25 January, 2014

The Kenteris-Thanou scandal

August 12, 2004 reserved a great shock to the greek population. Two of the greatest greek hopes for a medal in athletics, Kostas Kenteris and Ekaterini Thanou, failed to attend a drug test. They claimed to have been away from the olympic village and got involved in a motorcycle accident while returning to the village after hearing the news in the media. (An official Greek investigation would later find that the alleged accident had been staged. However seven years after the incident an appeals court acquitted the two athletes).

Prior to 1999 Kostas Kenteris had had only moderate success in his preferred distance of 400 m, with only a gold medal at the 1993 Mediterranean Games. However, after he converted to a 200 m runner, his progress has been impressive with gold medals at the 2000 Olympics, the 2001 World and the 2002 European Championships. He missed out on the 2003 Worlds due to injury but in 2004 he was ready to defend his olympic title.

Katerina Thanou had won gold medals on 60 m at the 1999 World, the 1996 and 2000 European Indoor and, over 100 m, the 2002 European Championships. She was second on 100 m at the 2000 Olympics and the 2001 World championships, with bronze medals at the 1998 European and the 1999 World Championships.

The fact that two great champions failed to present themselves at a anti-doping test caused an enormous upheaval (including a last-minute modification of the inaugural ceremony, since Kenteris was scheduled as the torch-bearer to light the flame in the Olympic Stadium). In order to avoid the escalation of the scandal, Kenteris and Thanou announced their withdrawal from the Games on August 18, after a hearing before the Disciplinary Commission of the IOC. In June 2006 they were sanctioned with a two-year suspension for having failed to present themselves at three tests. They were eligible to compete from 2007 onwards. Kenteris chose to put an end to his career but Thanou decided to pursue, participating at the 2007 European Indoor championships where she finished 6th over 60 m. She was selected by the greek federation for participation in the 2008 Olympics but, less than a week before the athletics competitions were to start in Beijing, Thanou was barred from participating being "guilty of improper conduct and bringing the Games into disrepute".

At that point I must voice my strong objection to what I consider as double jeopardy. Thanou had been sanctioned and had completed her suspension period and, what is more important, not for a doping violation. Of the latter there have been more than one during the Athens Olympics. The one case that makes me feel that Thanou has been really treated unfairly is that of R. Fazekas, the winner of discus throw. He was stripped of his gold medal for failing to produce an adequate urine sample. In fact there were concerns as to the way the athlete had been observed during the sample collection procedure. The doctors have stated that there are suspicions and allegations concerning certain technical methods and devices which would be used by certain athletes in order to avoid delivery of their own urine. While such suspicions and allegations were not proven, the attitude of the athlete raised a number of questions which were not answered. He received a two-year ban from international competitions but he was allowed to participate to the 2008 Olympics, where he finished 8th. Why Fazekas, for whom there were suspicions of cheating, and not Thanou? (Just in order to have a more complete picture of the situation: in 2012 just prior to the London Olympics, Fazekas, coached by A. Annus, a hammer thrower who also was stripped of his gold medal won at the 2004 Athens Games for doping, was tested positive and received an 8-year suspension. Curiously, as I just found out, his ban was finally reduced to a 6-year one).

But, wait, the situation is getting juicier. In 2007 Marion Jones admitted having used steroids prior to the 2000 Olympics. She was stripped of her medals and was issued a two-years' suspension. Thanou, who finished second behind Jones in the 100 m at Sydney, was in line to be awarded the gold medal, however the IOC decided to punish Thanou once more (is this a triple jeopardy?) and while Jones' gold medal was withdrawn Thanou remained a silver medallist (together with Tayna Lawrence, former bronze medallist who was upgraded to silver). My only consolation is that M. Ottey got to add another medal to her impressive collection.

Were Kenteris and Thanou guilty of doping? I cannot tell for sure, but given that their coach, Ch. Tzekos, had been involved in doping-related incidents, the probability is non-zero. Also, their way of dealing with the 2004 incident was rather clumsy and caused a bitter disappointment among their admirers. Still, it remains that, in the case of Thanou, the treatment she received from the IOC was unfair, to say the least.

Perhaps I should slip in here some thoughts concerning the anti-doping campaign of WADA. It is my opinion that they are fighting an already lost campaign. Since the return of professionalism to sports, there is no way to arrive at a 100 % drug-free situation. People will continue to use performance-enhancing substances, not only in order to satisfy their ego but also to increase their profits. Given the ongoing progress in physiology and pharmacology, the doping detection techniques will always be one step behind the new doping methods (something like the security measures in airports, tailored to the previous terrorist incident). One way to do away with this problem would be to allow athletes who have reached majority free access to any doping substance. (But then, in many cases, national laws would have to be amended, to say nothing of the ethical and moral questions). Be it as it may, doping should be strictly prohibited for junior athletes. Serious controls should be implemented, up to discontinuing all international competitions for young athletes (so as to squash any motivation for doping). Unless such extreme measures are introduced it is advisable, in the case of athletics, to make a tabula rasa of records and start afresh. Otherwise we will have to wait for decades before the women's discus world record is broken again.

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