Curtain Falls On Athens Olympics

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It began with a scandal in the sprints and ended with an ambush in the marathon.

The first rocked the host nation. The second startled everyone else.

All it proved is that for grand stages and stunning surprises, there is still nothing in sports quite like the Olympics.

Only at the games could U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps win six golds and two bronze, and leave people wondering what might have been. Then he did something almost as impressive. Phelps handed his spot on the 400-meter medley relay team to friend and rival Ian Crocker, took a seat in the stands, and cheered his heart out.

"I wanted to come in here and I wanted to win one gold medal. And I did it the first night," Phelps said. "So, from then on out I was here to have fun and ... represent my country as best as I could."

Nowhere else could Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj, the greatest middle-distance runner of all-time, leave everybody murmuring about what should have been. He won the 1,500 gold after failing twice before at the games, and then added the 5,000 — a double that hadn't been accomplished since Paavo Nurmi did it in 1924.

Only at the Olympics could U.S. gymnast Paul Hamm go home with a gold wondering what still might be.

And only here could two dozen athletes get busted for drugs — more than twice the number at Sydney four years ago — and have it widely hailed as a success.

"These were the games where it became increasingly difficult to cheat and where clean athletes were better protected," IOC chief Jacques Rogge said at the closing ceremony Sunday night.

Against all odds, everything came together spectacularly at the last minute for the Athens organizers. Precious few athletes, however, were blessed by such karma.

Members of the U.S. men's basketball team, by reputation the biggest lock at the start of the games, stumbled over their size 15 sneakers and had to scramble for bronze.

The win that knocked them out propelled Argentina to the top of the medal stand, but their countrymen were probably too busy celebrating to notice. Only in a soccer-mad land like Argentina would certain gold in their national pastime trump the biggest upset of the games.

Upset is how the Greeks felt when hometown heroes Kostis Kenteris and Katerina Thanou skipped a drug test on the eve of the opening ceremony to take a mysterious midnight motorcycle ride that ended with both forced to withdraw from the games.

U.S. track star Marion Jones was fortunate to stay ahead of the drug testers, but she couldn't say the same about the competition. She was soundly beaten in the long jump, then undone in the 400-meter relay by a botched pass of the baton.

"It exceeded my wildest dreams," she said afterward, "in a negative sense."

Brazilian marathoner Vanderlei de Lima knew exactly how she felt. He was leading the race with about 10 minutes and three miles to go when a defrocked Irish priest in a bizarre costume stepped onto the course and shoved de Lima into the crowd. De Lima got back into the race, but was eventually caught and passed by the winner, Stefano Baldini of Italy.

"I'm not going to cry forever about the incident, although it broke my concentration," de Lima said, "but I managed to finish and the bronze medal in such a difficult marathon is also a great achievement."

Not everyone was treated so cruelly.

Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner couldn't duplicate the drama he staged in Sydney, but at least he left on his terms. With tears rolling down his face and an American flag cradled in his arms, Gardner took off his shoes and left them in the middle of the mat — as eloquent a retirement ceremony as there is in sports.

"I came back and won a medal. Even though it's bronze, I have no regrets because I gave 100 percent in every match," Gardner said.

His leaving was offset by arrivals every bit as inspiring.

Chinese sprinter Liu Xiang won the 110-meter hurdles to become his nation's first gold medalist in track and equaled the world record of 12.91 seconds in the bargain. It was the centerpiece of a haul of 32 golds — second only to the United States total of 35 — that sent a shiver down the spine of every nation headed for Beijing in 2008, when the Olympics become home games for the world's most populous nation.

Some nations, though, were too busy shivering with joy to notice.

Windsurfer Gal Fridman won Israel's first gold. Ahmed Al Maktoum, a wealthy sheik, gave the United Arab Emirates its first gold in trap shooting. Taiwan got its first in taekwondo; the Dominican Republic in men's 400-meter hurdles, Chile in tennis and Georgia in judo.

Winless in nine previous Summer Games, Paraguay took silver in men's soccer. Eritrea, a nation that didn't exist a dozen years ago, won bronze in the 10,000 meters, courtesy of Zersenay Tadesse.

The games returned to Athens after 108 years on the road, but some things never changed.

Among the athletes stripped of their medals was Russian shot putter Irina Korzhanenko. She tested positive for steroids, a case that was particularly distressing since she became the first woman to win a gold at Ancient Olympia, the hallowed site where the Olympics were born in 776 B.C.

A scandal of a more recent vintage reared its head when the International Gymnastics Federation, known as FIG, suspended three judges and acknowledged that South Korean Yang Tae-young — who finished two places down the podium from Hamm in the closest all-around finish in Olympic history — should have been awarded more points for his routine based on the degree of difficulty.

Had he been given the correct score, Yang would have won the gold and Hamm the silver. But a review of Yang's performance also revealed those judges failed to detect a mistake in his routine that would have resulted in his being beaten by an even-wider margin.

Showing incompetence knows no bounds, FIG boss Bruno Grandi then suggested Hamm give the gold to Yang to get the protesting South Koreans off his back. But they left Athens without satisfaction, awaiting a decision from the Court of Arbitration for Sport on an appeal.

"We said we wanted this misjudgment to be corrected. That was very clear from the beginning," said Jae Soon-yoo, spokeswoman for the South Korean delegation. "We are talking about our own rights, our own medal, not anyone else's."

The South Koreans drew on the precedent set by the IOC at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, when another judging scandal resulted in a Canadian figure-skating pair being awarded a duplicate gold. Whatever wounds the IOC hoped to close at the time, that move could turn out to be the start of an epidemic.

Not long after the marathon ended, Brazil announced it, too, would ask the arbitration panel for a duplicate gold.

  • John Esterbrook

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