. Even as they were welcomed and coddled by Greek officials and volunteers, U.S. Olympic team officials, coaches, athletes and fans were served a steady diet of sometimes justified, sometimes absurd criticism. If they weren't reading stories slamming the U.S. for failing to observe the Olympic Truce, they were being accused of doping crimes or hearing reminders of their over-the-top celebrations at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. No American team has ever opened a Games amid such sneers. F--- THE USA reads the graffiti across the street from the U.S. embassy (with a swastika replacing the S). FAT HAPPY AMERICANS reads the message stenciled on walls all over the city, punctuated by the chilling image of a torture victim from Abu Ghraib prison.

Things have reached such a sorry state that, on the morning of Opening Ceremonies, the U.S. was somehow being blamed for the most humiliating moment in the history of modern Greek sports. Thursday night, just as organizers and politicians began reveling in due praise for getting the city ready in time, sprinters Konstantinos Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, winners, respectively, of the 200-meter gold and 100-meter silver in Sydney, missed a mandatory drug test (for the second time in 16 months), all but confirming longstanding suspicions. Facing near-certain expulsion from the competition they had expected to dominate, both entered the hospital after a motorcycle accident--apparently witnessed by no one--with minor injuries and no public statement, in the process indicting themselves, their coach, Christos Tzekos, and a Greek track federation long intimidated by its two stars.

The resulting national uproar followed the usual pattern of shock, outrage and a call for wholesale firings. But there was also one uniquely Greek wrinkle: The Americans were responsible for this mess too. Friday morning's mainstream newspapers stated flatly--and without sourcing--that the U.S. team, led by chief executive Jim Scherr, had threatened on Aug. 11 to pull out of the Games unless the IOC tested the two Greek sprinters. To see such illogic in action was breathtaking: U.S. officials, it seems, would risk worldwide contempt and endless lawsuits, destroy Michael Phelps's gold medal quest and the dreams of 537 others, if only to sabotage Greece's already-suspect heroes. Scherr calls the claim "utterly ridiculous" and, though the U.S. has a history of finger-pointing, denies that anyone from the USOC contacted the IOC or the World Anti-Doping Agency about the sprinters. "We have our own problems with drug-testing," Scherr says. "We have done nothing in any way instructing or pressuring the IOC or WADA in that regard."

If you didn't know anything about Greek politics or culture, all this would come off as supremely bizarre. But in Greece, according to Nikos Konstanderas, editor of the respected newspaper Kathimerini, anti-Americanism has become overwhelming. Polls of Greek citizens regularly put opposition to American foreign policy at about 95%, and the odds are that nearly every smiling, hospitable Greek harbors at least some vague suspicion about American motives. Until recently, many Greeks thought their election results were dictated by the CIA, and it wasn't hard to find people convinced that the agency pulled the strings of the terror group November 17. Nikos Polias, Greece's top marathoner, believes that President Bush knew of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks beforehand and used them as a pretext for a war for oil. Out of 10 of his friends, Polias was asked, how many feel that way? "Eight," he says. "Maybe 10."

Not that the Greeks don't come by their paranoia honestly. Polias and his friends grew up in the shadow of a brutal, anti-Communist military junta, known as the Colonels, that from 1967 to '74 ran a pariah regime with the support of the U.S. In 1971, Vice President Spiro Agnew became the first Western leader to visit Greece since the Colonels (reportedly six-figure contributors to the '68 Nixon-Agnew campaign) took over, backing them with declarations of "renewed respect." A 1999 apology by President Bill Clinton for such antics did little to dispel Greek mistrust. No surprise, then, that local criticism of Tzekos, who spent his 20s selling vitamin supplements in the Chicago area, had centered on his slick suits, secrecy and American attitude. "It makes me think better, being in the States," Tzekos said last year. "Open to ideas about nutrition, about supplements, about how we have to think to be big."

But being big and American has its price. On Saturday the Greek Olympic Committee put on a meaningless show of strength, voting to boot Kenteris, Thanou and Tzekos out of the Games, but leaving their final fate to the IOC disciplinary board on Wednesday. Whatever the result, the damage is done; even Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos is calling the imbroglio "a disgrace."

The USOC has no room to gloat: More than two dozen U.S. athletes (not to mention two Americans who were to have played for the Greek baseball team) have either flunked drug tests or been implicated in drug scandals over the last year. For its perceived hypocrisy on that issue and for reasons having nothing to do with athletic competition, the U.S. has replaced the Soviet Union and East Germany as the sporting empire the world most loves to hate. Long accustomed to wearing the white hat, American athletes prepared for Athens under unprecedented pressure from politicians and team officials to restrain themselves: no untoward flag-waving, no provocative celebrations. Olympic stars Janet Evans and Bob Beamon crisscrossed the country in July and August, showing video lowlights of how not to act: swimmer Amy Van Dyken's spitting in her opponent's lane in 2000, the 4�100 men's relay team's preening after winning the gold in Sydney.

"The main thing we said is, 'Be yourself. But if you do what Amy Van Dyken did, the repercussions will be tenfold. You will look like the Ugly American,'" Evans says. "Everyone's watching us."

Scherr has set a U.S. goal of winning at least 100 medals in Athens, "but my greater hope is that the team brings pride and restores some of the honor to our athletes and how they're viewed on the field of play."

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