- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

ATHENS — He swore on his children — his “two little angels” — that he’s clean.

In Greek terms, there’s no more powerful oath. This is the Olympics, though, and the real authority rests with the anti-doping bloodhounds.

Greece’s top two sprinters bowed out of the Games last week rather than face them. Yesterday, a sobbing and pleading Leonidas Sampanis returned his bronze weightlifting medal after tests showed twice the acceptable amount of testosterone.

“I swear to God. I swear on my children, my two little angels, that I never took anything,” he said on national television. “I want you all to stand by me.”

Maybe later. Right now, the host nation is choking on the diet of bad news from its heroes.

It has soured the surprising success of the Olympic homecoming. Greeks never had a chance to gloat over the crisp organization and world-class venues that many thought were beyond their reach. Sports officials had hoped to beat the 13 medals won by Greeks in Sydney four years ago.

The tally dipped to six when Sampanis got the news he was the first athlete at the Athens Games to lose a medal because of doping results. It took the coaxing of a teammate to persuade Sampanis to hand back the medal — which carries the image of the winged Greek goddess Nike, or Victory.

“I have battled. I have spit blood. I have taken so many drug tests, and I have never tested positive,” cried Sampanis, shaking the iron gates of his home. “You must believe me. … My family has been destroyed. My life has been destroyed. I have been destroyed.”

His passionate denial may be enough to redeem him in Greek eyes. The country, however, is still waiting for the same from sprinters Kostas Kenteris, the 200-meter champion from Sydney, and 100-meter silver medalist Katerina Thanou.

They simply surrendered their credentials rather than go through an International Olympic Committee inquiry on whether they intentionally dodged drug testers. Police, meanwhile, are still not convinced about their claims of a motorcycle accident that left them hospitalized — and out of sight — for days.

A letter claiming to be from the sprinters appeared in a Greek newspaper yesterday. It read like a legal brief, saying they were never charged with doping and claiming they did not know of the summons for drug tests.

It’s hard to find any Greek — besides their attorney — backing the disgraced runners in their undisclosed location. The passionate defense for 32-year-old Sampanis, however, keeps on coming.

From Yiannis Sgouras, head of the Greek weightlifting federation: “With my hand on my heart … I want to say that Sampanis is innocent.”

Fellow lifter Pyrros Dimas was in tears: “An injustice, a great injustice.”

Another teammate, Victor Mitrou, believes someone could have slipped Sampanis something to shoot up the testosterone, which inspectors say came from an outside source.

“Whoever did this to him must be burned alive,” Mitrou said.

Weightlifting became a marquee sport in Greece in 1992. Dimas, an ethnic Greek who crossed the border from Albania, won a gold and the hearts of his adopted nation.

He and another immigrant teammate, Kakhi Kakiasvilis, started the Games seeking a record-tying fourth consecutive victory. Dimas placed third Saturday and received a seven-minute standing ovation. Kakiasvilis goes today.

Sampanis won silver medals in the last two Olympics. At 32 years old, he may not have another shot.

At least nine weightlifters from various countries have tested positive for banned substances in Athens. But there was the patriotic impression that Greek lifters didn’t need any illegal boosts to heave loads nearly three times their body weight.

Another case would be devastating.

“The cold shower that Greek society is undergoing from the repeated cases of doping doesn’t only deny it … the joy of the Olympic Games, it overshadows the success of [the Games’] organization,” yesterday’s edition of Apogevmatini newspaper said in a front-page editorial.

A commentator on state-run television summed it up as “two sides of the same coin.”

“One side is the smile, pride and hyper-enthusiasm for Pyrros Dimas,” he said. “The other is the Sampanis developments that … have left a bitter taste in all of Greece.”

On a packed beach, a lifeguard listened to the radio and shouted out updates about Sampanis.

“It’s over,” he yelled. “The bronze is going to someone from Venezuela.” That would be: Israel Jose Rubio Rivero, who finished fourth.

“It’s a horrible thing,” groaned Alexia Andrianopoulos, kicking the sand. “This should be a proud moment. We look like fools.”

Two men set aside their backgammon game.

“How can we play when this is happening?” Fotis Carras asked. “It’s like a funeral.”

In Athens, 24-year-old student Soula Koumoutsaris refused to abandon the beloved lifter.

“I felt terrible for him, especially when he spoke about his children,” she said. “You really want to believe that he’s innocent.”

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